Politics & Media

Obama’s Made the U.S. Less Homophobic

Turns out prejudice can be a pretty easy habit to break.

Large_gay-marriage-in-the-2012-election

Surprising almost everyone, Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage appears to have had major consequences. Specifically, it has had a significant effect on public opinion, particularly among black voters. In Maryland, polling shows that the shift was a full 20 points, from 56 percent of black voters against gay marriage before the President's announcement to 55 percent in favor afterwards. As a result, it now seems very likely that the state will defeat its looming anti-same-sex ballot initiative.
 
As I said, this has caught lots of people flat-footed. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, admitted that he was "skeptical that Obama would actually influence black opinions," but now has had to reconsider. Adam Serwer similarly calls the change in the polling "almost incredible," and adds, "I'm generally very skeptical of the power of the bully pulpit, but I can't think of any other reason for this significant a shift" other than Obama's change in position.
 
Jonathan Bernstein, though, is less impressed. In a Washington Post column he argues that black voters’ haven’t really changed their opinions.  Instead, he says, most people don't really have definite opinions on most issues. Berstein:
"It’s not exactly that Obama influenced black opinions, would be my guess. It’s that African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue—but do consider themselves on Team Democrat—are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team. Or, perhaps, that those who think of themselves (implicitly or explicitly) as Team Black now have a revised view of what that team’s position is. Or, perhaps, people who are on Team Church and Team Democrat now realize that those two are in conflict and they have to choose, while before they were getting only one signal. Remember, we’re only talking about one in five or so flipping in order to get these results; I don’t know for sure that they are among the least interested in the issue, but I’m guessing that’s the case.
 
The point is that none of these possibilities are really about anyone’s opinions, if by that we mean actually assessing the policy itself and changing what one believes. I suspect very few people have done that in the last two weeks. Mostly, what’s happening, if I’m right about this, is people who don’t care about the issue very much are just re-aligning themselves with where they believe their group belongs."
 
I think Bernstein's probably correct that the massive shift in polling came about because people didn't hold strong opinions about gay marriage one way or the other. But it's silly to argue that therefore they didn't have "opinions" about it, or to suggest that those "opinions" didn't change.
 
Bernstein seems to want to reserve the term "opinion" for some sort of purely reasoned position that relies on rigorous logic and a careful knowledge of the facts. But everybody's opinion, all of the time, is based on a whole range of factors, which might include careful reasoning, but no doubt also includes cultural identity, tribalism, self-identity, and random mood swings. Similarly, opinions can change for a whole host of reasons, trivial or important.
 
Bernstein argues that these particular opinions changed not because people really decided gay marriage was right, but rather because they want to support the President, and the President decided gay marriage was right. It's a decision about group identity rather than morality.
 
To which I say… how can you separate the two? Or to put it another way; it seems like a lot of people listened to Obama when he said gay marriage was okay, and they decided that, if the President said gay marriage was okay, then gay marriage is okay. It may be about group identity… but it's about a group identity that is based in no small part on morality. People identify as Democrat—they identify with the President—because in part they believe he will do the right thing.
 
Far from being a sign that the President didn't shift opinion, this is an explicit demonstration of why leadership actually matters. If a president endorses torture, suddenly a whole lot of people will believe—not just say they believe, but actually will believe—that torture is good and we should have more of it. And if a president says gay marriage is okay, then suddenly a whole lot of people will believe that gay marriage is okay. Because Obama decided to be less homophobic, our nation is less homophobic too.
 
I think there's a reluctance to credit the shift in the polling as reflecting actual change in part because we're talking here about prejudice. The assumption is that prejudice is a kind of bedrock ideology; that it's deep-seated, stubborn, and hard to alter. And no doubt prejudice is like that for some people about some things. But for many people in many cases, prejudice can be as lightly held as any other viewpoint—a habit rather than a hatred. But even if it's just a habit, changing it matters.
 
—Read Noah Berlatsky at hoodedutilitarian.com

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    May 29, 2012, 07:30AM
    You make some good points Noah but personally, I land between you and Bernstein. I think Obama made it not only easier, but through peer pressure, made it politically correct. If someone is truly biggoted, there opinion won't change. There willingness to express such biggotry may.
  • Go to comment.
    May 30, 2012, 05:54AM
    Maybe...but if people are acting in a less homophobic way, that makes the nation less homophobic. Also, I think people often strangely downplay the importance of actions when it comes to bigotry. Bigotry is thought of as being something in your heart...but in a lot of ways it isn't in your heart, it's what you do. If people express less bigotry in their daily lives, then that makes them less bigoted, whatever is in their hearts. And furthermore, what you do can often affect what you think. If you're in a place where everybody treats gays as equal, and you treat gays as equal, it takes a lot more effort to continue to think that gay people are unequal...just as, in a prejudiced society where everybody treats gay people as unequal, it can be harder to retain a belief in equality.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    May 30, 2012, 01:43PM
    Noah, I understand the psychological point you are trying to make but you really jump the shark with comments like "If people express less bigotry in their daily lives, then that makes them less bigoted, whatever is in their hearts". Really??? Fake it until you make it is your prescription for equality? Ever hear of the Klan? Their whole M.O. was to disguise their bigotry publicly but to hide behind hoods when committing bigoted acts. What you expressed is an excellent example of how P.C. behavior is hurting our society. Is "African-American" less bigoted than "colored"? Of course not, African American is a term that suggests a different status from "American" which is bigoted. Pretending one is not bigoted and then claiming that makes the individual less bigoted is utter nonsense and hurts our society as a whole. Another example, my grandparents would often refer to blacks as colored. They used the term because it was what was acceptable when they were growing up. That term, is often considered bigoted today. However, when my grandfather used the term, he had no ill intent, just ignorance over current day semantics. By your definition, he was bigoted because he never got the name change memo. Noah, I enjoy your articles because they tend to be thought-provoking and follow a train of logic (even if I end up disagreeing with you), but I wish you would apply the same thought to your comments instead of the defensive posture you often take.
  • Go to comment.
    May 31, 2012, 08:49AM
    Neither of those examples have much to do with the point I'm making, as far as I can tell. The KKK members continued to perform extremely bigoted acts...so yeah, that made them still bigoted. Your comments about "African-American" seem largely nonsensical...is Italian American similarly racist? Using terms which aren't offensive is simply politeness...and sure, if you refuse to change the terms you use, then your being impolite and arguably bigoted. But using terms that were acceptable in the past because they were acceptable isn't a bigoted action (and of course if you never get the memo, you're not doing anything wrong...that hardly seems like a conscious action one way or the other.) My point was...I've seen commenters say things like, you can vote for Obama and still be a bigot. Which isn't entirely untrue or anything, but seems to miss the point that voting for Obama is in itself an act which makes you less bigoted...and is also an act which can quite possibly lead you to be less bigoted overall, as you reconcile yourself to being the sort of person who can vote for a black presidential candidate.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    May 31, 2012, 09:26AM
    How does voting for Obama make one less bigoted? What if one votes for him despite his race? What if someone votes for him BECAUSE he is black? These are examples of bigoted people voting for Obama while reinforcing their bigotry not lessening it as you suggest. To factor in Obama's race on any level is the definition of bigoted. As for Italian American, you are better than this Noah, to trot out this ancient disproven non-comprable. Africa is a continent, Italy is a country. The term is not Kenyan-American or Egyptian-American. Like Asian-American, P.C. language relegates asian and blacks to a distant continent with 0 culteral/social meaning. Surely you do not mean to suggest there is no difference between Koreans and Japanese. Furthermore, terms like Italian-American are usually used to explain ones cultural habits rather than skin pigmentation. Italians in the north tend to be paler than their southern counterparts making Italian-American a weak term for color distinction. A better comprable is white-American or Euro-American. Two terms that are not commonly used in conversation when discussing race. What about black people in Europe are they to be called African- Englishmen? Once brought to its logical conclusion you can see how silly and bigoted the term African-American is. You can't just be American or English, you are qualified based on your color.
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