Will Obama's pro-gay marriage move alienate black voters?

The conventional wisdom is that black voters are more socially conservative. The logic then follows that black voters are more likely to be against (or at least uncomfortable with) gay marriage. With President Obama’s vocal affirmation yesterday that he supports gay couples’ legal right to marriage, questions began about the possible electoral impact. Translation: Will black voters, particularly regular churchgoers, abandon President Obama based on his support for marriage equality?

The answer is both complicated and very simple. First of all, while it is true that black voters tend to be more conservative and less comfortable with gay marriage, it is also true that marriage rights for gay couples is not an issue that will make them support or abandon the first black president in November. This election is still about the economy.

Second, polling does not support the theory that Obama supporting rights for gay couples lowers his support among churchgoing blacks. There was actually polling done after the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court filing with brief after brief asserting that marriage rights for gay couples should be given heightened scrutiny.

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The verdict: There was no erosion of support among black voters. Some disagreed with Obama on this issue and at the same time still supported and intended to vote for his re-election.

With the DOMA briefs, the Obama administration was giving all of the signals, policy-wise, that they were on the side of equality. All of the signals except the president saying so. Yesterday, President Obama became the first sitting president ever to endorse marriage equality. The announcement is a symbolic gesture with historic significance that will not likely be measured for years. Socially conservative black voters may not be as comfortable with gay marriage but they certainly know a thing or two about equality for all. Equality for all is certainly a message that resonates.

The prediction over electoral impact becomes more complicated when you look at constituencies that Obama needs to turn out in battleground states. In reality though, any damage from this public “shift” on marriage equality may even out in terms of electoral outcomes because of increased enthusiasm among essential segments of President Obama’s base.

As Jason Johnson noted, “African-Americans and Latinos that voted for Obama in 2008 and still plan on voting for him in 2012 are not going to be swayed by his stance on gay marriage. Any minority voter who is that driven by a social issue like gay marriage wouldn’t vote for any Democrat, let alone Obama.” Thus, the electoral impact could turn out to be a wash, and any risk President Obama’s statements created won’t hurt his reelection chances.

Another issue being raised is whether the announcement should be viewed through a cynical political lens? President Obama changed his position over time, gradually and thoughtfully, and in end landed on the side of justice. Whether it was planned or whether Obama was pushed by Vice President Biden’s comments over the weekend will likely be open to interpretation. The important point is that President Obama acknowledged the country’s evolution on the issue and matched it.

And even still some will label this as a presidential flip-flop. But, as MSNBC host Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry said yesterday, it’s not a flip-flop when you are on the side of fundamental rights for American citizens. “What is at stake is more than an election,” Harris-Perry said, “Civil rights of our fellow citizens should not be up for debate…The basic rights of citizens should not flip and flop.”

President Obama’s public statements could also have an impact in other areas. The host of “Make It Plain” on Sirius XM, Reverend Mark Thompson, hopes that, “the symbolism of the first African-American president supporting same-sex marriage will heal the rift brought on by the false perception that African-Americans are inherently homophobic.”

When it becomes clear that Obama’s change in position doesn’t erode black support, it’s possible the myth of black homophobia being higher than other groups diminishes. When it all shakes out, it’s possible we all end up on the side of equality and justice standing with our president.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell