Ed Team

Playing the Race Card

Filed By Ed Team | December 06, 2005 9:01 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics

People may be wondering why so many black people, in particular African-American clergy, are suddenly so visible in the battle over Proposition 622, the amended Indianapolis-Marion County Human Rights Ordinance that among other things adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of groups protected from discrimination in employment and housing.

From a well-publicized rally outside the City-County building to a large turnout at a committee hearing, suddenly African-American clergy seem to be at the forefront of opposition to a bill that bars discrimination. What gives here?

This is not a mystery at all. It is political strategy by the right wing, lead by failed gubernatorial candidate and tax criminal Eric I. Miller.

To understand the far-right's strategy, I think it is important to explain the perception that some council members have had based on their interaction with members of the GLBT community, a perception that Miller and the far-right are quite aware of and obviously willing to exploit.

There are, of course, African-American members of the City-County Council, including its president, Steve Talley. Recently, a white city-county councilor pointed out to me that one of the problems the GLBT community faces when talking to black councilors about discrimination is they tend to see people like me.

I am unmistakably a privileged white American. I am a business owner, I live a comfortable life in the suburbs, and I have two wonderful kids who will attend the college of their choice and grow up to be privileged white Americans just like their dad. When black councilors are approached by people like me, they can't help thinking "what are these people talking about? What does a guy like this know about discrimination?"

While this is a completely understandable reaction, what I hope these councilors are beginning to realize is that those GLBT people who truly fear (or outright suffer) discrimination simply can't represent themselves without great personal risk. No matter how strongly an individual may feel about a social situation, the fact is we all have to eat and survive in society regardless of whether that society is treating us fairly. There are many (I would argue most) GLBT people in this city who simply cannot speak out without facing serious real-life consequences, in particular the loss of their job. If you didn't already know this, there is nothing in state or local law to prevent an employer from looking an exemplary employee in the eye and saying "I just found out you're gay, and no queers are allowed here. You're fired."

To point at me and say there is no problem here is tantamount to a white person like me pointing at Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell and saying the same thing about African-Americans in their continuing struggle for civil rights and social justice. It's simply not true.

For Miller and the far right, the black clergy who have suddenly become omnipresent in this battle are merely pawns in his political strategy to exploit the idea that blacks are the "real" civil rights struggle, all the while playing into fears that GLBT people represent an attack on families (as though we don't have families ourselves).

Never mind that Miller's right-wing organization, Advance America, receives huge sums of money(much of which goes into Miller's pocket) from rural white people who would happily turn back the clock on civil rights if given the opportunity. Miller's most ardent supporters, including his largest financial contributor Mahlon Miller, are power brokers in rural Indiana counties whose population are less than five percent African-American.

These clergy have been recruited by Miller (who, by the way, is not a Marion County resident) with the fearful specter of "Gay Marriage" ("that's what they REALLY want," a black clergy member sitting next to me blurted out at a recent council hearing), with apparent blinders to the damage that a guy like Miller can do to the much needed advancement of the African-American community at large.

As a privileged white American, I admittedly cannot empathize with African-Americans who, despite obvious progress, still experience discrimination and injustice in Indianapolis and Marion County. Likewise, I do not expect an African-American city councilor to empathize with me as a privileged white American who happens to be gay.

But I will always stand up for civil rights and social justice. Will you?

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I like your arguments. Would you consider summarizing your viewpoint them in a letter to the editor of the Star?

Annette Gross | December 6, 2005 5:45 PM

Great article! I agree with Michael - you need to get this into the Star. You said it so very well. One group of people do not have a monopoly on "civil rights". I think the black community is scared, and Eric Miller is feeding into that.

Bruce Parker | December 7, 2005 1:44 AM

I wonder why we are so afraid to admit that yeah we would like marriage. I want to have the right to get married if I choose. Don't we all? I also want to be safe in schools, my home, on the street, and at my job. I want hospitals to treat me with the same respect that any other customer would get. Yea we really want equality or a social revolution.... Maybe its time we start saying so.

I do think its poignant that we have so few queers of color on our side in this struggle at least as public allies. Since becoming involved with activism in Indiana, I have often looked around wondering "where are the black folk?"

The gay community is racist. Its not intentional and we aren't members of the KKK or skin heads. We are elitist, youth focused, often narcissistic, and tend toward choosing board members and leaders for our organizations who are white and more often than not white lesbian women.

I wonder can we continue to work the safety that is ours but also as a movement demonstrate that we are dedicatd to equality for all hoosiers, for that matter for all Americans, regardless of why they are shut out of being full citizens. Perhaps the lesson to learn here is that we cannot turn a blind eye to the racism in our community or our country if we don't want to end up being used as a tool in struggles over racism.

The lbgt movement needs to be sure we are taking the highroad not just the politically advantageous road.... Look forward and look upward together we can make the world better for everyone regardless of who they sleep with or how they understand their own gender.

Jeff Newman | December 7, 2005 7:05 AM

I don't think the lack of visibility of people of color in the organized GLBT community is a sign of racism so much as it points to the unique challenges that exist in the African-American (and other) communities of being out and outspoken.

While we all face a certain amount of ridicule and ostracization, most of us are able to find affirming situations to offset this.

For many African-Americans and members of various ethnic communities, these situations are not so easy to find. For example, Robert Ferguson, the president of Indiana Black Pride, told me that he has been desperately trying to find a gay-affirming black clergy member in Indy and has had no luck. In a metro area of one million people, it appears there is not one single gay-affirming black clergy member.

Of course there are racists in the GLBT community, I've encountered them in ways that have left me in shock and disbelief. But I think this is (thankfully) the rare exception, and I truly believe that other cultural issues are much more to blame for the "whiteness" of our organizations.

Jeff, will you please expand a bit more concerning your opinion that, "...other cultural issues are much more to blame for the "whiteness" of our organizations." ?

Bruce Parker | December 7, 2005 2:35 PM

The understanding of racism as always purposeful or expressed with malicious intent has to change. Just like if a company doesn't provide domestic partner benefits because they never thought about it doesn't change that this promotes heteronormative ways of thinking and leads to the allowance of continued homophobic responses.

I think its easy to blame abstract other social forces and never examine our own roles in the replication of these forces and conditions. In no way do I think that we are intentionally excluding people but are we replicating systems that don't allow an in for queers of color? I think we may be. When we are joined by people of color at the table are we treating them as whole being or as tools that are useful to us because of our color.

When Robert Ferguson has been present at Region Eight meetings, I have been shocked at how apparent his tokenization has been to everyone around the table. And lets be honest... I think this problem in the gay community also extends to transfolk. My voice often finds a stronger place at the table because in some sense I embody a shared identity between gay men and the trans-community but there is a reason why the representatives from INTRAA tend to consistently be non-trans identified folks.

As for Robert being tokenized at the Region 8 meetings. I have to agree - he has been. But I don't know that it's a racist thing so much as the cost of doing business as a representative coalition. Robert is there to represent Indiana Black Pride. Bruce gets tokenized as the trans community representative - he stands in place of INTRAA. Annette is tokenized as a straight ally - because she represents PFLAG.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we're all there to represent our various groups. And those groups make-up and organizational cultures aren't something that I, as Region 8 chair, can change. That change has to come from within. What good would it do to demand that the organizations send me people of color as the representatives to Region 8 if they don't have any POC in their organizations?

I understand what Jeff was trying to say about "cultural forces," Kay. Or at least I think I do. So much has been made out of the closet that African-American men are forced into by society (resulting in the "down low"). With a lower rate of out black people, it shrinks the talent pool. I'm absolutely positive that there are extremely talented individuals who could help lead our cause to greatness who are still shamed into the closet by the church and other societal forces.

Now, I, by any standards, am not an expert on black culture - whether LGBT or otherwise. And I think that's what's missing from the dialogue - the voice of the black community. As an example, I've asked quite a few African-American people to be contributors to bilerico.com (All of our current contributors are white) and none have wanted to do it. The few who would do it didn't have the time as they were busy leading the few African-American organizations here in town. Others didn't want to be so publicly "out."

Does this mean that bilerico.com is racist? I wouldn't think so - but according to Bruce, yes. I am willing, however, to critically eyeball the situation. We can't continue to learn and demand our own rights if we shut ourselves off from possible flaws in our own cause.

Bruce's comments about the gay community being racist, and that Robert Ferguson is treated as a token is absolutely false. I've been attending the Region 8 meetings for months--Bruce has shown up at a couple of meetings and he has the audacity to make such a damning statement about the group. Bil--you have nothing to be apologetic about. His comments are way out of line.

Jeff Newman | December 7, 2005 3:59 PM

We have to keep in mind that it's not just African-Americans who are under-represented.

Regarding the question presented about "other cultural issues," many ethnic cultures simply don't relate to being "out" in the same we we do, including those who are more open in other ways than we are.

While I'm not an authority on this by any means, I am not without some experience as my partner is Brazilian and I know several local gay Brazilians, none of whom would even think of getting involved in GLBT politics (my partner included).

I don't want to wear this topic out, but I can say from personal experience that there are often observable cultural explanations for the scarcity of ethnicity in our GLBT groups.


I understood Bruce to be addressing the issue of racism from a "whiteness studies" perspective.

It was because Jeff had used to term "whiteness" in his post that I had asked to him to explain further.

Certainly, understanding why Africa-American council members would vote against Prop 622 would be helpful…understanding "whiteness theory" would be a place to start.

It was Jeff who I thought was pointing it out in the first place. Thanks for the followed up.

Bruce Parker | December 7, 2005 5:56 PM


Surely, your not dismissing my arguement do to my membership in the coalition starting in Sept. I have been pretty active both in and outside the meetings since joining and am learning so much from you, bil, Jeff and others. However not wanting to dilute the discussion with defending myself, I will instead respond to the conversation again.

I think its a good point about different understandings of outness and identity. I wonder if the respective organizations who are members of region eight could think of more productive ways to be inclusive of ethnic minorities that takes that into account. We have these conversations at INTRAA with little success. However I am proud that we at least have the conversations and try to do the work.

Also, after working with bil as both the chair of region eight, a board member of IAN and as a member of the statewide IE coalition - I am confident that he realizes my statement on the presentation of Robert F. as being tokenized was not an assault on him but instead a structural reality. When we choose media spokespeople Bil was chosen to speak for gays and lesbians, a pflager was chosen to speak for allies, Me and then later evan filled the spot for transfolk and robert ferguson was asked to represent the black community. Robert is black, he is also gay. Could he have been asked to represent the gay community holistically? He was asked because he is the only black person ever around the table at region eight.

So sad to say, bil is not the problem. If it were that simple I would make a phone call to him strategize a solution and move forward. We can't point our fingers at our leaders or anyone organization but instead have to keep having hard conversations and trying to do the work.

I think your post was excellent Jeff and have enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for starting a little dialogue.

Lets all help bil look for black contributers to join bilerico. It would be a nice addition to the voices here.