You truly don’t know someone until you know their politics, which is another version of the old adage that you don’t know someone until you live with them. We tend to think of politics as all graphs and deductive reasoning, but it’s not—it’s emotion. That’s never been clearer as it’s been this past year. Discussing politics with anybody these days leads you straight to an intimacy you don’t necessarily want, but the revelations are always invaluable. What to do with those revelations is another question. The emotion around the presidential election was and still is obvious, but Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative that passed in California and was most generously supported by African-Americans, is generating even more heat. It’s been very odd for me. All season, as animated as I was about the election, I strenuously avoiding talking about Prop 8 with my neighbors. I live in a chiefly black neighborhood. Many lawns featured Yes on 8 signs alongside pro-Obama ones. This infuriated me. At a block club meeting earlier this year, I almost got apoplectic when a neighbor passed around a petition gathering the signatures that got Prop 8 on the ballot in the first place.
Yet I kept my anger to myself. I hated being a coward, but I knew that if I took a stand I’d alienate everybody in the room. I’d fray the already tenuous bonds holding black communities like ours together, communities that are dwindling demographically in Southern California that can ill afford to lose a block club and the modest commitment that represents. Besides, I actually liked many of the people in the room and didn’t want to know exactly what they thought of gay marriage, or a whole host of other issues - if I did, I probably wouldn’t like them at all. Then what would I do? How would I live? Who would I live with? I had enough trouble anyway walking the line between standing with these folks as a fellow concerned citizen and being a progressive who supported things like people’s right to marry who they wanted. To me, that resonated perfectly with civil rights. Even neighborhood rights.
But I knew many of my neighbors didn’t think so. Not just because so many of them were churchgoing, but for many other complex reasons I’d heard expressed at our monthly meetings: black families were falling apart, people felt put upon by other issues like immigration and joblessness. There was a general sense that nobody but us seemed to care about these crises, starting with our local leadership, and we had to be protectionist. We had to exert control and influence where we felt like we had none. Wrongheaded as it was, Prop. 8 seemed to give people that opportunity.
Last week, on my routine morning walk with the dogs, I stopped and chatted with my neighbor, Paul, as I’ve done for the last three years now. On election day, he stood in front of me in line at the polls, and we exchanged smiles and shared the electric anticipation of choosing a black president. One thing led to another, and suddenly he was telling me that he’d voted for Prop. 8. I could hold my tongue no longer; I told him just what I thought, and why. He listened, argued, conceded a couple of points. But he didn’t change his mind. He went on watering his lawn, and I went home. Though I certainly disturbed the universe, I didn’t destroy it. No change. But there might be cause for hope.