“What’s the difference between being black and gay?”
“If you are black, you don’t have to tell your mom.”
I first heard that joke from a black Republican in 1994. He opposed President Clinton’s decision to allow gay people to serve in the military if they hid their sexuality — the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
The quip came to mind last week as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE (D), a gay man, surged to second place in polling on the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
Buttigieg had 17.5 percent support in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls as of Sunday.
Nationally, however, Buttigieg is at 7 percent, a distant fourth place.
An even bigger point of contrast comes in South Carolina, where Buttigieg has only 4 percent of the vote and is in sixth place.
What explains the big difference in how Buttigieg is doing in the two states?
Last month, an internal Buttigieg campaign memo, based on conversations with small groups of black voters, found that “being gay was a barrier” to winning over black voters in South Carolina.
Iowa has a black population of less than four percent. South Carolina has a black population of more than 27 percent.
When the memo got into newspapers, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), specifically pointed to older, black voters as being uncomfortable with an openly gay candidate.
Public displays of homosexuality are a “generational” issue, Clyburn, 79, told CNN. To his thinking, there was “no question” it is hurting Buttigieg in South Carolina’s presidential primary contest, where black voters are expected to cast around 60 percent of all ballots.
As politically incorrect as it may be, Clyburn is telling the truth. The amazing advance in gay rights in America can’t hide the reality that some are slow to embrace the change. A Pew Research Center study from earlier this year offered evidence that there are hold-outs. It found that while 62 percent of adult whites support same-sex marriage the percentage among black adults is slightly lower — 51 percent.
But Clyburn got serious blowback as younger black voices suggested Buttigieg’s campaign leaked the memo to generate sympathy for their candidate as a victim of bigoted black voters.
“Yes, homophobia is an issue in black communities, but it’s also an issue in white communities,” Keith Boykin, a co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, which is confronting both racism and homophobia, told The Washington Post. “There is no evidence that homophobia is any worse in black communities than in white communities.”
And Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, tweeted: “There are clear answers to why Black voters don’t back your campaign and homophobia ain’t it.”
That view also wins support from Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Women who inspired ‘Hidden Figures’ film will be honored with congressional gold medals MORE (D-Calif.), the only black woman running for the Democratic nomination. She said it is “nonsense” to say black Americans are more biased against gays.
“To label one community in particular as being burdened by this bias as compared to others is misinformed, it’s misdirected and it’s just simply wrong,” she told CNN.
And black columnists around the country also chastised Clyburn.
“Reducing Pete Buttigieg’s struggle to attract black support solely to black homophobia is not only erroneous, it is a disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals with contempt for the very black people they court and need,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow, a black man who identifies as bisexual.
Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham, who also identifies as a member of the LGBT community, argued in a column that black voters are reluctant to support Buttigieg because of his policy record.
“Instead of acknowledging how Buttigieg has failed his black South Bend constituents…they will continue to insist the fault lies in the ways of black people, not the candidate himself,” Graham argued.
In hard-boiled political calculation, the number one concern of black voters is preventing a second term for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE. Their support for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Juan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete MORE indicates they view him as the safest bet to defeat Trump. Recent polls support that view, with Biden outperforming Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE (I-Vt.) against Trump. Buttigieg trails all three in national polls.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has a message for black voters.
“All of us in different ways have been led to question whether we belong,” Mr. Buttigieg told a black church last month. “I also know what it is to find acceptance where you least expect it.”
Buttigieg’s campaign is also circulating an ambitious blueprint of ideas for a future Buttigieg administration to use to reduce racial inequity — specifically in the economy, in education and criminal justice. He even dubbed this “the Douglass plan,” after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
There is an old saying that predictions make fools of us all. In April, I wrote in this column about the parallels between Buttigieg’s historic campaign as a gay man and those of Jesse Jackson and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal 3 ways government can help clean up Twitter MORE as black men.
“In the last 25 years, public acceptance of gay people has changed so much that Buttigieg is on track to skip the Jackson-like struggle and go straight to Obama’s winner’s circle,” I wrote.
And, yes, I agree it is ironic that six months later I am writing that in order to win, Buttigieg will first have to prove himself to black voters.
Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.