If it’s true that misery loves company, then you might think two groups of people used to being prejudged and scorned just for who they are might be more sympathetic to each other. That’s not the case for Cincinnati’s black and gay communities, at least if you listen to Christopher Smitherman, president of the local NAACP chapter.
Smitherman spent the past few weeks defending his selection of an anti-gay rights activist as the legal advisor to the Cincinnati NAACP against a barrage of criticism and national publicity. The appointment came at about the same time as the national NAACP announced it supported the repeal of Proposition 8, which prohibits same sex-marriage in California.
Smitherman appointed Christopher Finney as the local chapter’s “chair of legal redress.” Finney wrote Article 12, a charter amendment passed by Cincinnati voters in 1993 that prohibited city officials from passing any laws that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination or hate crimes. It was repealed in 2004.
Smitherman couldn’t understand why many people — gay and straight — were outraged by his decision. Imagine, for a moment, if a gay rights group appointed a white supremacist as its attorney. Do you think the NAACP would complain? Of course it would, and it would be correct in doing so.
But Smitherman said the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) community had no right to be angry and even issued a “warning” on his radio show.
“But the bottom line is your community as it deals with racism in the African-American community, you’re not there,” he said. “You’re absent. Proposition 8 lost in California because the (gay) community isn’t properly engaging the African-American community. And you’re showin’ up at the last minute trying to build bridges and have relationships, and it doesn’t work that way.”
Some local bloggers and activists believe Smitherman manipulated the dispute to shame members of the LGBTQ community into attending a City Hall protest organized by the NAACP and boost its turnout. The protest, held April 8, was aimed at getting more city contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses.
It should be noted that Smitherman once blamed the local gay community for allegedly not supporting him in his unsuccessful City Council re-election bid in 2005. An analysis of voter turnout, however, shows he lost a sizeable segment of the white support in East Side neighborhoods that he enjoyed in 2003 and didn’t offset it with significant gains in African-American support compared to his initial run.
No matter, his two positions in defending Finney are downright strange.
First, the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter didn’t take a stance on the repeal of Article 12 in 2004. Many other prominent organizations and officials did, including the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, several top CEOs and the Archbishop of Cincinnati. But the NAACP didn’t, so Smitherman’s claim that repeal supporters depended on African Americans and “owe” them something in return, in political quid pro quo, rings hollow.
Secondly, a written statement from Finney’s law firm — dating to the 1990s — outlines its opposition to affirmative action, quotas, set-asides and racial preferences. David Langdon, who was an attorney with Finney’s firm at the time, wrote the letter. Langdon is no longer in business with Finney, but they still work together on special projects, including COAST/NAACP ballot initiatives, and on matters related to Article 12.
Langdon’s letter stated that set-aside programs were unconstitutional.
“Affirmative action policies — whether quotas, set-asides or preferences — by their very nature, breed racial intolerance,” Langdon wrote. “As a society, our conduct and behavior, and, to an extent, our attitudes and prejudices, our (sic) driven by our laws. You see, laws that create preferences based on race or gender alone inevitably result in governmental discrimination. In order to prefer one, government must discriminate against another. And with every instance of discrimination, there is the potential for literally generations of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred.”
How Finney reconciles his law firm’s conservative legal philosophy with his NAACP work is unclear. Also unclear is why Smitherman trusts Finney to operate in the NAACP’s best interests on this issue.
Smitherman won’t let Finney comment publicly on NAACP-related issues. Numerous people have asked if Finney stands by his earlier comments about gays, but so far Smitherman hasn’t seen fit to ask him or let Finney address the issue himself.
IMPACT Cincinnati, a loosely knit gay rights group, did bring some supporters to the City Hall protest April 8.
“We think Christopher Smitherman did the right thing by calling us out and asking the LGBTQ community to come out and support this,” said member Jill Benavides. “We really don’t think he did it the right way.”
Not everyone agrees. Local gay rights activist Will Kohler urged people to boycott the event.
“The protest called by Smitherman out of anger and rage is supposedly to protest the city of Cincinnati’s flawed (contracting program) which the city itself is well aware and in the process of fixing,” Kohler wrote. “Mr. Smitherman is well aware of this fact but still calls a protest to do nothing more to show his power.”
Maybe more people shared Kohler’s view than he thought. Although Smitherman said on his radio show that he hoped “thousands” showed up for the protest, the NAACP later pegged turnout at 250. Longtime City Hall staffers — used to protests in their midst — estimated the actual number at just over 100.
In reality, though, it likely was the protest’s timing that was off. The event was held at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, a time when most people probably are busy at work.
Either way, the ball is back in Smitherman’s court. He should come out and play with his LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
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