A few weeks ago, on a brisk December afternoon, a group of policy advocates, members of Congress, and interested citizens gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for a policy discussion. On its face, this doesn’t sound like anything special, but there was something unique about the majority of the people in the room that day: They were mostly black women.
The mood was jubilant, largely because the night prior, Democrat Doug Jones bested Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama special election, ending a 25-year losing streak for Democratic Senate candidates in the state. Exit polls showed that Jones’s victory was largely due to the high turnout of black voters, especially black women.
The event began as the results from the election were still trending on Twitter, with streams of praise for #BlackWomen’s performance in the Alabama contest. “What if we just let black women run everything?” read one popular tweet.
National political figures also weighed in. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez noted. “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
The narrative that black women “saved America” by blocking Roy Moore from the Senate with their votes was picked up in media circles, with political strategists and journalists alike swiftly moving to dissect what the Alabama performance might mean for political contests in 2018 and 2020.
The December event on black women’s political influence, hosted by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, was timely given the major win in Alabama — but celebrating the election results wasn’t the point of the gathering. After all, in past victories, black women have seen the policy issues they supported most fall down the list.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge the centrality of African-American women as the wheels of our political moment,” legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who moderated the event, told the audience to approving nods. “It’s another to put them in the driver’s seat.”
With the beginning of a new year, especially one that will end with a highly anticipated midterm election, the Alabama result offers hope for Democrats eager to regain political power in the Trump era.
But for black women, the post-Alabama moment also presents an additional opportunity, a potential turning point in how they are treated in political circles. Both parties have been reminded yet again that black women have been a consistently reliable bloc for the Democrats. In 2018, black women say they want to see a return on their investment.
Black organizers are helping deliver more and more crucial Democratic wins
In the weeks since the Alabama election, it’s become more clear that Democrats’ victory came from massive grassroots efforts by black organizers on the ground in Alabama.
“We hit the ground running and we did the work that it took to get Doug elected,” Carissa Crayton, a Jones canvasser, told HuffPost’s Julia Craven shortly after the Alabama election. “People shouldn’t disregard that and just think … we saved the day without doing any hard work, that we just magically went out and voted and that that’s all we did.”
As the Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk noted in an article examining black voter mobilization efforts in Alabama, much of the effort to turn out black voters was driven by the work of independent organizers rather than political campaigns.
The most active voter outreach and mobilization efforts targeted at black voters in Alabama, including the collaborative work of groups like Woke Vote, Black Voters Matter, and BlackPAC, were driven by black women, many of whom brought years, if not decades, of political organizing experience to the contest.
BlackPAC, a group which seeks to build black political power across the country, is one example. Last fall, the group launched a $1.1 million campaign focused on engaging black voters ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial election.
The campaign, as BlackPAC’s executive director Adrianne Shropshire explained to me at the time, was created due to the need for more persistent political engagement in black communities. Politicians need to “grasp the significance of the concern and anxiety that is being felt inside of communities of color,” Shropshire said, adding that black voters need to be persuaded just like swing voters in elections, an effort that requires more than a few appearances before black audiences.
BlackPAC’s efforts in Virginia were successful, with an overwhelming majority of black Virginian voters, including 91 percent of black women, supporting Democrat Ralph Northam in the contest. Much of the group’s outreach model was replicated in the Alabama contest.
“I think the writing is on the wall about what the path forward is for progressive politics in this country, and the path forward is through communities of color and women,” Shropshire told the New York Times recently.
It is a sentiment that has been echoed by others working to boost black women’s involvement in elections.
“My first response [to black women’s turnout in Alabama] was ‘of course,’” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, the co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization that works to get more black women involved in politics and elected to office.
Peeler-Allen notes that the immense black organizing structure and resources used in Alabama, coupled with the controversial nature of Roy Moore’s candidacy helped drive black women to the polls, even as outside observers fretted that black turnout would be depressed in the state due to supposedly low enthusiasm in the Alabama race.
In doing so, black women built upon voting trends that have existed within the Democratic electorate for decades. Black voters in general have long been one of the most reliable voting blocs for the Democratic Party, and their share of the electorate has increased over the years. But black women have become an especially influential wing of the party, and their high voting rates have proved to be the difference in several recent contests.
Black women’s political influence is growing on the left, but their needs go largely ignored
A 2014 Center for American Progress report found that black women represented the largest portion of nonwhite female voters, at the time making up roughly 43 percent of women of color that were eligible to vote and 13.4 percent of all women eligible to vote.
The report also noted that black women’s political muscle played a crucial role in Barack Obama’s victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, finding that in both contests “black women turned out in such large numbers that they were actually overrepresented in the electorate,” managing to flip the overall women’s vote toward Obama even as the majority of white women, a much larger bloc, backed the Republican candidate in both cycles.
Their strong voting behavior carried over into the 2016 presidential election, in which 94 percent of black women’s votes went to Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls. Black women have also become key players in state politics in recent years, helping deliver the governor’s mansion to Democrats in Virginia in 2013 and 2017, and proving to be the most supportive voting bloc for the winning Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey.
But black women’s voting power and consistent support for Democrats hasn’t necessarily translated to seeing their needs reflected in policy. Last year, a group of high-profile black women activists and politicians argued that black women voters were being taken for granted by the Democratic Party, writing in an open letter to DNC chair Perez that the party needed to better support this part of the base.
“Organizing without the engagement of Black women will prove to be a losing strategy,” the letter explained. “There is much too much at stake for the Democratic Party to ignore Black women.”
Last fall, a survey revealed an 11 percent drop in the number of black women who believed that the Democratic Party best represented their interests, suggesting that black women may be losing faith in the party.
“Black women are exhausted of continually saving people who would not do the same on behalf our issues, concerns and this nation’s democracy.” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and one of the signatories on last year’s letter to the DNC, said in an email.
That the Alabama election saw such a high turnout from black women helped fuel the idea that black women were “saving America” with their vote, a construction that many black women writers and political analysts argued ignored the truth that black women were voting in their best interest.
As Dominique Matti wrote for Vox in December, the suggestion that people “trust black women” in the wake of the Alabama election not only served as a tacit acknowledgement that black women weren’t already seen as trustworthy self-motivated political actors, it also failed to acknowledge the struggles that black women face that drive them to the polls.
“The issue in America is not that Black women aren’t entrusted with care-taking and saving others,” Matti wrote. “The issue is that no one trusts Black women when we say that we need support the most.”
And black women do need support. Black women are disproportionately affected by some of America’s most systemic crises, including police violence, excessive discipline in schools, sexual violence, and poor access to health care.
Black women are currently three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. In the 2013-2014 school year, black girls were seven times more likely than white girls to be suspended from schools, and research has shown that by the age of 5 black girls are already viewed as less innocent than their peers.
When it comes to police violence, an issue that has grown in national prominence since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, black women find themselves in facing trauma from multiple angles. Not only because women are often the ones left behind to deal with the death or injury of their loved ones (a trauma that some argue is killing black women slowly), but because black women are also victims of physical and sexual violence at the hands of law enforcement.
There are also economic issues like the pay gap, which affects black and Hispanic women more than other groups, and the fact that in 2016, some 21.3 percent of black women lived in poverty, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
At the December policy event in Washington, black congresswomen called for a policy agenda that would center around solutions to these problems. “[Democratic politicians] need to address those whose votes gave you an opportunity,” noted Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). “You’re bragging about 98 percent of the vote, you’re bragging about the fact that we carried Hillary in 2016, you’re bragging that you want us to be in the civic process. Now do something for that.”
Black women want more than an acknowledgement of their votes — they want a place in policymaking
The rise of the black-women-as political-savior narrative also obscures another grim reality: While black women are a crucial voting bloc capable of winning close contests, they are sorely underrepresented in seats of political power.
In 2017, black women held just 3.7 percent of state legislative seats, 0.6 percent of statewide elected executive positions, and 4 percent of mayorships in the US. Nineteen seats in the US House of Representatives are currently held by black women, while a single black woman, Kamala Harris (D-CA), serves in the Senate. Collectively, black women made up just 3.6 percent of Congress in 2017, according to an analysis from Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“Despite Black women’s proven commitment to civic engagement and activism, Black women remain underrepresented as both candidates and officeholders,” the analysis notes.
Improving these numbers isn’t just a matter of getting more black women to run for office. Peeler-Allen of Higher Heights notes that black female political candidates often face significant barriers when trying to run for office, and that one of the most significant is a lack of institutional support for fledgling campaigns. In many cases, she says, black female candidates often don’t receive support from donors and party structures until much later in the process, leaving black political groups like Higher Heights and others to fill in the gaps.
“A big barrier for a lot of black women candidates, [is] that they can’t even get out of the box, be considered a viable candidate or a serious candidate because power structures have already deemed what a viable candidate looks like, or who they should be,” Peeler-Allen says.
When the open letter to the DNC was drafted last year, Peeler-Allen says that outlining how the party should better support candidates was just as important as highlighting the need to better reflect the policy interests of black women. Those concerns were raised again when DNC leadership met with the women behind the letter last summer.
In the months since, some changes have been made. As Rolling Stone noted in June, the Democratic Party has worked to refocus itself on down-ballot races. Bustle adds that the party has also invested in InCharge, a program that works to mobilize in black women around elections. In Alabama, the Democratic National Committee quietly funneled $1 million into efforts to engage and mobilize black, faith-based, and young voter groups, but let independent groups active in the community take the lead on voter outreach.
“What worked well was entrusting people from the community that the community recognized and resonated with,” Waikinya Clanton, the DNC’s director of African-American outreach told CNN after the special election.
And while black political strategists and politicians told Vox that much more needs to be done to better support black women running for office, the past few months have brought some promising signs.
A handful of black women won election to mayoral offices in 2017, including Vi Lyles and LaToya Cantrell, the first black women to lead Charlotte, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana respectively. A crowdsourced list of black women running for public office in 2018 already has more than 100 entries. And, should the campaign of former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams prove successful, this year could see the election of the country’s first black female governor.
Advocates argue that serious investments that tap into the political power of black women are long overdue. But at a time of increased attacks on a number of civil rights protections, they may be even more important.
“As we look at stopping the rollbacks of the last 50 years of progress that are happening at the state, local, and federal level, we need more progressive voices in legislative bodies, and in executive chambers,” Peeler-Allen says. “The best way to do that is to elect black women.”