Hello My HER (Having Extraordinary Resillience) readers!
Black women, as a group, maintain legacy of high political participation and activism In election exit poll after exit poll, Black women overwhelmingly vote in ways that greatly benefit the Democratic party. In just the last few years, at least 90 percent of Black women voters helped President-elect Joe Biden secure the party’s nomination and win the general election; voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016; secured a win for Democratic candidate Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s special senate election in 2017; and voted for the party’s candidates during the midterm elections of 2018. And the support doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box. After Stacey Abrams lost her bid for governor of Georgia to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018 (an election she lost by less than 55,000 votes, according to CNBC; which was alleged to be a result of disenfranchisement and voter suppression), she continued a legacy of activism and organizing among Black women by starting Fair Fight, a voting rights organization focused on increasing voter registration and participation, and educating voters about their rights. That work has received significant credit for tipping Georgia in Biden’s favor on election night. Abrams is in company with multiple Black women activists and organizers all over the country who’ve either started similar organizations or joined those in existence to work against voter suppression tactics and to restore voter protection laws. Lessie Branch is an associate professor in the business school at Metropolitan College of New York, where she is a racial policy scholar, and the director of The Think Tank at the Thinktubator, a youth-oriented research center in the Bronx, New York, focused on engaging youth and marginalized communities in the policy process. Branch is also a Fulbright specialist in race, ethnicity, and religion in politics, and the author of “Optimism at All Costs: Black Attitudes, Activism, and Advancement in Obama’s America.” She took some time to discuss the political legacy and participation of Black women, how that legacy has helped shape American politics, and what this kind of voting pattern is motivated by. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. ) Q: Black women have routinely been called the backbone of the Democratic party, consistently voting for the party’s candidates in elections and often carrying those candidates to victory. How would you hope to see elected officials and the Democratic party respond to this loyalty and the results that come from Black women’s voting and organizing, as a group? A: Black people, and particularly Black women, are at the socioeconomic margins. In this current economy, more people have exited the middle class and are now considered poor, even though they may not realize it or admit it. It is my hope that there will be a variety of policies, including progressive and bold policies that reach to marginalized people. We are at an Overton moment, wherein a range of policies that might otherwise be unacceptable to the mainstream should now be under consideration, given the confluence of a pandemic, racial tensions and depressed economy. Q: Black women like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, and many more, have organized and mobilized in their communities in ways that have garnered significant results politically. Can you talk a bit about this kind of political legacy among Black women, what it’s looked like throughout history, and how it’s helped shape American politics? And how this work eventually impacted our communities? A: I would characterize the political legacy of these great Black women as “ancestral.” Among the people of the world who are the “global majority” (or, non-White/non-European), there is a belief and a practice where community or collective is given primacy as the bedrock of society, and not the individual. From a Black perspective, what best characterizes it is perhaps humanist African philosophy. What this political legacy for Black women looks like through a United States historical context is an ongoing struggle to compel this country to keep its promise of citizenship rights and privileges. Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Citizenship has, at its core, equality and enjoyment of civil rights. That so many Black and Brown people in this country are disenfranchised in terms of the vote, and are not able to enjoy civil rights without putting their lives at risk, calls into question citizenship status. Just as Blacks are not a monolithic group, we should not look at American politics or civic engagement as a monolith, either. The political legacy of Black women in America is shaped by protest politics, activism and organizing, and the ballot box. American politics for Blacks, irrespective of socioeconomic status, is multifaceted. It is borne of struggle uniquely created because of racism and discriminatory socioeconomic policies. All of these women and others are activists — working for the collective good to advance the civil rights and liberties promised to all American citizens under the U.S. Constitution. Q: Recently, actress Eva Longoria was criticized for saying, “The women of color showed up in a big way. Of course, you saw in Georgia what Black women have done, but Latina women were the real heroines here. …” (Longoria later apologized and clarified that she meant that Latina women voted in larger numbers, and more progressively, than Latino men.) Although Longoria admits to misspeaking, her statement led to conversations online about the erasure of the work of Black women in this area. What do we lose when we gloss over, or outright ignore, the work and contributions of Black women, particularly in politics? A: We lose a lot when we gloss over, or outright ignore, the work and contributions of Black women, particularly in politics. Politics, according to Harold Lasswell, is the power to decide who gets what, when and how. I advance that part of politics is the power to decide what discourse, rhetoric and narratives get created and broadly disseminated, and which ones get ignored. Framing Latina women as the “real heroines” implies the political power of Black women is somehow false, fake or ineffective. Normalizing this kind of rhetoric can undercut the efficacy of collective and individual political power, and delegitimize the power of Black women representation. Q: During these kinds of close elections, a common remark is that Black women are saving everyone, and that the ways in which we vote and organize are for the purpose of saving those around us. This feels like a reinforcement of the stereotype that Black women exist to rescue and be in service to everyone but ourselves and our own interests. What do you see the voting and organizing of Black women as being motivated by? And what kind of difference does that motivation make in how our political work is valued? A: I’d disagree that what Black women do in terms of organizing and voting is for the purpose of saving everyone except themselves. What I’d suggest is that the voices of Black women in first-wave feminism and securing the 19th Amendment was lacking and virtually non-existent in a recognized way, due to enslavement and persistent racism. This is the case with lots of movements for equality and equity. First-wave feminism began in 1850. In 1850, state-sanctioned slavery was still the law of the land in the United States. We first see Blacks written into American law in the form of the three-fifth’s compromise as a way to provide a tax break to Northern states and provide more legislative representation to Confederate states. The promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness wasn’t a promise to enslaved Africans. We next see Blacks written into law during the Reconstruction amendments. The concept of citizenship, its privileges and protections just never seem to catch on substantively for Blacks. I contend that every protest movement in America links itself to the Black struggle movement, in all of the Black struggle iterations and eras, as a way to gain leverage. What I see at work is critical race theory’s interest convergence principle, that essentially permits Black folk to gain civil rights wins only when, and if, Black and White interests converge. The disappointment is that, once the interest convergence is underway, either the Black movement and voices get co-opted, the Black movement and voices get framed negatively, or Blacks are simply forgotten about once the dominant group gets what it wants. What I believe motivates Black women in this work is what I began with, an ancestral belief in community and the collective. Black women have watched, from the time they were dragged in chains to America’s shores, their loved ones, their community, their collective, systematically picked off, hunted, and killed with impunity. Time will tell what kind of difference that motivation makes in how our political work is valued. The recent uptick of Black women in politics has more often than not been because they have suffered the violent, unjustified loss of a family member at the hands of law enforcement. Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” One way to gauge whether the political work of Black women is being valued is whether key socioeconomic gaps are closed, and whether she becomes more respected, protected, and less neglected.