26 Sep 2017

During Black History Month 2017, as we reflect on our past and look to our future, it’s undeniable that Black women are making moves and are a force to be reckoned with from business, to entertainment to politics, we are demonstrating how we truly lead and what the term #BlackGirlMagic is all about.

As we said goodbye to First Lady Michelle Obama last month, we reflected on what her leadership and her very presence meant for Black Women. See, the FLOTUS epitomized what so many in the Black community already know: despite the long-standing institutional and cultural barriers that attempt to block Black women from achieving their educational, professional and personal pursuits, there are many who have boldly knocked down those barriers. Today, they shine as bright examples of determination, excellence, wit, grit, power and grace.

Also in January, Serena had us glued to our TV screens as she smashed the Australian Open and now holds more Grand Slam singles titles in the history of the game. Black women took to the streets to flex our activism and raise our voices.

They said we wouldn’t show up to march, but we proved them wrong. We did indeed show up, not only in Washington, DC, but across the country ready to fight and take action to protect our rights.

Even in the midst of a brutal political battle in Washington, that #BlackGirlMagiccan break through and provide a moment to celebrate. And Beyoncé did not disappoint, as news that she was expecting twins, broke Twitter. And it’s only the second week of February.

Over the past year alone, we witnessed Black women use their cultural capital to advance key social issues. The group included writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche, who called a new generation of women to the urgent work of feminism; director Ava DuVerney, who pushed forward the campaign to end the prison-industry pipeline that is rooted in slavery; performer Solange, who lay bare the emotional ravages of the implicit bias at the core of American culture; and Broadway producer Alia Jones Harvey and playwright Danai Gurira, who offered a power illustration of how African women brought a country back from the brink of annihilation.

Black women’s most powerful work comes, however, when we move as a group, and we did that to great success this past November despite some of the more disappointing election outcomes. In a political system where Black women are underrepresented, our voices often overlook and our votes taken for granted, it was our organizing and trips to the booth that carried an unprecedented wave of Black women into office in 2016. They include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blount (Del.) and Illinois Attorney General Kim Foxx. Many of these women shattered glass ceilings to claim their offices and take on the task of moving our country forward.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, pundits, politicians and policymakers such as Mark Lilla in his November 18, 2016 New York Times opinion piece have begun positing a shift away from the strategies, messaging, issues and policies championed by Black women and the growing diverse constituency that gather under the Democratic tent. Lilla and others argue that embracing these policies only promotes “identity politics” and isolates White voters. The argument, however, is clearly flawed given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million ballots, and Trump capture office due to our country’s antiquated electoral college – a system that was created by the chief architects of identity politics – rich, White men.

We are living in frightening and uncertain times, and it is tempting to lower our voices and retreat to lick the wounds of betrayal that America has once again visited upon its citizens of color and other marginalized groups. But, now more than ever, it’s critical that we unpack the promise and power of Black girl magic, because history tells us it’s a game changer.

Over the coming months and next three years, voters, organizations, individual activists and power brokers will no doubt ask themselves which leaders to support and what issues to put their energies behind in order to move our country towards a safe, prosperous and representational place for all.

Black female leadership on the political, activist and cultural fronts will be vital to the success of these efforts. We need new voices to join the recent crop of Black women elected to local, state and national office if we’re going to ensure laws that champion fairness and opportunity, not bias and undue advantage for a few.

We should not be dismayed or sidetracked, but emboldened and encouraged to double down on our urgently needed leadership and advance our cultural presence, because much of the “whitelash” that we’re seeing is no doubt a misguided reaction to the fact that Black women are shattering glass ceilings.

But as history has shown, our achievements do not displace others, but in fact pave the way for a more diverse population of Americans to succeed.

Glynda Carr is co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization focused on harnessing black women’s political power and leadership potential.

26 Sep 2017

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, pundits and political watchers opined on whether the Obama coalition—the multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition made up of African Americans, Latinos, women, young people, professionals, and economically populist blue-collar whites—would once again come together to elect the first female president in U.S. history. As the results began to crystalize that the pursuit of the highest, hardest glass ceiling for women had yet to be shattered, the assessment of what happened predictably focused on the preferences and attitudes of one segment of the coalition: the white, mostly male, working-class voters who stayed home or voted for the other candidate.

Inspecting the lives of so-called Obama-Trump voters—referring mostly to the white voters who supported former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and voted for President Donald Trump in 2016—took center stage. The perceived anger and neglect of these voters emerged as the primary thesis of the 2016 post-election assessment. Very little analysis focused on another important side of the equation: the decreased turnout rates among African Americans, specifically African American women, the most consistent and traditionally reliable block of Obama supporters. In 2012, 36 percent of blue-collar white voters voted for Obama, compared with more than 95 percent of black female voters.

While gaining a clear understanding of the 2016 election results requires a thorough examination of each facet of the Obama coalition, taking a closer look at its most reliable members—black women—is critical.

The power of black women and the work that remains

Black women are a powerful force in the American political system. In 2008 and 2012, they turned out to vote at higher rates than any other demographic group, playing a decisive role ushering in new candidates across the country. Black women’s civic participation embodies the stated ideals of the nation’s participatory democracy: They consistently recognize and value the importance of being politically active and engaged in order to effect change in their communities. At the same time, the civic engagement of black women too often does not result in concrete policy changes that are responsive to their needs. While black women are always expected to turn out and provide support, the public narrative about women—and more importantly about what women need—frequently focuses on white women, typically those with economic resources.

The unique experiences and challenges of black women, shaped by the intersection of race and gender, are commonly overlooked, rarely prioritized, and effectively rendered invisible. Thus, black women are still shockingly underrepresented in critical positions of power and influence—where decisions are made about which problems are addressed, which policies are adopted, and which communities are served. In 2016, black women gained 14 state legislative seats and constituted 20 percent of the freshmen women in Congress. While they have overcome systemic barriers and gained ground every political cycle, their representation still lags woefully behind: Black women comprise 7 percent of the U.S. population, yet just 5 percent of federal judges, 4 percent of mayors in the nation’s 100 largest cities, and 3 percent of members of Congress and state legislators.

Key numbers from the 2016 election

In 2016, pundits and political strategists expected black women to continue their historical trends by voting in large numbers. They gave little attention to the persistent underrepresentation and long-standing disparities that have limited black women’s opportunities, economic stability, and overall well-being. Nor was there a focused public conversation about the need to engage black women voters directly with a targeted message that put forth specific policies to improve their everyday lives. To the surprise of these experts, turnout among black women plummeted from more than 70 percent to just 64 percent. Although black women still outperformed almost all other voters, with their turnout percentage slightly behind the turnout of white women, the decline was dramatic and—in some instances—pivotal.

A key takeaway from the election results is that lawmakers seeking the support of black women cannot afford to take them for granted. Lawmakers must be proactive and intentional to understand and address the challenges that black women face, including the barriers and biases that limit their opportunities and the disparities they experience in local communities. Policymakers must develop constructive solutions to address such concerns, in order to improve the status of black women and advance policies that promote stability, opportunity, and prosperity across the nation.

Where black women stand today

The critical issues that black women must overcome are wide-ranging, from a lack of economic opportunity to inadequate access to health care, housingeducation, and criminal justice. For example, black women continue to face an appalling and exploitive wage gap that perpetuates poverty and stifles economic mobility. On average, they earn 34 percent less than white men with the same education, experience, marital status, and region of residence. One study found that when women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the average pay for those occupations declines, even after controlling for education, work experience, and geography. Furthermore, black women suffer from a range of health disparities, including high rates of asthmafibroids, and breast and cervical cancer mortality. Despite these systemic and often intergenerational challenges, black women continue to demonstrate a greater trust in government and belief in its potential to serve as a catalyst for upward mobility than other demographic groups.

Unfortunately, voter suppression and deceptive practices are also a persistent and familiar theme in American democracy, which disproportionately affects black women who participate in elections. In 2012, black women reported transportation challenges, inconvenient polling places, long lines, and voter ID requirements as barriers to voting. These problems persisted and expanded ahead of the 2016 election. By November, 17 states adopted new voting restrictions, such as strict voter ID requirements and reduced early voting opportunities. While some of these laws were struck down for unconstitutionally targeting people of color, 14 were still in place on Election Day.

Moving forward

At the root of these problems is a fundamental resistance to discussing race and gender—and their unique intersections—directly, as well as a failure to address persistent and poisonous narratives about black women, race, and class. To develop truly responsive policies and protect against voter suppression, policymakers must confront each of these issues head-on. We must recognize and reconcile our biases, working across our divisions to create policies that benefit historically oppressed communities. This, along with meaningful conversations about empowering black women and leveraging that power, will ensure that the future of the United States is fairer and more prosperous for all.

Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Michele Jawando is the vice president of Legal Progress at the Center.

26 Sep 2017

Are black women losing faith in the Democratic Party?

A new survey by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence magazine suggesting that’s the case was the basis for a lively debate Wednesday at the Congressional Black Caucus annual conference.

Dozens of women packed into a ballroom at the Washington Convention Center to hear results of the annual “Power of the Sister Vote” survey. The most surprising finding was that the percentage of black women who said the Democratic Party best represents their interests had dropped 11 percentage points, from 85 percent to 74 percent, since last year.

But African American women are not looking to the Republican Party, with only 1 percent saying it addresses their concerns. This year, a higher percentage said neither party “best represents the interests of black women.”

“I think it’s great,” Ashley Allison, a senior adviser to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said of the finding about black women’s attitudes toward the Democratic Party. “I think black women are saying, ‘I don’t owe anything to anybody except myself.’ ”

Laughter and applause erupted when a presenter read this finding from the survey: 93 percent of black women said they do not believe President Trump is addressing issues important to them.

This is the third survey by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence, a popular lifestyle magazine geared toward black women, and affordable health care was again the top issue for respondents. The survey, taken in July, is based on feedback from 1,247 women. Because respondents were a self-selected group, as opposed to a random sample, the results are not representative of black women across the country.

But the findings do mirror the discussions among black women involved in social and political activism, who have been critical of the party’s focus on white voters who supported Trump.

“Black women have been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, through thick and thin,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, an adviser to the Black Women’s Roundtable. She said the party has focused more on wooing back “white male voters who have not supported the Democratic Party for 50 years” rather than “watering the garden in your own back yard.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who dropped in on the discussion, told attendees that they should pay attention to the “values” espoused by political candidates and elected leaders to help decide which party best represents their interests. She also cautioned that in some jurisdictions, people registered as independents are not able to participate in primary elections. “We don’t want to lose out,” she said.

In an interview outside the panel, Jackson Lee said the party was right to listen to the voices of “those who were pushing them … the same people that probably voted for Sen. [Bernie] Sanders, who were saying, just don’t leave them out. It’s not a replacement.” She added: “But let me say this: Democrats would do well to listen to the standard-bearers of the party, and that has been African Americans … African American women, our friends in the Hispanic community. … These are the standard-bearers.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton got 94 percent of black women’s votes in last year’s election, the highest of any group of voters. In June, a group of black women penned an open letter to new Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez noting that he had met with other constituent groups but had yet to hold a session with black women.

Amanda Brown Lierman, political director of the DNC, said in a statement Wednesday: “With black women at the core of our party, Democrats are focused on harnessing this moment of grassroots enthusiasm into a sustained movement for electoral gain at the ballot box. We’re organizing around the values we share — access to affordable health care, the dignity of a good-paying job with good benefits and a path to retirement security, and a quality education that opens the doors of opportunity.”

In addition to health care, criminal justice reform, quality public education and jobs that pay a living wage were the top issues cited by the women in the survey. A third also said they were concerned about the rise in hate crimes, which was a new category in this year’s survey.

A majority of the women who took the survey — 60 percent — also said they believe that civic activism is important. Most said they were active in their communities and places of worship.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she was pleased that 98 percent of the survey takers said they were registered to vote. But she was concerned that so few of the respondents, 5 percent, cited “expanding voting rights” as a concern, given ongoing efforts in states led by Republicans to enact stricter voter ID laws and other policies that restrict voting.

Clarke blasted Trump’s “election integrity commission” as “a sham whose end goal is to push voter suppression efforts.”

“I’m concerned that this is an area where maybe we’ve gotten a little too comfortable. This is an area in which we need to be vigilant,” Clarke said. “If they take away our right to vote, we lose everything.”

Melanie Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable and president of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, said the survey reflects the concerns she’s been hearing in conversations with African American women in the past several months.

She thinks the drop in the percentage of black women saying the Democratic Party best represents them “relates to what we’re hearing across the country, which is we’re past being sick and tired and shifting the way we’re operating.”

Black women want their loyalty at the ballot box to translate into positions of leadership within the party and support for those who run for office.

“We’re also saying to people that you have to invest in us in a different way,” Campbell said, adding that black women “can come together and leverage our political power much better.”