Adding value to Black-majority cities requires federal investments in housing, education, business development, and healthcare. It’s unlikely, with the current makeup, that a predominately White U.S. Senate and House will vote for legislation that will prioritize adding value to Black neighborhoods. Appeals to lawmakers for this kind of progressive policy haven’t worked so far. Investments toward uplifting the Black electorate and Black women candidates can help shift a legislative environment that leans away from one that blames Black communities toward one that offers policy solutions.
But, there is hope on this front. Our votes and voters are some of our greatest assets. From school board to the president of the United States, investments toward getting Black women elected are down payments for inclusive, progressive change.
Keisha Lance Bottoms was officially sworn in as the new mayor of Atlanta in 2018. Lance Bottoms defeated her rival, Mary Norwood, a White independent, by a mere 832 votes in a battle waged across racial lines. Polls showed that Norwood garnered 80 percent of the White vote. Lance Bottoms earned more than 75 percent of the Black vote. With almost 450,000 people in Atlanta proper and a Black population of 54 percent, Atlanta is the fourth-largest Black-majority city in the country. That 5 percent difference in “other” voters made the difference.
Lance Bottoms received a better share of non-Black voters than Norwood got from the non-White electorate. Winners in future Atlanta mayoral elections will have to do the same. However, this strategy bodes well in particular for Black women, whose personal and professional narratives seem to resonate with a diverse electorate.
“Unfortunately, Black women sit at the nexus of a lot of the racial and gender disparities that are present in our country,” former Associated Press reporter and Atlanta native Errin Whack told me. “They are uniquely positioned to talk about a lot of the kitchen table issues because they are directly and disproportionately affected by them.” Black women’s experiences are relatable to different classes and racial groups, giving them a unique vantage point on things like education, income inequality, healthcare, and incarceration.
FIGURE 7-1. ATLANTA’S CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS, 1970–2017.
SOURCE: Decennial Census records and American Community Survey U.S. Census Bureau estimates
BLACK WOMEN’S EXPERIENCE IS AN ASSET IN POLITICS
In 2018, the Brookings Institution and the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting Black women elected, collaborated to pinpoint predictors of electoral success among Black women candidates. Much of the data here comes from what we found. We discovered, not surprising, that Black women are underrepresented among elected officials at local, state, and national levels of government. Black women are more likely to hold state house, state senate, and U.S. House of Representative seats in places where the Black share of the voting-age population is greater. There have been only two Black women elected to the U.S. Senate in the history of the country. The first was Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999, and former 2020 presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris of California.
Even though Black women are practically tied in percentage rates within race with White women in voter registration and turnout, they are more likely to be discouraged from running for office than White women and men as well as Black men. When Black women do run for office, they are less likely to receive the early dollars and endorsements that help establish campaigns. This is the structural racism and sexism that Black women must contend with when thinking about running for office. Support for Black women on the campaign trail often comes not when they desperately need it but when their impact can no longer be ignored.
For generations, Black, mostly male, elected officials came from Black-majority districts. Before the 2018 mid-term election, there were 19 Black women and 30 Black men serving in Congress, as well as two non-voting delegates. After the January 2018 swearing-in ceremony, there were twenty-three Black women in Congress — 22 of whom are now serving in the House — and 32 Black men. There is a majority of men despite the fact that there are many more Black women eligible to vote than Black men in Black-majority cities.
However, there is a wave of Black women collectively forging new pathways into public office that we seldom talk about — those in Black-majority cities. Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., in 2014, Catherine Pugh of Baltimore in 2016 (no longer in office), Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge in 2016, LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans in 2017, and, of course, Lance Bottoms in 2018, all won in districts with significant Black populations. Black women differ from their Black male predecessors historically by embracing their cultural heritage to attract non-Black voters in places where Blacks are the racial minority.
Ayanna Pressley won the Democratic primary and became the first woman of color elected to Congress from the commonwealth of Massachusetts, besting the ten-term Democratic incumbent, Michael Capuano, with her seventeen-point win. Pressley and other Black women in public office are bucking the directive that you have to sanitize yourself and your political agenda for fear of it being “too Black” to garner White votes.
Also in the 2018 midterms, Jahana Hayes won Connecticut’s 5th District; Lucy McBath claimed Georgia’s 6th, and Lauren Underwood Illinois’ 14th — all Black women who won in similar fashion, by not shying away from their Blackness, in White-majority places. At the municipal level, Vi Lyles’s victory in Charlotte in 2017 and London Breed in San Francisco in 2018 — both Black women in White-majority cities — were predictive for Lori Lightfoot to win in Chicago in 2019, the largest city today to elect a Black person mayor.
On her official campaign website, Pressley listed several policy issues she hopes to tackle in Congress, including public health, economic development, environment, housing, and criminal justice. According to Newsweek reporting, Pressley’s platform included “supporting Medicare for all, stricter gun control laws, including a ban on assault weapons, and expanding rent subsidies for low-income families.” Many of these issues seem like the boilerplate Democratic platform on the surface. The Democratic platform includes many of the items that cross over to a Black women’s agenda. However, there are points of emphasis and priority that distinguish the two.
AMERICA NEEDS A BLACK WOMEN’S AGENDA
If Black women don’t raise key issues, such as voting rights and maternal mortality, which are central to the health of our democracy and our people, it’s unlikely either political party will prioritize them.
The 2018 American Values Survey (AVS) explores overall political attitudes and how increased diversity among elected officials could impact the country. On the question of what issues are the most important, Black women cited racial inequality as most critical, at 29 percent, followed by health care at 21 percent, and the growing gap between the rich and poor at 18 percent. The economy ranked as the fourth-most important issue, at 11 percent; if combined with the wealth gap, it would tie with racial inequality as the top issue for Black women.
Stacey Abrams may have lost her high-profile bid to become the governor of Georgia, but her campaign helped define an element of racial inequality worth pursuing in 2020: voter suppression. The winner of that gubernatorial race, former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, oversaw an election process that included voting roll purges and strict registration rules known to negatively impact minority voters. Abrams identified these tactics as voter suppression, “warning about right-wing efforts to strategically reduce voter turnout in areas likely to vote blue,” according to The Ringer.
The national discourse on voter suppression focuses on voter ID laws, equitable accessibility to the voting booth, including expanded polling hours and days, voter purges, and blatant intimidation. However, incarceration and early death together account for most of the disparity between Black women and men in the electorate. Yet on the AVS, racial inequality ranked among the least important issues for White men and women. This means that ending voter suppression wasn’t likely be a significant focus for either the Democratic or Republican parties; not until Black candidates campaigned and lobbied for it.
Abrams’ political rise forced Democrats to raise voter suppression higher on their national agenda. In 2019, during the 116th Congress, Maryland Representative John Sarbanes introduced the For the People Act—H.R.1. This act includes provisions which, if enacted, would make suppression more difficult. The bill passed the House; however, the Senate won’t bring it up. Nevertheless, Abrams presence increases the likelihood that future candidates, including presidential, will bring voter suppression to the forefront of the party platform.
Similarly, in April 2019, Representatives Alma Adams of North Carolina and Lauren Underwood of Illinois created the first Black Maternal Health Caucus in an effort to reverse the rising mortality rates of Black women who give birth, which are significantly higher than those of White women. The caucus gained thirty members soon after Adams and Underwood, both Black women, introduced it. Adams and Underwood are backed by Black maternal health practitioners, researchers, and advocates. Organizations such as Black Mamas Matter have been vigorously petitioning Congress in recent years to respond to this issue. Now, those demands have a much greater likelihood of turning into policy.
DEVALUATION OF BLACK VOTERS
The 2017 special election for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat vacated by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions accentuates how both major political parties devalue Black women. High Black voter turnout in Alabama’s Black-majority cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile — particularly among Black women — made the difference, granting Democrat Doug Jones a historic victory over the controversial Republican Roy Moore. Moore is a twice-expelled judge who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, including pedophilia. Jones endeared himself to the Black community by prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four Black girls. In Alabama, a whopping 68 percent of White voters supported Moore. Black voters within Black cities prevented Moore from bringing his toxic masculinity, homophobia, and multiple charges of sexual harassment to the Senate.
Jones beat Moore by only 1.5 percent, meaning he needed every vote he mustered. All but 4 percent of African-Americans who cast ballots voted for Jones. Blacks accounted for roughly 30 percent of the Alabama electorate, according to a CNN exit poll. And 98 percent of Black women (17 percent of the electorate) cast ballots for Jones. Certainly, Jones needed each vote — but if Moore had courted just a sliver of the Black electorate, he could have won by a landslide.
There have always been charges from Democrats and Republicans that the Democratic Party takes advantage of the Black vote. From replacing Black leadership in the party to woo White suburban voters, not putting financial support behind Black candidates to not investing in the Black “get out the vote” (GOTV) organizations in cities, the Democratic Party seemingly has not delivered policy to reciprocate the Black vote.
Black women are the majority of voters and the greater share of the GOTV infrastructure in Black-majority cities. Black men are present and voting at higher rates in recent years, but our lower numbers in the electorate emphasize why Black women’s votes, voices, and leadership are critical.
Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress (1968) and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties (1972), famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” A vanguard for women’s political leadership, Chisholm tactfully pushed for inclusion throughout the political process, but as her quote suggests, if conventional democratic processes fail, then you must take matters into you own hands.
We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Chisholm for representing Blacks and women in public office. Chisholm is the spiritual mother of the Black women elected officials who are not only representing people but also remedying the sick American psyche with every chair they bring to the table. Representation matters to our political mental health.
BLACK WOMEN ARE POWERFUL BUT NOT PROTECTED
The might of Serena Williams; the political leadership of the women behind the Women’s March; the public intellectualism of Melissa Harris-Perry, Janet Mock, and Brittany Cooper equal or exceed their counterparts. The successes of the movies Girls Trip and Hidden Figures and the economic and cultural power of the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans are testaments to the economic power and cultural strength of Black women. A higher proportion of Black women enrolled in college between 2009 and 2012 (9.7 percent) than Asian women (8.7 percent), White women (7.1 percent), and even White men (6.1 percent). And Black women are rising in the ranks of elected office. But we should be clear: The growing educational and cultural influence of Black women doesn’t equal protection.
For instance, more Black women may be getting into college, but the route to a postsecondary degree is still beset with harassment from their peers and schools. Nationally, Black girls accounted for 45 percent of all girls who were suspended and for 42 percent of girls expelled from K–12 public schools between 2011 and 2012, the highest among all racial/ethnic groups, according to one University of Pennsylvania study. When girls enter the workforce, they have to work more than sixty-six years to earn what a White man earns in forty. Black women have lower earnings than Black men, as well as White women (figure 7-2).
We know that Black Girls Rock and Black Girls Run, and yes, they do it with Black girl magic. But I would be lying if I said my stress levels weren’t as high for my daughter as they are for my sons. The data shows that she is constantly in danger. Harassment, physical abuse, discrimination, and exploitation must stop. A T-shirt I once saw sums it up perfectly: “Black girls are magic but they are also real.”
FIGURE 7-2. EARNING DIFFERENCE ALONG RACE AND GENDER. MEDIAN INCOME FOR FULL-TIME WORKERS
SOURCE: American Community Survey U.S. Census Bureau for 2017
When we elect to support and protect Black women, we begin to chip away the culture of physical violence that is normalized in policy in America. Suspensions and expulsions, physical violence, political under-representation, and lower pay all reflect a culture of American violence and devaluation. Black women’s experiences give them a unique perspective that can shed light on how racism and sexism help stratify groups. For Black lives to matter, Black women must be represented in legislative halls at every level in the United States.
Our quality of life and even our existence is tied to the assumptions of who is an official member of the country. There is no more important power that can change that standing in the life of a citizen than the right to vote. Ending racism may solve many of Black people’s problems, but electing a Black woman to the highest offices may save America from itself. Exercising our right to vote is the first line of defense against being pushed from our homes and communities.
— Adapted from Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities by Andre Perry with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 Brookings Institution.