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U.S. Election: Black Women Seize Political Spotlight

AP, MARIETTA, GA — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of great division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”

Black women have long been the heart of the Democratic Party — among the party’s most reliable and loyal voters — but for decades, that allegiance did not translate to their political rise. There have been zero Black female governors, just two senators, several dozen congresswomen.

And the people representing them instead have not met their needs: Disparities in education and opportunity resulted in Black women making, on average, 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Long-standing health inequities have caused Black people to die disproportionately from COVID-19.

And countless cases of police brutality have left many Black women terrified every time their children pulled out of the driveway, fearing that they might not make it home alive.

Now Black women are mobilized and demanding an overdue return on their investment. Over the last several years and across America, Black women ran and won elections in historic numbers, from Congress to county school boards.

This transformation is taking place in once unlikely areas, suburban counties in the South. Places like Cobb, a rambling expanse of strip malls and subdivisions just north of Atlanta, doubled in population midway through the last century as white people fled the city. Then, slowly, families of color followed, also seeking bigger yards and better schools.

The year Charisse Davis was born, 1980, Cobb County was 4.5% African American. Now it’s more than 27% Black and 13% Hispanic. Its politics caught up with its demographics: In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to eke out a win in Cobb County since Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, in 1976.

President Donald Trump’s presidency, which has fueled racial divisions and appealed to white grievance, unleashed for some here an overwhelming urgency. They added their names to down-ticket ballots; they canvassed; they knocked on doors.

When Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive Democrat, ran for governor in 2018, she focused her campaign on women of color. In that election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots — 20,000 more than voted in midterm elections four years earlier.

Although Abrams lost narrowly statewide, she won Cobb County handily. Meanwhile, Lucy McBath, a Black mother whose 17-year-old son was killed by a white man who thought his music was too loud, won a congressional seat that includes part of the county, a district once held by conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich.

Charisse Davis looked at the school board members and saw no Black women, so she ran and won. Another Black woman became the chair of the county’s young Republicans. Two joined the Superior Court bench. A teenager ran for class president, and she won, too.

“We’ve been watching from the sidelines and allowing other people to take their turns, and take these positions of power,” Davis said. “Now, here we are to fix it essentially.”

The first county Democratic Party meeting after Trump’s election was standing room only.

“It was almost like a support group. We had to be together, and we had to grieve and yell,” Davis said. “What happened?”

Across the county, there was soul searching over how Clinton lost white, working-class voters, but much less on why Democrats also lost some support of this core constituency.

Historically Black women vote in extraordinary numbers, and they don’t vote alone: They usher their families, their churches, their neighbors to the polls.

But in 2016, African Americans did not turn out in the numbers the party had come to expect. For the first time in 20 years, their turnout declined in a presidential election. About 70% of eligible Black women voted in 2012 when President Barack Obama, the first Black president, secured a second term. But in 2016, that number slipped to 64%, its pre-Obama level.

While there were multiple reasons for Clinton’s loss, including a large defection of white voters, some saw the drop-off as a sign that Black voters were taken for granted. Organizations sprang up across the country to motivate Black women to organize, run, and win.

“We have never been at this moment,” said Aimee Allison, who in 2018 founded the network She the People, which is working to turn out a million women of color across seven battleground states. “For us, as a group to recognize our political power means that we also are demanding to govern.”

The power of Black voters was demonstrated when they overwhelmingly backed Joe Biden in the South Carolina primary, giving him a staggering victory that rescued his campaign and set him on a path to the nomination.

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