Democrat Doug Jones’s historic win in the Alabama Senate race earlier this month was fueled by black voters, who turned out, in disproportionate numbers, in overwhelming support of Jones—93 percent of black men voted for him, and 98 percent of black women. As graphs from exit polls went viral, the lesson was obvious to many. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” tweeted Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez. “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
“Black women carry this nation on their backs,” added HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen.
In 2018, Democrats will inevitably be thinking about how to scoop up disaffected white women, white suburbanites, and working-class whites feeling buyers’ remorse when it comes to Trumpism. (Though their GOP opponents likely won’t be as personally repugnant as Roy Moore.)
Post-Alabama, as the Democratic Party gears up for midterms and undergoes structural reforms within the DNC, a central question is at the forefront of black women’s minds: Will the power dynamic between black voters and the party truly change, or will #BlackWomen end up being nothing more than a hashtag?
What exactly the Democratic Party not taking black women for granted would entail is, according to progressive black women themselves, a set of shifts both broad and particular.
“The truth is everything from unemployment to the carceral state affects black women,” Brittany Packnett, an education executive, Crooked Media contributor, and influential organizer, who emerged out of the Black Lives Matter movement, told me. “I’d like to see a Justice Department that recommits to consent decrees, as they have been proven to decrease police violence.” The Trump administration has declined to authorize any new consent decrees, the strongest tool for coercing police department reforms, and those that were enacted by the Obama administration have been put under a sweeping review by the Jeff Sessions–led Department of Justice.
Packnett would also “like to see the DOJ end practices in federal facilities… that demonize women, like being shackled during childbirth, making access to feminine products challenging,” and “to see [the Children’s Health Insurance Plan] and other critical supports for children—and primarily used by women—be better protected and fully funded.”
Packnett—not viewing her policy prescriptions as being at odds with the party’s professed values—emphasized that Democrats should “refuse to let critical policy positions be called ‘identity politics.’”
After the 2016 election, the phrase “identity politics” has been somewhat of a third rail in internal left-wing debates about which particular mixture of social justice and economic messages will bring Democrats back to power. Those messages can certainly coexist. Yet the #BlackWomen moment after the Alabama election was precisely so notable because the conversation had largely been dominated by journalistic hand-wringing and party soul-searching over how to better accommodate the views of working-class whites.
Like the golden snitch of American politics, white voters have become prized due to their mercurial nature, not in spite of it. This is not necessarily wrongheaded—after all, if Clinton had won more of these voters in key Midwestern states, she’d be president, and many of these voters reside in swing House districts.
But in a series of interviews, several black women such as Glynda Carr—co-founder of Higher Heights, which seeks to cultivate and promote black female public leaders—bemoaned the tendency among the Democratic brass for finger-pointing to take the place of introspection when the wavering constituents at hand are black women and men rather than whites.
There was no shortage of articles written in 2016 adding fodder to the narrative that the enthusiasm drop among blacks in places like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Cleveland might have been a deciding factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss. But Carr pushed back against those accounts as unfair, citing the three decades of exit polls that demonstrate black people’s unrivaled commitment to voting for Democrats. She pointed to Higher Heights research that “finds black women voter participation has been steadily on the increase for over a decade.”
Erryn Townsend is a 28-year-old black woman who has worked and lived Cincinnati since she settled there in the 90s after a childhood of hopping from base to base out west with her Air Force father. Townsend voted for Clinton in 2016, but didn’t view the candidate’s overtures to her community as adequate. And she balked at what she, like Carr, defined as an overtone of blame in media remarks about black turnout in Cincinnati after Ohio went for Trump.
“There was nothing about [that] election that said, ‘Hey, we are absolutely going to put ourselves out there for black people. We are going to make a difference in your lives,’” she told me. “Even the culture here in Ohio does not represent that. Who would turn out for an election that only has certain people in mind?”
Paul Frymer, a politics professor at Princeton, wrote a book centered on this question, Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America, first published in 1999. Frymer’s research catalogs the history of how the two-party system leads politicians to spend most of their time and resources on (white) swing voters, rendering blacks a "captured minority."
Townsend isn’t the only one fed up with that dynamic—a substantial number of web-age progressives of color have studied up on 90s-era “triangulating” Democrats who courted conservative voters while supporting policies that would end up having particularly negative consequences on communities of color.
Bill Clinton, then Arkansas’s governor, went on The Arsenio Hall Show to play the sax during his 1992 campaign; later, in a move obviously intended as a sop to white "tough on crime" voters, he left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a black man on death row. As president, Clinton proudly signed one bill that sharply cut welfare and another that he would later admit made America’s incarceration crisis worse.
The Democrats’ long tradition of perfunctory church visits and get-out-the-vote rallies—anchored by smiles, waves, and bones thrown—can seem, in hindsight, underlied by a cynical subtext: “Where else are you going to go?” (An inverse of Trump’s famous “What do you have to lose?”)
Even Barack Obama was criticized while in office for not more directly vouching for blacks and for what some within the black community characterized as his patronizing tone when talking to black audiences. During speeches about responsibility at Morehouse College or about lazy “Cousin Pookie” near election days, the timbre Obama employed was, in the least, never one he would use toward audiences in lilly-white Iowa.
As the single demographic most negatively impacted by the most controversial decisions of the Democratic establishment—the discriminatory ‘94 crime bill, the deregulation of Wall Street in ‘99 that enabled the ‘08 crash, the minimal relief given to homeowners after the crisis—black women and their families never deserted the Democrats. For all the frustration, many black women like Townsend still call it “our party.”
But that’s not to say relations between black women and Democrats are fine. A poll released in September found enthusiasm for the Democratic Party down 11 points among black women since 2016.
“In too many cases, black women are asked to be altogether passionate but not angry, knowledgeable but not intimidating, and strong but not overwhelming."—Brittany Packnett
And though black support for Jones was necessary for his victory, the Democrat also wouldn’t have won if Republican turnout, particularly among white women, had been what it was for Trump. But clearly, #BlackWomen is more a rallying cry than #DepressedWhiteTurnoutFTW.
Regardless, having found narrative-shifting success this autumn, there’s a palpable energy barreling through the Democratic Party. That energy, Brittany Packnett says, can’t be squandered by continuing the status quo: “There must be more than a handful of young Black people on DNC committees who come from citizen, activist, and establishment spaces.”
Asked whether the DNC Unity Commission—the official entity charged with proposing a new set of governing rules concerning caucuses, primaries, voter registration, superdelegates, and more—has been visibly taking steps in that direction, Packnett responded, “I think it’s too soon to tell.”
In the meantime, Packnett remains focused on challenging the barriers to entry black women face in politics. In particular, the social barriers, such as not being in the proverbial (and, sometimes, literal) club. “In too many cases, black women are asked to be altogether passionate but not angry, knowledgeable but not intimidating, and strong but not overwhelming. Stereotypes work against us in politics just like they do in every field,” she said.
Glynda Carr stressed that the #BlackWomen moment can only transition to a sustained movement if white Democratic allies invest in and partner with organizations like hers. The consensus at Higher Heights roundtables across the country, she told me, is that the party “must not only expect us to come to the polls, but make us decision-makers. When we have a more diverse decision-making table, we make better decisions.”
There are specific reforms that could help black families. Standardizing same-day voter registration across states would benefit communities of color, which face disproportionate barriers to civic participation. Heather McGhee, a black woman who is the head of the left-leaning think tank Demos, has argued that a more equitable campaign finance system would level the monetary playing field for women of color, who rarely have the war chests of their white male counterparts.
Black women currently only make up 3.6 percent of congresspeople and 3.7 percent of all state legislators. But a crowdsourced list of black women running for office in 2018 is swelling online. And Carr highlighted the success of seven black women who will be mayors in 2018, including Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans and Mayor-elect Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta.
Maybe, in the end, an Alabama-like formula of depressed white rural turnout, a smidgen of suburbanites going Democratic, and an enthused multiethnic anti-Trump vote will be the concoction that puts Democrats back in power—giving them the chance to more actively pay back black women for the years, decades, centuries of being at the progressive fore without much thanks.
“They are afraid of alienating the majority voters,” Townsend worried. “But until Democrats become emboldened, black women will continue to do what they’ve always done: take care of ourselves in a world of less than favorable conditions.”
Follow Talmon Joseph Smith on Twitter.