It’s (Black) Women’s History Month for us, and politics is always a conversation on our minds, so let’s discuss the role of Black women in politics in 2020 this year so far.
The Obama presidency was a historic event, but the campaign that preceded it was not all confidence and cheer. Things weren’t going so well on a lonely campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina. The would-be president and his staff were tired and dejected, but as a weary Obama took the dais, a woman in attendance at a meeting only about 20 people at Greenwood’s Civic Center, Ms. Edith S. Childs excited and lifted the spirits of the candidate and his staff by leading the chant, “Fired up! Ready to go!” That’s what community organizers do.
President Obama often recounted Childs’ passion as an example to crowds of the power of one voice, or more specifically, the power of one Black woman‘s voice in a political movement. Black women have performed (by both voting and fighting to) historically in the United States political system, even when it was codified into law that we could not. Black women supported Obama and his campaign, and they continued to support him against monumental obstructionism as he governed. Even as the most dangerous threat to the nation sat in the most powerful seat in world governance, Black women resisted, organized and held at bay the downfall of the nation. Black Power, the likes of which the Black Panther Party envisioned, is realized and demonstrated through the political work of Black women.
The 2020 presidential elections saw the Democratic Party retake the presidency, in part, by the heretofore unthinkable win of the Biden/Harris team in the state of Georgia. It also saw them hold their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Senate, however, initially hung in the balance because neither of the two Democratic senatorial candidates had enough votes to declare an outright win. Rev. Raphael Warnock ran against Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp. Warnock led a 20-person race with 32.9% of the vote, while Loeffler garnered 25.9%. Prevailing political trends predicted a run-off election due to the sheer number of candidate participation, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff faced incumbent Sen. David Perdue in the second race. At the end of the night, Ossoff had earned 47.9% of the votes, while Perdue earned 49.7%. The race tightened further the following day, necessitating runoff elections for both races. In the January 5, 2021 runoff elections, Rev. Dr. Warnock won his seat by 51.0% to Loeffler’s 49.0% and Ossoff won his seat by 50.6% to Perdue’s 49.4%. These wins put the Senate in a 50/50 configuration of members, with Vice-President Kamala Harris being the tie-breaking vote, essentially giving the Democratic Party control of the Executive Office and the Legislative Branch of the United States government.
You may be marveling at the wins, and you would be right to do so. Democrats don’t usually prevail in “Deep South” states, but if you ask, (as many news headlines do) “How did Democrats win in Georgia?” the answer is “Black women."
Several women are responsible for this performance. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams made it her mission to reverse the GOP’s modern-day theft of the Georgia governorship by constructing one of the most well-oiled political organizational efforts in the history of the nation. Her organization, Fair Fight led the charge of involving the Georgia electorate, especially Black people. Alongside her are Nse Ufot, of the New Georgia Project; Deborah Scott, of Georgia Stand Up; LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter; and Helen Butler, of Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. These women, and many, many more, did the work of seasoned political operatives and garnered results that many establishment Democratic Party operatives have either shunned, minimized or altogether ignored. The work of the Black women of Georgia, 55 years after the founding of the Black Panther Party, decisively demonstrated the meaning of “Black Power,” and it is every bit as beautiful as the ugliness that preceded it. Unless this feat can be duplicated in other Southern states the hard-won victories will be fleeting.
The important political question is, “How can these victories be expanded and duplicated in other Southern states?” The answers are as simple and complex as the question itself.
Power Power as a concept is multilayered and should be approached as such. In the linear, hierarchical sense, power has been written to fit cultural constructs and bend to the will of sexism, racism and predatory capitalist profit. Largely seen as the domain of rich white men, power has structural and cultural connotations written into the fabric of everyday social interaction. It works through political and social realms that appear to be different but are a part of the same system. To understand power in the United States, it is important to note the framers of the republic predicated it upon a social structure they (and subsequent generations of their descendants) made into law through preexisting political structures. It is, therefore, difficult to disentangle politics from day-to-day social and work life, much to the chagrin of many a Colin Kaepernick antagonist.
Steven Lukes, in his book, “Power: A Radical View,” posits power is three-dimensional. The book remains a jarring addition to the topic primarily because of the argument that power is not a one-dimensional concept, but a connected series of interactions. Luke maintains power is exercised as a three-dimensional construct consisting of decision-making, non-decision making and ideological power. “Decision-making power“ pertains to political action, while “non-decision-making power“ is focused on setting an agenda, which is the identification of acceptable topics for public debate. Lastly, “ideological power“ focuses on persuasion meant to influence the viewpoints of The People.
Given this view, the role that Black women played in the seismic political shift in Georgia is evident. The organizations Black women-founded, ran and led identified the seats and representatives of “decision-making power“ and targeted them for removal via the existing power structures. After targeting “decision-making power,“ their organizations set the agenda for the political discussions surrounding the subsequent political shift. For instance, Black Voters Matter head LaTosha Brown and her staff and volunteers focused on “decision-making power,” and literally traveled the nation (in the general election) and the state of Georgia for the run-offs. At each stop, they wrote the narrative of the election for the voters by focusing on voter suppression, historical and community pride and sounding the alarm on dangerous incumbents. Lastly, Black women leaders and organizers wielded “ideological power“ that persuaded the Black voting populace and spurred them into action. Movements are more likely to occur when leaders are able to engage every dimension of power Lukes theorized.
Media Representation Knowledgeable Black people in credible newsrooms bolstered, lifted and championed the work of Black women organizers and exponentially increased their presence. The impact of media representation cannot be overstated in a historical moment such as this.
MSNBC journalist Joy Reid, for example, represents a smart, capable Black woman in mainstream media whose priority remains the inclusion of underrepresented people in the patterns, actions and study of social and political life. She and people like her in other prominent news organizations gave intelligent information to a diverse audience, which, in turn, fueled the support of the work of many of the above-mentioned women in Georgia.
Relational Community Organizing Black women work within and for our communities. The women of Georgia were, of course, unafraid to enter their own communities, form relationships and use their familiarity and understanding of relatable issues to move people to action. Forming relationships with the people they are organizing is the foundation of success, and their success highlights the glaring gaps in knowledge, presence and appreciation for their work. Too often, organizations that are predominantly white want the votes and work of Black people without themselves doing the kind of work that builds trust.
Black communities listen to Black women because they know them. They do not come as experts; they come as members of the community. White–led organizations, meanwhile, often enter Black spaces as “saviors” rather than “members.“ It takes only a cursory knowledge of the history of Black people in the United States to understand the gargantuan chasm of distrust between the two communities.
If other Southern states are to make the shift made by the Black women of Georgia, traditional, white political (monied) institutions will have to open their organizations to serious leadership by Black women. The next step is to invest the kind of resources in on–the–ground efforts that build political movements. They will have to genuinely follow the leadership of people from the communities they wish to sway. Predominantly white organizations simply do not have the power to set the agenda (non-decision-making power) or ideological power in communities of which they are not a part. But they do have the resources to help Black women create the framework to build it. If organizations with resources had intelligently employed these strategies well ahead of the 2020 Senate race in Mississippi, it is likely the first Black man since Hiram Revels won the seat during Reconstruction would have represented the State of Mississippi, rather than a woman comfortable enough with her racism to make a public joke about lynching.
The most consistent and persistent characteristic of the organizing the Black women of Georgia did last year (and continue to do) is the construction and maintenance of relationships in their respective communities. According to the Cook Report, Black voter turnout in November 2020 surpassed 80 percent, but in the January runoff election, it reached 93 percent. Presidential elections in the United States, traditionally yield an average turnout of about 55 percent, placing the country in the rank of 30th of 35 comparable nations. In 2020, 160 million people voted, a 66.9 percent turnout, which is the highest since the presidential election of 1900, for which turnout was 73.7 percent.
Key to the increased turnout and voting is registration. Since 2016 Asian, Latino and Black populations have increases in the registration of voters in Georgia, with the most significant increase in Black communities. When connected to the fact that 32 percent of the voting age population in Georgia is Black, there is no question the deployment of the three dimensions of power can alter a political landscape, especially when led by the women who understand it.
The power to construct the narrative lies in the work of Black women and other inclusive, tested and trusted members of Black communities. Democratic organizations and progressive candidates in other Southern states can duplicate that success by asking the women, already ensconced in community organizing and community work, to lead their efforts.
Coordinated Model Campaigns In recent years, candidates in many local and state elections opt to run “coordinated campaigns,” where two or more candidates share a similar platform and campaign resources such as staff, money and advertising. This reduces campaign costs, but the primary goal is to elect more affiliated candidates who share ideological goals and political stances. Theoretically, this makes the first dimension, “decision-making power,” much more achievable. Warnock and Ossoff ran a coordinated campaign and Ossoff realized a clear benefit from the Black community, thanks to his association with Warnock. According to CNN’s exit poll, the percentage of Black voters supporting him in the January runoff was 92 percent, which was up from the 87 percent he received in the November general. In Ossoff’s case, the association with well-respected figures such as Abrams and Warnock increased his level of trust among Black voters. For Southern states that are newer to the sustained ground game it takes to organize communities, coordinated campaigns are effective strategies.
Structural Shifts The short explanation to “How do organizations achieve structural and institutional change?” is larger organizations with resources can more effectively make change by supporting the women who make change. The adoption of strategies, without understanding the core of the communities, is no longer enough, neither is the uninvited work of white organizers. The dissemination of the three dimensions of power must be understood as a facet of life in all communities, regardless of the presence of such social characteristics as racial identity or socio-economic class. The Black Women of Georgia already understand this cultural concept of inclusion and equality, and it shows in their work.
The Democratic Party and other well-resourced political organizations consistently overlook the most successful group of organizers, planners and change-makers not because their work is ineffective but because the specter of white supremacy is still very much alive in the body politic. It will continue to lay a heavy film of “isms“ over every institution, unless the organizations that seek to make real change construct meaningful anti-supremacist structures within themselves to forestall its widespread creep. Acknowledging Black women‘s aptitude for wielding the three dimensions of power should not be difficult. In a system of predatory capitalism, in which quantitative assessments are prized as markers of exemplary work, these numbers should inspire.
Trust Black women. Our success is not difficult to identify.
It’s in the work.