‘If not now, when?’: Black women seize political spotlight

MARIETTA, GEORGIA (AP) – The little girl ran up to her, wide-eyed and giddy.

“Are you Charisse Davis?” the fourth grader asked.

Davis was stunned. A former kindergarten teacher and librarian, she was more accustomed to shuttling her two sons to basketball practice than being seen as a local celebrity. But now she had been elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board, gaining office in a once conservative suburban community where people who look like her rarely held positions of power.

Something had changed in this place, and something had changed in her.

“I love your hair — your hair looks like my hair,” the girl squealed, calling friends over.

It was a moment both innocent and revealing: Not just a child seeing herself in an elected leader, but also a reflection of the rapidly building power of Black women. It’s a momentous change that could make history on a national ticket and determine the outcome of the presidential race.

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 didn’t translate to their own 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 mobilised 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.

Rep Lucy McBath, D-Ga, smiles with Rep Ilhan Omar, D-Minn following a group portrait of the House Democratic women members of the 116th Congress on the East Front Capitol Plaza Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AP

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

The year Charisse Davis was born, 1980, Cobb County was 4.5 per cent African American. Now it’s more than 27 per cent Black and 13 per cent 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.

United States (US) President Donald Trump’s presidency, which has fuelled racial divisions and appealed to white grievance, unleashed for some here an overwhelming urgency.

When Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive Democrat, ran for governor in 2018, she focussed her campaign on women of colour. In that election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots — 20,000 more than voted in midterm elections four year 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 essentially fix it.”

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, 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 of the support of this core constituency.

Historically Black women vote in extraordinary numbers, and they don’t vote alone: They usher their families and neighbours 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 per cent 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 per cent, 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 had been taken for granted.

Organisations sprang up across the country to motivate Black women to organise, 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 colour across seven battleground states. “For us as a group to recognise our own 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. Black women made up about one-third of the Democratic voters in the state and roughly two-thirds voted for Biden, according to the AP VoteCast survey.

Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and at least six of the contenders are Black — including California Rep Karen Bass, who said, “I think what we’re looking for is representation, acknowledgement, inclusion.”

Those who advocate for Black women in politics said the stakes have never been higher.

When Chinita Allen’s 20-year-old son was home from college earlier this year, he and a friend went to work out at their old high school in the affluent, predominantly white part of the county where they live. He had been a football star there. But someone saw two Black men and called the police to report suspicion. She posted her son’s story on Facebook, and it rocketed around this community.In the not-so-distant past, she might not have spoken up. A football mom and educator, she had long avoided talking about race, rocking the boat — until Trump won. Now she’s the president of Cobb Democratic Women and leading the charge to try to turn the county totally blue.

“It’s all about knowing your worth,” she said. “We’ve always been here, like the Underground Railroad. But it’s surfaced now. In a big way. It’s a rail train.”

Black women powered the civil rights movement, but rarely became its stars. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers, Ella Baker and Dorothy Height never held political office, but they played a critical role, said Nadia Brown, a Purdue University political science professor.

Only occasionally did their work lead to elective office, as it did when Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, and a candidate for president in 1972.

But the landscape changed dramatically over the last several cycles. Just two years ago, five Black women were elected to Congress, four of them in majority-white districts, according to the Higher Heights Black Women in American Politics 2019 survey. Congress now has more Black women than ever before: 22 congresswomen and one senator, Kamala Harris, who is just the second to serve in that chamber and a prominent contender to be Biden’s running mate.

The change has extended to state and local offices. Two black women are running for governor in Virginia, and if either of them win, she would become the nation’s first Black female governor.

In Cobb County, Kellie Hill made history in June as one of two Black women elected to the Superior Court bench. When she first moved to Georgia 30 years ago, fellow lawyers assumed she was her secretary’s assistant.

“I said for years, ‘Maybe one day they’ll be ready for me’,” Hill said. “And as exciting as it is to be the first, it’s a little unbelievable that we’re having a conversation about being the first in the year 2020.”

Although they make up about 7.5 per cent of the electorate, less than two per cent of statewide elected executive offices were held by Black women as of November 2019. They account for less than five per cent of officeholders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress and state legislatures, according to the Higher Heights survey.

“Black women have done everything that America told us was going to make us successful and we’re still at the bottom in terms of our return,” said co-founder of Black Voters Matter LaTosha Brown.

Black women are posting faster educational gains than any other demographic group in the US — seeing a 76 per cent jump in the number of college degrees earned over the past 20 years, but they aren’t reaping the promised economic benefits. On average, Black women made 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes. But that drops to 55 cents for Black women with a professional degree compared to white men with the same level of educational attainment.

“People told us that education is key to being successful,” Brown said. “What did Black women do? Black women, out of any constituency group in this country, we enter college more than any other group in this country. Then why does the wealth not reflect that?”
As a result, said Chair of the Democratic Party’s Cobb County African American caucus Bev Jackson, Black women have a special resiliency: They have no safety net, so Black women just learn to walk the tightrope better.

Jackson thought about how much she wished her parents had lived to see a Black woman come so close to the Governor’s Mansion. Her family’s roots in Cobb County go back more than 100 years. Her parents went to segregated schools and sipped out of separate water fountains.

Once, when Jackson was a little girl, she sat down at a lunch counter because she wanted a cherry Coke. The waitress just passed her by, refusing to serve her.

Now Black women around her are daring to run, to win and to demand their leaders fix the broken system that maintains disparities in policing, health care, education, economics.
“You have taken our votes for granted for years. But guess what?” she said. “It’s payback time: What are you going to do for us?”

Republicans aren’t immune to this awakening.

DeAnna Harris was recently elected chair of the Cobb County Young Republicans, the first Black person in the post. To highlight local Black Republicans — the district attorney, deputy sheriff, a former state representative — she held her inaugural event at the historic African American church she attends. The crowd was diverse, she said, and she was proud of that.

She tries to make a conservative pitch to other Black voters by touting the ideals she believes in: small government and gun rights. The response is generally something along the lines of, “but I don’t like Trump.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia is confident that enthusiasm is on its side. Fair Fight Action, the organisation Abrams founded, calculated that Georgia has more than 750,000 new voters who were not registered in 2018, 49 per cent of them voters of colour. And despite a pandemic and long lines in some polling places, more Democrats voted in June’s presidential primary than in 2008, when Obama was on the ticket.

That Democratic energy can be particularly seen in these northern Atlanta suburbs. McBath, the incumbent in the 6th Congressional District, ran unopposed and got 26,000 more primary votes than the five Republicans candidates combined. In Cobb County, almost 33,000 African Americans voted in the 2016 primary. In the 2020 primary: more than 52,000. Both of the state’s Republican senators are up for election, putting Georgia on the front lines of the fight for control of the Senate.

“The 2020 election cycle is going to be key to changing the course of history in this country,” said Chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia Nikema Williams who was selected to replace Rep John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in July, on the November ballot. “We’re a battleground in Georgia now, and Black women are leading the way.”

Charisse Davis said that it is these young women who give her hope for a better day: They are idealistic, coming of age in a time when Black women are rising, and they can look around, see people like themselves and believe anything is possible.

She knows an 18-year-old named Audrey McNeal. McNeal ran to be the class president at her mostly white high school, and lost. She thought of a poem she once wrote about a princess envious of her brother because one day he would be king; she wanted to be powerful. She ran again, and won.

“It’s about time we represent ourselves,” McNeal said. Now she’s a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She’s heading to Barnard College to study politics. She thinks she’ll be secretary of state one day. And then, maybe, president.