The Democratic Party has praised black women voters as the backbone of the party and the saviours of the Alabama Senate race.
True, black women were instrumental in blocking Republican candidate Roy Moore – a homophobe, slavery apologist and alleged abuser of teens – from re-election to the US Senate.
But remember, as a voting bloc, black women in Alabama didn’t just suddenly emerge for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
We always have had agency and voting-mobilization strategies to support our candidates. The turnout in Alabama derives from a history of battling voter suppression.
A tsunami of thanks in the form of hashtag #BlackWomen flooded social media. But no amount of verbal appreciation will rectify the political imbalance and structural inequity black women confront in the Democratic Party.
African American women are hugely underrepresented in leadership roles in the party. That needs to be supported by money and resources. Our voices need to become essential to political debates and governmental policy-making.
White politicians need to do more than just show up in church the Sunday before we vote
Yes, our votes matter. So politicians who want to win them need to stop doing so by pandering to cultural markers.
For example, the stereotyped black church stands front and center for many white politicians looking to woo if not win our votes. The perception is that all white politicians need to do is merely show up the Sunday before the Tuesday we cast our ballots.
Obviously, that is a hackneyed campaign strategy. But worse – it’s also a clear indication that these politicians have nary a clue nor a sincere concern for the parishioners they stand before.
Our issues need to be addressed. We can start with reproductive justice, health disparities, gang violence, educational parity, urban environmental racism, and police brutality, to name a few.
Since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 there have been ongoing efforts to suppress minority voting. Efforts have included changing polling locations, changing polling hours or eliminating early voting days. We have seen reductions in the number of polling places, packing majority-minority districts, dividing minority districts. And then there are the notorious voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.
The Democratic Party would do well to tackle these injustices.
Black women voters are the ‘backbone’ of the Democratic Party
In recognizing African-American women as the powerful voting bloc we are in both local and national races, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez gave a public shout-out.
‘Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because black women led us to victory,’ he said. ‘Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.’
Perez’s public acknowledgment was an intended compliment to African American women. And he meant it as a long-overdue public reprimand to the Democratic National Committee.
However, when others depict us as ‘the backbone’ of the party, it glaringly highlights black women’s lack of power.
We were ‘the backbone’ of 1960s civil rights movements. What is more, we still are in the black church, and the Democratic Party recognizes us as such. We are always lauded.
But despite being ‘the backbone’ for the service or rescue of others we are demonized when we use that backbone for ourselves. In fact, the phrase is not one of praise. It dehumanizes our suffering and stereotypes us as ‘the mule of the world’ a phrase African American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston coined.
Contemporary commentators are making the point too:
‘A donkey is a Democratic symbol, but black women are not the mules of the party,’ Britt Julious wrote. ‘We, too, are issue voters. We vote for the world we hope to see. Why take that for granted?’
‘Everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that has never really been true’
I grew up knowing one of the most powerful voices in American politics, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm represented my Brooklyn congressional district for seven terms, from 1969 to 1983.
Everyone in the neighborhood and the halls of power in New York City knew she was a force to be reckoned with. She was ‘unbought’ and ‘unbossed,’ also the title of her 1970 memoir. Chisholm was nobody’s ‘mule’ or ‘backbone’.
In 1972 Chisholm was the first female and person of color to run for president and on the Democratic ticket. She paved the way for others. In her 1973 book The Good Fight, Chisholm shared why she ran.
‘The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is “not ready” to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.
‘I ran because somebody had to do it first. In this country, everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that has never really been true.’
And there were ‘next times’. In particular I think of 1984 and 1988 for Jesse Jackson, in 2004 for Carol Moseley Braun, in 2008 for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and in 2016 when Clinton made a second bid.
As a bloc, we know our strength. As black women voters, we take pride in our agency and voting-mobilization strategies.
We take no pleasure, however, in being anyone’s backbone but our own.