By treating black women as political bellwethers, Democrats transform a choice made under duress into a ringing endorsement. It’s not
Following Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in Tuesday’s special election, black women’s celebrated status as the Democratic party’s most reliable voting bloc reached its zenith. Jones’s win is widely attributed to overwhelming black voter support and higher-than-average black turnout. Thus, for some, the takeaway from Jones’s victory was obvious: trust black women.
Hillary Clinton memorably referred to minority voters as her “firewall”, but it seems black women have become more than simply a political bulwark: we’ve evolved into a symbol of ideological righteousness – America’s moral compass.
That sentiment reached a fever pitch on Tuesday, when the hashtag #blackwomen trended along with gushing praise for black female voters, peaking perhaps with the author Molly Knight’s tweet arguing that “black women [should] run everything”, followed by the actor Mark Ruffalo’s cosign: “I’m definitely ready for that. I said a prayer the other day and when God answered me back she was a Black Woman.”
However flattering it may be to feel integral to the party’s success (and Mark Ruffalo’s prayers), this characterization presents a problem. Black women don’t need a hagiography: we need a voice.
The reality is that the political determinism emblemized by the #trustblackwomen hashtag isn’t so much a compliment as much as it is a gilded cage. Black women aren’t electoral talismans. We don’t have intrinsic moral authority, nor should our votes be taken as an imprimatur of virtue for the Democratic party – a party which fails us more often than not. What the homogenous nature of the black voting bloc does represent, however, is a deficit of options.
Unlike white voters, who have the luxury of weighing a range of individual political concerns, personal beliefs, and material needs at the ballot box, black voters are united by the constant threat of political disenfranchisement, state violence, and economic exploitation.
Thus constrained by existential vulnerability, black women have become masters at assessing the lesser of the evils presented. We aren’t messiahs, we’re merely experts in risk mitigation. Case in point: the reality TV villain and Trump adviser #Omarosa was trending at the same time as #blackwomen. And it wasn’t because she saved the Democratic party.
By treating black women as political bellwethers, Democrats transform a choice made under duress into a ringing endorsement, and even worse, by idolizing our party commitment, they flatter us into forgetting we’re in a cage without bars.
As one savvy tweeter noted: “If we make black women into gods, we can continue to ignore polices that benefit their material needs since only mere mortals worry about those things.” Put another way: there’s is no pride in being a firewall. Perhaps it’s time for black women to withhold fealty to a party that would treat it as a shield rather than something worth fighting to protect.
Some of us have done exactly that. Recall that the majority of black women under 35 cast their lot with Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primary, and about 26% of black Americans identify as independents. Moreover, young voters of color disproportionately chose to stay home in 2016 rather than vote for Hillary Clinton.
But fetishizing the black voting block results in the erasure of black leftists who would push the Democratic party to earn our votes rather than merely revere our consistency. And perhaps most insidiously, the idea of the black vote as moral guidepost has been taken up as a cudgel by white Democrats who use it to silence dissenters with accusations of racism—even when those dissenters are people of color themselves.
None of this advances the interests of black women.
As much as Democratic politicians should cater to black interests to achieve their purported goal of substantive economic and social equality, it’s important to note that they don’t largely because they simply don’t have to.
Doug Jones did not win an overwhelming percentage of the black vote because he courted African Americans especially effectively. Rather, his support came via the perseverance of black community organizers like DeJuana Thompson of Woke Vote, LaTosha Brown of #BlackVotersMatter, the Birmingham councilwoman Sheila Tyson, and the BlackPAC executive director, Adrianne Shropshire.
The real story here is about black women’s hard work and political initiative – not the intrinsic virtue of black womanhood. To laud the latter is to diminish the former and take for granted what efforts are actually required to win difficult elections. Democrats can’t afford to take the wrong lessons from any of their victories. Or their failures.
What should be clear by now is that offering racialized platitudes is not enough. Superficial hot-sauce-in-my-bag-style messaging is no substitute for the substantive material benefits reflected in the progressive platform, like a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare, and heightened consumer protections. Nor is the deft use of terms like intersectionality sufficient – especially when that intersectionality excludes class concerns.
In politics, black women, heralded for our diversity, aren’t allowed any diversity of self. To “good liberals” who insists that black people aren’t a monolith, while in the same breath exhorting all to #trustbackwoman, I ask: which black women do you mean? We don’t all agree. And in that, there’s power.
- Briahna Joy Gray is a contributing editor at Current Affairs
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