The Power of Black Women at the Ballot Box
Male Speaker: [inaudible 00:00:13] outside, I already knew what happened. I had to run here and celebrate with everyone man. I have no words.
Female Speaker: I was teaching a class and I started crying. I heard cheering outside and I could hear it inside. I was like, "I think Biden won." And I grabbed my phone and checked and it was just really exciting. I was crying.
Male Speaker: My mother is a disabled woman who's on social security and Medicaid and Medicare and to know that Donald Trump is out and he can no longer mess with those programs is amazing.
Male Speaker: We have to include everyone. We need a government of inclusion for the people and by the people.
Female Speaker: I'm feeling most hopeful about people caring about other people. That to me, is the most important thing in our existence. [Spanish language].
Female Speaker: It's historical and sometimes hysterical.
Female Speaker: This is a moment right now of victory, and we're celebrating and taking the streets, but it's not enough. It doesn't end here. Now we have to make sure that these promises are delivered to our community.
Female Speaker: This day means victory. This day means Black Lives Matter, this day means the next generation, this day means hope, this day means integrity, this day means consistency, this day means that nobody's going to tell us and talk to us and say that it's jokes.
We're not going to get fake news anymore, we're not going to get the wrong answers. That's what that this day means. This day means music, this day means we can open our mouth and feel happy and walk down these streets and feel comfortable as young African-Americans and mixed children. That's what this game means to us.
Tanzina Vega: A historic election week followed by an emotional weekend as Joe Biden was called the winner of the 2020 election, along with running mate Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black woman, the first South Asian woman, elected to the executive branch.
You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Black women have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party and this year is no different. Exit polls are showing that more than 90% of Black women cast their ballots for the Democratic ticket.
With slim margins in a number of battleground states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, Black voters especially Black women help propel Biden and Harris to victory over President Trump.
For more on the power of Black women at the ballot box, I'm joined now by Kimberly Peeler-Allen, visiting practitioner at the Rutgers University center for American women politics and Martha Jones, a professor from the Johns Hopkins University and author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Inequality for All. Kimberly and Martha thanks for joining us.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen: So great to be here.
Martha Jones: Thank you.
Tanzina: Martha, this isn't new. Once again, Black women have led the way for the Democratic party. How did they become the most consistent Democratic voter block in United States history?
Martha: Black women have for 100 years since ratification of the 19th amendment been organizing, strategizing, defying the odds and insisting on a place at the table in American politics. Black women spent until 1965, too many of them disenfranchised until passage of the Voting Rights Act. When we see Senator Harris stands in for Black women who today in a short 55 years have made themselves a force in American politics.
Tanzina: What motivated Black women to the polls this year in particular?
Kimberly: I think, what motivated them this year is very similar to what has motivated them to the polls ever since they got the franchise. It was I think particularly salient this year, that Black lives were on the ballot.
We were looking at equity, we were looking at inclusion, we were looking at our personal safety, we were looking at the discord and the language that was being levied against Black and Brown people from the White House.
I think that was a huge contributing factor as well as what has been happening with COVID and how it has taken a disproportionate number of Black lives because of this virus and how it has been managed.
Between that and education, there was just so many issues that brought Black women to the polls, but we also saw that it was our role to step up, to protect our democracy and make sure that all of our voices were heard and that everyone had an equal chance to not just survive, but truly thrive in this country. In order for that to happen, we felt that it needed to be a change in the administration.
Tanzina: If you are listening to our segment and you yourself are a Black woman or a Black American voter, and you want to tell us your thoughts about this historic election, give us a call at 877 8-My-Take. That's 877-869-8253.
Martha, Kamala Harris has regularly paid tribute to Black women who have come before her, like civil rights activists, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells and so many others. Were there echoes of these women during this election cycle.
Martha: Absolutely, and thank you to Senator Harris for giving the nation a lesson in Black women's political history, because you're right. She has at every opportunity at the podium reminded us of the, the legacy of women like Fannie Lou Hamer, like Ida B. Wells and so many others.
I think one of the things that we see in Senator Harris that is so characteristic of this legacy is her broad, broad vision. In addition to all of the issues that Kimberly has so importantly laid out, Black women have characteristically over the course of more than a century held up the very notion of democracy, the very ideals that undergird this nation, not only for Black Americans, but for all Americans.
What I hear when I see Senator Harris stepping to the podium, taking the microphone is a candidate and now a Vice-President Elect, who is speaking to all Americans, who is speaking to our highest ideals. Those are the interests not only of Black women, those are the interests of everyone.
Tanzina: I would love both of you to weigh in on this. Martha, I'll start with you and then Kimberly, I'd love your thoughts here because Kamala Harris is-- We've been talking about this since she was a candidate for President, and then, Joe Biden's running mate, but she has made history here as the first woman, the first Black woman, the first South Asian woman ever elected Vice-President in our nation's history. Also the daughter of immigrants. What will it mean to have someone like Kamala Harris in the White House? Martha.
Martha: On the one hand, I think it's important to say that in my view, dubbing her a first is in some ways faint praise. I think we should respect her for her singular accomplishments, but I think the most important effect of her election is the sign that Black women have become a force in American politics.
No longer are we simply breaking barriers or becoming first, but we are really consolidating power at the highest level. Senator Harris ran alongside 130 Black women who were vying for seats in Congress in 2020.
This is a new day in American politics where no longer is she a token. She is someone who really has the capacity now to govern, to legislate alongside other Black women and to steer the national agenda in many of the ways that Kimberly has outlined for us.
Of course, I am someone like many of us so deeply moved by the images of our daughters and our granddaughters, meeting, looking up to watching the television as Kamala Harris takes the podium and this representation will mean a great deal for the ambition of Black girls, young Black women going forward in the next cycles and in the next generations, but make no mistake, more than a first, she is part of a force.
Tanzina: Kimberly, your thoughts on that, on what Kamala Harris-- What it will mean to have someone like Kamala Harris in the White House and also what does she symbolize, picking up on what Martha was just saying about the future of Black women in politics.
Kimberly: I absolutely echo everything that Martha said and I think it really is a great opportunity to bring diverse voices, diverse life experience to the highest decision-making table. I think that's one of the things that is just so, exciting and inspiring in addition to seeing someone that looks like me, that looks like my daughter but also to know that she will be bringing so much more that has never been part of this conversation.
It really shows the possibilities that exist. We are continuing to expand Black women's elected leadership in this country, not just at the top of the ticket, but we are continuing to grow the number of Black women in Congress.
There are still several seats that are to be decided with the record vote count, but looks like we have added three more Black women to the halls of Congress. There are so many firsts that are happening at the state legislative level and it just shows that Black women are definitely a force and we have something tremendous to contribute to the conversation that via electorate sees value in those contributions and sees the opportunity to add more voices, different conversations and more issues to the national discourse.
Tanzina: Martha, when we talk about Black women and political activism, we can't ignore the fact that Black Lives Matter was founded by three Black women. That is also something that-- Can you tell us a little bit about the historical engagement of Black women in terms of organizing movements like that, organizing to get the vote, organizing to bring attention to issues that affect not just Black women, but Black people more broadly.
Martha: We can't miss in this moment, even as Senator Harris is the Vice-President Elect, that what undergirds that is Black women's organizing. Just tune into Alicia Garza and appreciate her message. Which is, yes to the streets and yes to the ballot box. What we saw in this election season was the wedding of those two approaches to American politics.
Tanzina: Is that something that you would say has gotten stronger not just taking it to the streets, but actually taking it to the ballot box? Was that the missing link in terms of engagement particularly for Black women, Black people in this country?
Martha: That has always been true for us, but I think that in this season that became apparent in the compressed circumstances of Coronavirus, a summer of Black Lives Matter uprisings across the country with this extraordinarily consequential election election, we all got a lesson in African-American politics I think this season by seeing it compressed under extraordinary circumstances. Those facets that always have always been there and we saw them come together vividly.
Kamala Harris: Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women throughout our nation's history have paved the way for this moment tonight, women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including the Black women who are often too often overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.
Tanzina: Kimberly, we just heard, Kamala Harris say that Black women cannot be overlooked anymore. Joe Biden in his speech essentially over the weekend said that he, recognized the power of Black voters. Are black women going to finally get their due from this administration.
Kimberly: That is the hope. I think we're really hoping to finally get the return on our political investment, that our issues will have a voice and have a place in this administration. As much as we fought to support and get the ticket to this place, we will definitely be holding it accountable and looking at many of the policies that the President Elect laid out in his victory speech on Saturday night that he actually puts a lot of policy and meat behind them.
I think this is a huge step forward, the fact that, things like systemic racism and healthcare are front and center in his mind and absolutely in the Vice-President Elect's mind as well. I think there's a huge potential for a tremendous amount of progress, but we will definitely be doing as much as we can to help advance that and also hold them accountable.
Tanzina: Martha, there's to your point about making a lot about being the first. Being the first often also means being the only and there will be an enormous amount of pressure not just on Joe Biden, but also on Kamala Harris, being in that role.
She received a lot of criticism before earning her spot as Vice-President in terms of how she dealt with criminal justice issues when she was attorney general of California. The pressure that she is under is I think in many ways, unimaginable to have to satisfy the demands of a very progressive constituency that essentially voted her into office.
Kimberly: I don't think Senator Harris is new to that pressure. As you've mentioned, she's already been subject to that scrutiny as she herself was part of this primary contest that led up to her nomination. In one sense, I think she's someone who is frankly, I'm very tested when it comes to that scrutiny, that sort of pressure.
On the other hand, the pressure I'm interested in, is what it is like for not only leaders in this country, but leaders across the globe to come to the table in Washington and sit across from now Vice-President Harris, to contend with a Black woman world leader not only to understand her history, but to understand her position, her ideas and frankly, to understand her culture.
One of the things that we've commented on is everything from Senator Harris rocking Tim's and Chuck's on the tarmac, to the side-eye during debates. I think there's a new page in the hand book of world diplomacy and it will be one devoted to understanding how Black women come culturally to the table in American and world politics.
Tanzina: Kimberly, we saw an unprecedented number of Black women running in down-ballot races. What did that look like in terms of our congressional makeup?
Kimberly: It looked like a wave that began in 2018, where we saw a record number of Black women running for Congress up and down the ballot to double that number. It was just over 160 Black women started out the primary. I think just about half of those women made it onto the general ballot.
We now see definitely three and we're waiting to see what happens with Lauren Underwood's, race in Illinois, but it looks like she is up in the polls, so she will be going back to Congress. It definitely continues to grow the number of Black women. We are slowly creeping up to almost 5% of the members of Congress.
Black women are 7% of the US population. There's still a lot of work to be done, but it shows that Black women see their power, they see the possibility of their leadership, they see the value in their leadership and they also see that now there's no reason to wait. They have something to contribute.
There is a pathway, not just to the halls of Congress or to the Senate, but also a pathway to the Vice-Presidency. Through Stacey Abrams race in 2018, there is a pathway to the governorship and how to get over that final finish line.
I think we are going to continue to see the number of Black women who stand for office up and down the ballot continue to grow and we're going to continue to see them not just run, but actually win and lead.
Tanzina: I think about John Lewis and I think about him being the conscience of Congress and why Black people have to bear this weight and wonder how we can take some of that weight off of Black women to have to be this deciding factor every time an election comes around or maybe it's not a weight. I don't know.
Martha: I think it is the burden. It is not an enviable burden I think to be the conscience of this nation season after season. It is not an enviable burden to be holding up fundamental pillars of this democracy, like voting rights season after season.
At the same time, someone has to do that work it seems in our democracy. Thank goodness, that Black women have been willing and able to step into that role and to be our conscience, but also to do the work on the ground to make good on our best ideals. I think that if there is one thing we could do, it might be for example, to use these years to finally dispense with voter suppression.
Part of the effort that Black women have to make is because we're not only doing the work of getting folks registered, getting to the ballot box, getting those ballots counted. We're doing that in the face of a still rising tide of voter suppression across this country whether it's shuttered polling places or it's four hour long lines or it's voter ID requirements or exact match obligations.
The heavy lifting is in part structural and we have an opportunity here going forward out of this election to restore the Voting Rights Act and to take down the kinds of barriers that Black women are having to hurdle themselves over in order to do the fundamental work of democracy.
Tanzina: One thing that we'll be talking about later in the show today is about Joe Biden's promise in his speech over the weekend to try to create some unity, to not look at the other side, "as enemies," but instead as Americans.
I think that that's going to be a very tall order. I think that if he attempts to do that, he will-- While it sounds good, he's going to run into some difficulties. This is an extraordinarily divided country. We saw that in the election results, we saw that folks that are very progressive are going to hold the Harris-Biden ticket, their feet to the fire.
They've lost 70 million Americans who are not interested in seeing this administration. Will this incoming administration be able to create unity while at the same time, fostering and moving forth goals that support Black people and specifically Black women?
Martha: Biden and the Democrats are at a crossroads, which is to say one way forward is indeed a concession or an appeasement to the 70 million plus Americans who supported the Republicans and President Trump.
The other way forward, is to build a new democracy and that is one that certainly will include Black American women and Senator Harris. I think we know that Vice-President Elect Harris will make sure of that, but let's remember Latino voters, Native American women voters, Asian-American women voters also disproportionately, supported Vice-President Biden and Senator Harris during their contest.
This is an opportunity to build a new Democratic party that is inclusive of those stalwarts of this party along with the many, many young people that turned out for this election disproportionately.
I don't know that both things are possible even as both things are true. We are at a crossroads I think and the question of what this nation looks like, what its values are real thorny questions as you suggest not questions that can be, easily resolved or papered over.
Tanzina: Kimberly Peeler-Allen is a visiting practitioner at the Rutgers University Center for American women in politics. Martha Jones is a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University and author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Inequality for All. Kimberly and Martha, thanks so much for joining us
Kimberly: Thank you.
Martha: Thank you.
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