It’s no secret Alabama’s Black women voters put Democrat Doug Jones over the top in the narrow and unexpected defeat of his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, the infamously racist, homophobic and allegedly pedophilic Roy Moore.
Turning up at the polls in greater numbers than their share of the general electorate, 98 percent of Black women voters (and 93 percent of Black men) pulled the lever for Jones, handing victory to the former federal prosecutor who successfully imprisoned several Klansmen in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham Church that killed four, little black girls.
The thanking of Black women commenced, particularly on Twitter. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” tweeted Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez.
“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
Surprisingly, there was also pushback against all the gratitude, fueled by the recognition that accolades alone are not enough to adequately acknowledge the electoral force that, improbably flipped a Senate seat that had been reliably red for over 25 years.
“Now that everyone is giving us the high five, and patting us on the back and saying ‘Thank you, Black women,’ for bringing this on home…I am hoping that those elected officials do not forget that in their policymaking,” says Nina Turner, the former Ohio State Senator who is president of Our Revolution, a progressive nonprofit billed as “the next step for Bernie Sanders’ movement.”
“I won’t let Republicans off the hook either, but … because almost 100 percent of our vote goes to the Democrat, then 100 percent of our expectations and demands need to be made on the Democratic Party,” Turner added.
Her comment reflects a complicated relationship between Black women and the Democrats.
In additional to being faithful voters, African-American women have served in leadership roles within the party for years. Two recent high-profile examples are Leah Daughtry, twice-CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee and Donna Brazile, the former interim chair of the DNC (who has a tell-all book describing the 2016 Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton).
Yet, the voting bloc is often taken for granted between elections, as NBA legend Charles Barkley remarked after Jones’ victory. “It’s time for them to get off their ass and make life better for black people and people who are poor,” he said.
It’s no wonder that Black women’s belief that the Democrats represent their interests has dropped significantly in a year, from 85 percent to 74 percent, according to an Essence/Black Women’s Roundtable Poll conducted in July 2017.
In an open letter to DNC chair Perez back in May, a coalition of Black women leaders and organizations rang the alarm, saying:
“We have voted and organized our communities with little support or investment from the Democratic Party for voter mobilization efforts. We have shown how Black women lead, yet the Party’s leadership from Washington to the state parties have few or no Black women in leadership. More and more, Black women are running for office and winning elections — with scant support from Democratic Party infrastructure.”
Since then, there have been subtle signs of progress, says Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, a group that co-signed the open letter and supports getting more Black women into elected office. “They’ve made investments, both in Virginia and Alabama. They’ve hired African American women consultants and in leadership,” she notes.
Meanwhile, Black women must use the power of our vote strategically, says Carr.
“If the deep South can over-perform and organize a coalition of communities of color to vote in record numbers, could we do that in Georgia, where next year you will have Stacey Abrams, an African American on the ballot for governor?”
In the end, Black women can demand more by effectively using their electoral clout to organize their networks, and hold elected officials accountable once they are in office, adds Carr.
“Democracy doesn’t end on Election Day.”
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editor and digital media consultant. Follow her on Twitter @sherylhugg