Black women proving to be a force in elections

Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms waves to volunteers as she walks around the Michelle Obama's nonprofit drive-thru food giveaway at The Home Depot Backyard Saturday, September 26, 2020. Event volunteers helped provide food and groceries to an estimated 2,500 attendees and prepared them to cast their ballots in November.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms waves to volunteers as she walks around the Michelle Obama's nonprofit drive-thru food giveaway at The Home Depot Backyard Saturday, September 26, 2020. Event volunteers helped provide food and groceries to an estimated 2,500 attendees and prepared them to cast their ballots in November. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

When political consultant Adrienne White isn’t scouring the state, recruiting candidates to run for elected office as Democrats, she’s deep into efforts to get out the vote.

Her weeks are filled with virtual meetings, strategy talks and hours of planning how best to ensure that this is the year that Georgia flips from red to blue.

And this much she knows: Key to the Democratic Party’s hopes for the upcoming election is its ability to mobilize Black female voters like herself and their ability to mobilize others.

For the past 20 years, Black women, who make up only about 7% of the country’s population, have been critical to the success of Democratic candidates across the nation.

They vote at higher rates than any other demographic, according to the Pew Research Center. In the past five presidential cycles, registered Black women have voted at or above 60%.

That’s not likely to change in November.

“Black women are going to continue to do what we have always done, and that is to lead our community,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. “We are gonna show up and show out in record numbers and bring other people with us.”

Every week, White attends virtual meetings with roughly 200 members of Win With Black Women, a group aimed at getting voters engaged in the crucial 2020 election.

At stake are important social and cultural issues that affect Black lives, notably the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic and police conduct in the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor.

“Women, in general, have a nurturing spirit. So, when we see failures in our communities, we internalize it. Our hearts hurt,” White said. “But we figure out ways to fix it, and we don’t have to ask for permission. Black women have been the caretakers since our ancestors were brought here.”

For many Black women, that resolve has only intensified with the addition of Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket.

Saving democracy

In her 2016 run for president, Hillary Clinton received 94% of the votes cast by Black women — nearly double the percentage she received from white women. It was, by far, the highest rate received from any group, including Black men.

In 2017, in a stunning upset, 98% of Black female voters made Doug Jones the first Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama in a quarter of a century, prompting the rallying cry “Black women saved America, again.”

“We are the first people to be abused, but also the ones expected to save democracy,” said Stacy Cole-Bell, an Atlanta-based attorney.

After that Alabama upset, Harris noted in a tweet the significance of the Black female voter but warned her Democratic colleagues: “We need to do more than congratulate them. Let’s address issues that disproportionately affect Black women — like pay disparity, housing & under-representation in elected office.”

Credit: Courtesy Dean Charles Anthony II

Credit: Courtesy Dean Charles Anthony II

When Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden won the party’s nomination earlier this year, he promised to put a woman on the ticket and, if elected, a Black woman on the Supreme Court.

But a coalition of prominent Black women sent Biden a public letter, demanding that his choice for vice president be a Black woman.

It was time to pay up, said Kamyra L. Harding, an Atlanta-based public affairs consultant.

The Democratic Party has largely taken for granted that Black women will continue to support them, she said. Black women, she said, needed something in return.

“Black men have been more willing to look at other parties. But Black women stay," Harding said. “We understand that we have this power, so you are going to have to give us something more than pretending to hear us.”

Credit: Courtesy Kelley Klein

Credit: Courtesy Kelley Klein

In August, Biden named Harris, one of his opponents during the primary, as his running mate. His campaign had also considered Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

The California senator is the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket.

For many, it was a breakthrough long overdue.

“Black women sit at the intersection of America’s greatest sins — squarely in the space of sexism and racism,” said LaTosha Brown, founder of Black Voters Matter.

When Biden announced his decision, two thoughts flashed through Harding’s mind.

The first: Why didn’t Harris get enough support when she was running for president to be at the top of the ticket?

“But the second thought was, well, now she is being positioned to be No. 1,” Harding said. “So, we, as Black women, have to put our strength behind that.”

Getting engaged

Many are doing just that.

Almost every day, Lana Joseph does something aimed at getting Black people to the polls. Through her law firm, L. Marcius Joseph & Associates, where she practices immigration law, she hosts regular forums and workshops for mostly new voters.

Credit: Courtesy Lana Joseph

Credit: Courtesy Lana Joseph

Black organizations, including sororities such as Harris' Alpha Kappa Alpha, are holding virtual fundraisers and workshops, since members can’t knock on doors because of the pandemic.

Cole-Bell, co-chair of legislative affairs for the Dogwood City Chapter of the Links, a 74-year-old social organization for well-heeled Black women, said her organization has launched a nationwide effort to get people to the polls.

“Many of us believe in the system and believe that we can make a difference," Cole-Bell said. "It is just a matter of us getting engaged. If our power was not so great, people wouldn’t be trying so hard to suppress us.”

Critics of President Donald Trump point to a months-long campaign he’s waged against mail-in voting as an attempt to delegitimize the election and suppress voter turnout, particularly for people of color and those fearful of going to the polls because of the coronavirus.

Bottoms, who has become one of the most visible Black politicians in the country since her name was floated for the vice presidency, said she often finds herself having spirited conversations with her 18-year-old son about the importance of voting.

“There is some very conflicting messaging out there. So, in addition to showing up, there is going to have to be a big emphasis on educating people,” Bottoms said. "It is not going to be enough for us to just show up at the polls to vote. We have to make sure we are driving out the vote across our communities.”

On Tuesday, former first lady Michelle Obama released a 24-minute campaign video urging voters to vote for Biden, saying many of Trump’s actions in office have been “morally wrong” and “racist” and that he and his allies are “stoking fears about Black and brown Americans” to win an election.

Black female conservatives ‘overlooked’

Of course, not all Black women feel that way.

Kaaryn Burton Walker, the founder of Black Conservatives for Truth, scoffs at the polls that show Black voters in Georgia supporting Biden at an 85% clip. In 2016, Black voters overwhelmingly chose Clinton, giving Trump only 8% of their vote.

Walker agrees that Black women will play a huge role in the election — on both sides.

“I have three sons, and I want my kids to be safe,” Walker said. "But I don’t know how they can be safe if you defund the police.”

Credit: Courtesy Kaaryn Walker

Credit: Courtesy Kaaryn Walker

Walker’s father — Bobby Burton, who on Feb. 8, 1968, was shot three times in the back by a South Carolina highway patrolman during a civil rights demonstration ― recently survived a serious bout of COVID-19, which has already killed 210,000 Americans.

Though critics have accused Trump of failing to properly address the coronavirus, Walker said she is more concerned with the fact that 800,000-plus women got abortions in 2017. She plans to continue to support the president.

“Black conservative women are overlooked,” Walker said. “Black women are very much conservative. And, for everything that is going on right now, it makes me a more determined voter because it makes me put things in context.”

Republican strategist Janelle King said the GOP has made great strides in its attempts to reach Black women, but she said it has been tough for some to publicly embrace the party out of fear of being ostracized.

“We have to have a backbone made of steel to be a Black women Republican," King said. “Conservative women are already playing a valuable role in this election. And Black women on the liberal side are going to do what they are going to do — whatever is convenient for them.”

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

King, a panelist on the Fox 5 television show “The Georgia Gang,” points to the fact that she has shared the stage with Trump on several occasions and serves as a top adviser to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler as proof that Black women are being given a seat at the Republican table.

Brown ― of Black Voters Matter — is not buying it.

“Right now, we have a narcissistic, patriarchal, white nationalist fascist in office who prides himself on using racism and misogyny as dog whistles," Brown said of Trump, who described Harris as a “monster” in tweets following the vice presidential debate. "So, this moment impacts us in a particular type of way.”

Slow to be recognized

This summer, America recognized the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. But Black women were excluded, even though they had initially been involved in the suffrage movement.

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement successfully pushed for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that they finally gained, along with Black men, equal access to the voting booth.

Carolyn Taylor, a 79-year-old retired educator in Newnan, was a 20-year-old in South Carolina’s Darlington County when she first voted in 1960 for John F. Kennedy. She has not missed a vote since.

Credit: Courtesy Loren Taylor

Credit: Courtesy Loren Taylor

“Black women hold great influence over our families today,” Taylor said. “Growing up in South Carolina, my dad talked more about voting than my mother did, but they both voted. I was always very aware of the importance of it. And, with the way things are now, we really need to be encouraged to do it.”

For Nichola Hines, president of the League of Women Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County, all of that is significant, especially now that she leads an organization that once excluded Black women.

“I hope I am making my ancestors proud because I am representing an organization that I wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a part of,” said Hines, who has been voting since she was 18.

Credit: Courtesy Nichola R. Hines

Credit: Courtesy Nichola R. Hines

“Now, as a 47-year-old Black woman, and knowing that it has been only about 50 years that we legally had the right to vote, based on our race, I am very passionate about people of color exercising that right."

Black women play a key role in that, urging their families, churches, sororities and communities to turn out.

Their efforts have paid off.

The final push

Black women lead major cities as mayors, and a record 25 Black women are in Congress, including Georgia’s Lucy McBath, who was elected in 2018. Democrat Nikema Williams is favored to succeed John Lewis in November.

Georgia also came within 55,000 votes of making Abrams the nation’s first Black female governor in 2018, before she went on to become one of the country’s most high-profile voting rights advocates.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Last week, Brown was rambling across South Carolina down to Savannah on what she called “the Blackest bus in America.”

The bus has gone through 15 states to mobilize voters and held 23 events last week, registering hundreds of voters.

Credit: Dean Charles Anthony II

Credit: Dean Charles Anthony II

“Our struggle in dealing with the structural evils of racism and sexism have prepared us to lead in these spaces. We’ve always had to lead from places of discomfort," Brown said. "Black women always show up.”

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