Guest Blog Post: The Power and Meaning of the Black Woman’s Vote

By: Kimberlee Gee

The Power and Meaning of the Black Woman’s Vote

It is that time of the year:  It’s voting season!  On November 6th, millions of Americans will head to the polls to cast their ballots and let their voices be heard.

In some ways, the 2018 midterm election is no different from all the other mid-term elections we’ve seen in the past – it presents an opportunity for citizens of this country to weigh in on issues most directly affecting their lives. What some might say is different about this election is that the matters that they care about most – workplace rights, health care, immigration, LGTBQ rights, gun control, racial injustice, or even criminal justice reform – may be implicated by their vote, or lack thereof, more than it ever has before.

The voting habits and trends of black women are so important because black women have an influential voice in politics, and are, in large part, the heart and soul of the black community.  We’ve seen in the most recent elections the history-making impact of the black female vote, tipping the scales of victory in favor of unlikely political candidates like Doug Jones in Alabama and gubernatorial primary candidate Stacy Abrams in Georgia.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, 61.4% of Americans voted in the 2016 Presidential election.[i] Of those that did vote, 10.1 million of those voters were black women, and 94% of them cast their ballots in favor of Hilary Clinton.[ii]  Not only do black women engage in voting at statistically higher rates than other demographics, black women are making a concerted and organized effort to become involved in the political process in other ways as well. There has been a grassroots effort all over the country, ranging from get-out-the vote efforts to setting up political action committees.  Most notably, there has been a groundswell of interest in mobilizing black women to run for political office.  Many of these efforts have been successful. The 2017 elections produced historic victories for several black women, including:

  • Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta
  • Latoya Cantress, the first female mayor of New Orleans
  • Yvonne Spicer, the first mayor in the 317-year history of Framingham, Massachusetts
  • Mary Parham-Copelan has secured the seat of the first black mayor of Milledgeville, Ga.
  • Vi Lyles has become the first black female mayor of Charlotte.
  • Andrea Jenkins is an openly transgender black woman, and was elected to office in Minneapolis

Although these figures suggest that black female engagement in the voting process is on an upswing and that the black female bloc is an ideological monolith, studies reveal that black female voting patterns are more complicated than assumed.  Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that black voter turnout for the 2016 Presidential election actually decreased for the first time in 20 years to 59.6%. This trend was particularly noticeable among the black female voting bloc, decreasing from 70.7% in 2012 to 64.1% in 2016.[iii]

The best surface explanation as to why this occurred is that black women felt less connected to any of the 2016 candidates than to the 2008 candidates running for office, who ostensibly presented as more suitable options.  Yet, the rich history of black women in this country bespeak a different motivation for why black women vote the way they do.

An oft-quoted statement by Malcolm X asserts, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Black women vote en masse, not just because of ideological voting preferences, but because as one of the most vulnerable members of American society, they often feel the negative effects of inequitable  policies the most.  This seems to be a longstanding political perspective that existed preceding the women’s suffrage movement itself.  In a New York Times article, How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women, the author notes clearly that even during the suffragist movement of the 1800s, black women overwhelmingly voted because they felt compelled to advance social policies that would ward off racial injustice in their communities, and consequentially, in their own personal lives:

black and white women had different views of why the right to vote was essential. White women were seeking the vote as a symbol of parity with their husbands and brothers. Black women, most of whom lived in the South, were seeking the ballot for themselves and their men, as a means of empowering black communities besieged by the reign of racial terror that erupted after Emancipation.[iv]

Considering the voting patterns of black women could revolutionize the way candidates court voters, and the policies they choose to support, because practically speaking, when party leaders support policies that benefit black women, they support policies that benefit every other group of people in the United States as well.  Angela Davis said it best when she declared:

Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women, and black men.  And they have had to understand themselves.  When black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.[v]

The outcome of the upcoming mid-term elections is unknown.  However, if the past dictates the future, black women, will have a transformational effect on the outcome of this election, and on the future of politics in this country for many years to come.

 

[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/

[ii] http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/genderdiff.pdf  (Center for Women and Politics); see also https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/11/09/the-democratic-party-owes-black-women-voters-a-big-thank-you/?utm_term=.66ba5b21eb66

[iii] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-women.html

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/11/09/the-democratic-party-owes-black-women-voters-a-big-thank-you/?utm_term=.836ca6e052a8