Opinion

Opinion: African-American Women Call Out the Democratic National Committee

But are Democrats listening?

Then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez and California Rep. Maxine Waters at a news conference in April 2016. A group of African-American women have sent Perez, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a letter warning that most black voters feel the party takes them for granted. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

We crave the hard-to-get while ignoring the one who has stuck with us through thick and thin. In a letter to the DNC chair, a group of black women — activists, community leaders and elected officials — has accused the Democratic Party of falling into that too-often-true cliche. Who can blame them? 

Shades of “Moby-Dick” in the narrative that took hold after the party’s 2016 losses, with white working-class males replacing the elusive white whale of Melville’s imagination. Will the results for the Democrats be just as tragic as Captain Ahab’s if the party doubles down on that strategy for election cycles to come?

“The Democratic Party has a real problem,” last week’s open letter to Tom Perez states. “The data reveals that Black women voters are the very foundation to a winning coalition, yet most Black voters feel like the Democrats take them for granted. The Party’s foundation has a growing crack and if it is not addressed quickly, the Party will fall even further behind and ultimately fail in its quest to strengthen its political prospects.”

In this year’s bumpy unity tour, Perez joined Sen. Bernie Sandersto try to win over voters who often treated him as an opening act while saving their love for Sanders, the Vermont independent who spent most of his time piling on Democrats’ failure to convincingly present a progressive agenda. Sanders’ presidential campaign had had its own challenges when trying to reach black voters.

In their appearances, Perez kept busy propping up the big tent he says is still what the party is about.

“This is exactly why we’re going to every corner of this country,” Perez said. “To rural America, to urban America, to every corner in between. To talk and listen and learn.”

Time to ask

If the Democratic Party is to start winning races, not only nationally but on the state and local level, it is essential that it examine why progressives, millennials and the disaffected stayed home, voted third party or for Trump, and also why those economically distressed voters in search of jobs and opportunity in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania heard solidarity and comfort in the message of a billionaire with no political experience.

It needs to point out stark differences with Republicans, who are reversing policies on everything from environmental regulations to criminal justice reform, and to let voters know why that matters to them.

But the party should not ignore other recent history, when Democrats won the White House in 2008 and 2012 with a minority of white voters. (In fact, the majority of whites have voted Republican in every presidential election over the past 50 years.) The difference was enthusiasm among many other citizens, especially black women, who not only had the highest voter turnout rate than any other group, but also worked hard on registering and getting out the vote.

Black women did not give President Barack Obama a pass, either. He was criticized as relegating young black women’s challenges to a less-than-urgent place when he introduced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative for young men of color, and they wondered why no African-American women made the cut for a Supreme Court slot?

Obama appeared with Hillary Clinton, including at a joint appearance in Charlotte, N.C., and black women showed up at the polls, supporting the candidate with 94 percent of their vote, while a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump.

Yet if there is a mention of African-American voters in the 2016 election post-mortem, it’s that if more showed up, Clinton would have won close state races. There is not so much attention paid to the obstacles presented by voting legislation that disproportionately affected minority voters or the pleas for more financial and structural support some state campaign workers say were ignored as the Clinton camp spoke of expanding her electoral map in areas Democrats could only wish to win.

There was no shortage of postelection think pieces accusing Democrats of focusing on “identity politics,” code for paying too much attention to issues of concern to minorities, ignoring the fact that the Republican candidate’s rhetoric demonized social justice protesters, a Mexican-American judge and Muslim-American citizens and the first African-African president with “birtherism” lies — the very definition of white “identity politics” — in his promise to “make America great again.”

On the front lines

Ignoring the noise, African-American women in 2016 still led change and the charge.

“The 115th Congress has 20 Black women — the largest number in history. The group includes Kamala Harris, who is the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, a body that has not had a Black woman’s voice in 20 years. In addition, Lisa Blunt Rochester became the first woman and Black person to represent Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives,” said the letter, whose signatories include Democratic Reps. Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey,  Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Barbara Lee of California, and Yvette Clarke of New York, and Del. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands.

The letter also ticked off gains in many states:

  • Minnesota, where Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American Muslim elected to the state legislature.
  • Kentucky, where Attica Scott became the first black woman elected to the state legislature in 20 years.
  • Illinois, where Kim Foxx became the first black woman to head the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
  • Florida, where Aramis Ayala was elected as the first black state’s attorney in Florida’s history. She serves as the chief prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties.
  • Texas, where Zena Stephens was elected as the state’s first black female sheriff.
  • And Jefferson County, Alabama, which elected nine black women to the judicial branch.

The letter requests a meeting, not only to share concerns, but also to hear their thoughts “on how the DNC can invest in Black women’s engagement and leadership moving forward from hiring of key staff and consultants to investment in training and leadership opportunities.”

It challenges the Democratic Party to fulfill its pledge to “listen and learn” — to and from everyone — for its own good and its future.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. 

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