In the run up to the 2016 general election, Americans were fed a steady diet of stories of white economic anxiety and resentment. White people were angry. Their jobs had disappeared overseas, real wages had stagnated and they felt under siege at home by fast changing demographic shifts that would see them become a minority in the not too distant future. This trope about white rage and economic precarity became the explanation for most of what we witnessed in a bad tempered election and in the first tumultuous year of Donald Trump’s presidency. From the rise of white nationalism to the re-emergence of white evangelical Christian voters to the opioid epidemic, sympathetic profiles of angry white people became the default strategy of trying to understand the current political crisis. Despite valiant efforts to dispel the pervasive myths about why some white people embrace—or, at the very least, excuse—far right politics, the stranglehold of this narrative continued—until last night.
Last night, the Democrat, Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in an Alabama special election to fill the now Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacant Senate seat. According to the exit polls and to the political operatives on the ground, this was a victory based on turnout. Roy Moore’s rock solid base of white evangelical Republicans, especially those in rural areas, did not show up at the polls in sufficient numbers. The story of this election is that of high Black voter turnout—despite voter suppression efforts. Voter turnout in the US is typically very low, especially for special elections. Thus, officials were expecting turnout to be about 25%. In fact, it looks like turnout—especially in counties with a large Black electorate was double that. Black voters secured Jones’ victory as 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voters opted for him.
That Black voters—and Black women in particular—were decisive in this upset should not be a surprise. The enthusiasm Barack Obama generated among the Black electorate was part of the reason why he was twice elected. Hillary Clinton’s neglect of Black women—hoping instead to woo white women even though they have reliably voted Republican since the 1950s—is part of the reason why she lost in 2016. Black women voters are the Democratic Party’s base and the most important demographic for victory at the polls. According to an open letter by Black women Party leaders to the Democratic National Committee Chair, Tom Perez, Black women voters have the highest turnout of any group in the American electorate. That means, when Black women feel that they have something at stake in an election and a candidate speaks to their interests, they can help swing elections in Democrats’ favour.
Ironically, Republicans have long understood the power of the Black electorate which is why, in the aftermath of the partial repeal of aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we are seeing renewed efforts to suppress the Black vote through stringent voter identification laws, the closure of polling stations in majority Black areas and the roll back on early voting. That Democrats have been slow to recognise the political interests and voting power of Black women speaks to a broader problem in American politics of the inability of Black women to be recognised as self-interested political actors. Indeed, in the aftermath of Trump’s shock election, we have not seen commensurate media profiles of those Black women voters who chose to sit out the 2016 election and those 93% who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. There is a lacuna in the white popular imagination about who Black women voters are, what we want and how we organise and mobilise to achieve our political interests and goals. Black women voters are neither a mystery nor a monolith. We have competing demands and interests informed by class, region, sexuality, disability and legal status. The diverse interests of Black women voters nevertheless converge to fend off existential threats like Roy Moore and to send a message about historic harms and disrespect as in relation to Trump and Clinton.
Understanding Black women as political actors means that one does not thank Black women for ‘saving Alabama’ but recognise instead how Black Alabamian women voted in a pragmatic way in their own self-interest. Black women’s politics are not an adjunct to others—we are rational actors in our own right. What is so interesting and distinctive about Black women’s politics is that when they are enacted, other groups always directly benefit. In the case of Alabama, those groups under threat with the roll back of hard won citizenship rights since the 1960s benefit by the defeat of Moore. It remains to be seen whether Jones will consistently advance this cause in Washington.
As we turn to the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 general election, the goal of political operatives and journalists should not be to merely ‘listen to Black women’ but take seriously demands and interests in relation to employment, wages, the social safety net and police violence. Black women are the invisible leaders of the Democratic Party. Questions remain as to whether the Party will take Black women’s politics as seriously as Black women took this crucial election.
Akwugo Emejulu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick