Op-Ed: Black Women Are Praised For 'Saving America,' But We Are Not Empowering Black Women In Politics

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Op-Ed: Black Women Are Praised For 'Saving America,' But We Are Not Empowering Black Women In Politics

In 2020, Democrats should stop praising our votes and start empowering Black women in politics.

Published May 24th

Written by Afua Atta-Mensah

Many of us watched in horror as Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri joined a shameful list of states passing bills that chop away at access to abortion. For an issue that disproportionately impacts Black women and women of color, this powerlessness should move the donors and stakeholders in the Democratic Party into bold action that builds grassroots political power.

Black women are praised for “saving America,” but are people really listening to us? And how do our votes translate after Election Day and in between?

Despite our voting records, despite consistently showing up, we’re treated as a monolith and taken for granted by candidates, elected officials, and political institutions alike. They don’t support our runs with endorsements, and they certainly de-prioritize our needs (see the 1994 crime bill) in the interest of political expediency. No more.

Black women are tired of watching the Democratic Party, in particular, spend money, resources and time wooing voters who aren’t loyal to them. We must put this tired narrative to bed. Not only is it incredibly patronizing — it’s lazy, and keeps us stuck in a status quo where no one wins except the already rich and powerful.

This election cycle, I want everyone to stop praising Black women for our votes — ask us what we actually want and help us empower Black women in politics.

We can’t wait for the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee to hear us out, or to give us the tools we need to build our power after the election season is over. It’s up to us to take to the streets and to leverage our cultural forms of civic engagement — our churches, our sororities, our sister circles, homecoming and Juneteenth. Sacred places and celebrations where we engage our community.

There are countless examples of Black women organized for political action to meet our community’s needs when no one else will. That’s why on April 26, my organization, Community Voices Heard (CVH), launched Follow Black Women--A Survey for the Frontlines, a survey for Black women by Black women, working to uncover what drives some Black women to the polls and what prevents others from getting there.  

It’s time for a new era of politics where we meet people where they are to better ensure everyone, especially members of marginalized communities, is engaged in our democracy.

CVH was started in a Harlem church basement in 1994 by eight Black women on welfare who were fed up with how the system was failing their families and communities. Using strength in numbers, they led one of the first campaigns to Ban the Box to overturn a law that barred many formerly incarcerated people from housing. When they realized that fighting to advance criminal justice reform required mass education and base building, which could only work with political power, they hit the streets and built support for policies that would benefit their neighbors and communities.

Thirty years later, we’re using that same model to register voters using technology to expand our reach and take political power by electing more Black women in New York. We hope this will serve as a model for other organizations across America to do the same for their communities, too. When we show up we win. It can’t just happen during presidential elections. Local elections matter and the policies that flow out of them matter, too.

Case in point — CVH volunteers knocked three times on every door in Yonkers’ second district for Corazon Pineda, a CVH member and candidate for city council whose top agenda item was passing Ban the Box. Thanks to the dedication and sheer determination of local Black women and others, she narrowly won a city council seat by 37 votes. Six months later, Ban the Box was passed — and six years later, Pineda still sits on the New York city council.

This is just one of many stories where Black women rise up to address the needs of their community members when no one else will. Our churches, volunteer groups, and service organizations have policy platforms, and we fight every single day to make those platforms real.

Yet despite all of this, we have a serious lack of political representation.  

Black women are a diverse demographic hailing from all corners of the globe, representing countless faiths, sexualities, and identities. From Muslim Black women, immigrant Black women, queer Black women and Afro-Latinx women to rural Black women, trans Black women, disabled Black women, Black mommas and Black women who claim three or even more of these identities, we have unlimited insight into what different communities need. This is what Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw meant when she coined the term “intersectionality.”

Now, it’s time for political institutions, candidates, and the nation to not only recognize us, but to also support our efforts to lead, run for office, and build power in our communities. The Follow Black Women Survey will give us the insights we need to finally map our way in an electoral process that historically shut us out. It’s a start, but Black women across the country deserve better. If we can see ourselves in the political process, we’ll have better candidates, better policies, and a better country overall.

Afua Atta-Mensah, Esq., is the executive director of Community Voices Heard, an organization leading the Follow Black Women Survey.  

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images)

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