What Black Women's Votes Mean for the Presidential Race

I've been giving thanks quite a lot this election season: thanks that the field of candidates looks different from ever before; that we who are not white men can believe that our nation has a place for us in its leadership, too. And I've been giving thanks that the advent of this diverse slate of candidates has created just a little space in which we Americans can begin to address, on a national level, the issues of race and gender that have plagued us since our very beginnings as a country. We may not yet be good at talking about those issues, but at least now we're trying.

Today, however, I am here to admit that my greatest measure of thankfulness has recently settled on nothing so predictable, for a black woman, as seeing Clinton and Obama's faces plastered across every newspaper and television screen from here to Tallahassee. No, today I want to give thanks for the state of South Carolina.

That's right, South Carolina. The first state to secede from the Union when that pesky "War of Northern Aggression" became inevitable. Hotbed of slaveholding activities as late as 1860, with 45.8 percent of all white families holding slaves -- the highest rate in the nation. Home to legendary states rights leader and segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurman. And the last place in the USA where the Confederate flag was allowed to retain its place of so-called honor, flying atop the State House dome until the year 2000 -- 135 years after the abolition of slavery, in case you're counting.

Here's one truth: South Carolina has a history of racialized hatred as deep and as wide as any our nation knows. But here's another: this election cycle, the state of South Carolina has accomplished something absolutely unprecedented. It's managed to do what no other state, politician, activist or entertainer (sorry, Oprah) has yet been able to match on such a grand scale. This year, South Carolina has made black women matter -- at least for the moment. Somehow, South Carolina has made us real.

I got my first glimpse of this new reality on the night of the New Hampshire primaries, when Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore and CNN political analyst, pointed the way. South Carolina would be a crucial contest for both these candidates, she suggested, and in that primary, black women would mark the difference between the winner and the loser.

It is not an overstatement that I jumped off my couch at that moment -- I'd never heard any such thing even hinted at on national television, and to hear those words filled me with the kind of excitement you only feel when a deep, deep longing has finally been touched. Because the truth is that, as a woman of color in this country -- whether you're highly educated and economically privileged or a high school dropout fighting to feed your family -- you learn to operate within a certain set of cultural conditions. You get used to being either utterly abused by the male-dominated media or just as utterly ignored by them. You get used to being sidelined in discussions that inevitably, and falsely, pit sexism against race in a scramble for the bottom of the pile -- because of the challenge that you, in your skin, pose to the lie of this either/or dichotomy. Frankly, you get used to not counting for much.

So to have someone acknowledge, in such a matter of fact way -- and with the nodding assent of her white, male and female peers on set -- that we black women not only have a stake in this primary, but also may be the deciding factor, was an incredible departure from the status quo, whether few who are not us noticed it or not. Nor did the good news end there. Reporter after reporter did the Mason-Dixon math and concluded that Donna was exactly right: in the Democratic race, black women would be the deciders. And though the main contenders' campaigns might not agree with me, the even better news from my perspective is this: so far, it remains unclear exactly how this important demographic is going to allocate their votes on Election Day.

Why is that good news? Because it means that "black women" have here an opportunity to be seen as the individual voters, with differing values and ideas, that we really are. Leading up to Saturday's primary, no campaign can afford to take the black female vote for granted as they have in decades past. And just as critically, the media must now pay attention to black women making important decisions in an unprecedented way -- on their own terms, as empowered, engaged citizens of this nation -- or risk missing the story. How often can you say you've seen images like that from the news media?

So yes, I am thankful to South Carolina this election season. If that's what it takes to see people with faces like mine taken seriously, even for just this moment, then so be it. For that privilege, I'll whistle Dixie till the cows come home.


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