Democrats Are Missing the Big Picture by Failing to Get Behind Black Women
Though she won a major upset in the race for a House seat in Massachusetts on Tuesday night, Ayanna Pressley was not endorsed by the Democratic establishment. Nor was she endorsed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Now, it’s not entirely unusual for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or heavy hitters from the party to fail to endorse in a primary—preferring instead to wait until the general election. But this was a particularly interesting set of circumstances.
Pressley, who doesn’t have a Republican opponent in the general election, now becomes the first black elected official to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She went up against a 10-term incumbent, a white male who was backed by both Rep. John Lewis and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. She was running in a year where a record number of women and people of color are on the ballot for the Democrats. She was running during a midterm election when Democrats have the opportunity to shake up the status quo and remind the country that it is diversity and equality, not white supremacy, that make America great. She was also running at a time where Democrats have recently given lip-service to the fact that black women are the party’s faithful base and that black voters, as a whole, should never be taken for granted.
Given these things, it’s curious how Democrats have fallen so short when it comes to endorsing and investing in black women as candidates. Last month, a Broadly article noted that out of 73 candidates on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list, which contains the names of House contenders who are likely to flip seats from red to blue this year, only 3 were black women. This means that other black women running for Congress who don’t have the DCCC’s support can lose out on funding for outreach and attention from donors. In short, it puts them in an uphill battle in their races, especially when they are running in primaries against long-serving establishment incumbents.
Though there are likely many reasons why this is happening, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Democrats have done a lousy job in recognizing the power of black voters and investing in black leadership, especially that of black women—as both leaders of the Democratic National Committee and as candidates. Some of this may also be attributed to the fact that a number of these candidates represent a more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Recently, the black political left has been gaining much attention. While they’ve always been present in local and national politics, a number of progressive black men and women candidates have been unexpectedly winning elections in local and state races across the country.
Dr. Melanye Price writes in The New York Times that this change in black politics is the most significant political shift in decades. She sites Pressley’s win as an example, along with the rise of Black Lives Matter, as evidence that the black political left is mobilizing young people and progressives and doesn’t necessarily need centrist Democrats to win. Currently, there are three states right now where black candidates are the Democratic nominee for governor—Ben Jealous in Maryland, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida. These are historic firsts which can be pointed to as representing a new era in black politics. In each case, all three candidates are running far left of their opponents and have progressive stances on issues like health care, criminal justice reform, and immigration.
Beyond historic firsts, this new class of candidates is pushing the Democratic Party farther left. They also represent the new political power of black progressives who defy stereotypes of black politicians as wedded to respectability politics and unwilling to take on issues of people who live on the margins of the black community.
Some think this is bad for the Democratic Party—that it just fosters division and that Democrats should be concentrating on winning. They are failing to embrace where we are as a country today and are not seeing the big picture. Things change, political parties evolve and voters priorities shift over time. The black electorate is growing in its diversity, age and issues of concern. The status quo is no longer acceptable—particularly because things are anything but normal right now. As Price aptly points out, “The black electorate is outraged at the perceived impotence of black politicians to ensure basic justice for black people who are killed by the police.” Thus, progressive and young black voters are sick of more of the same. In the Trump era, change is what people want and this is why they are looking to replace the establishment with fresh voices and new, innovative ideas and perspectives.
At the end of the day, all of this is actually really good for the Democratic Party. There is room for lots of opinions and ideas but it’s impossible to have a discussion when black progressive voices are not included in the dialogue. Gone are the days of trying to water down the black political agenda to make it more palatable to moderate white Democrats and conservatives. Black progressives are serious about taking on issues of civil rights, policing, poverty, and racial and criminal justice and want results. And since they aren’t seeing improved outcomes, they are running for office themselves and organizing to elect other black progressives.
The Democratic Party may be failing to get behind these candidates in primaries (or altogether). And that is a huge mistake. If anything, these folks have spent several years organizing, doing grassroots political work, turning out the vote and learning from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. They’ll be a significant part of Democratic politics moving forward. And they’ll be led by black women. It’s long overdue for them to have some seats at the table—with the proper respect, funding, and attention given to others in the party.