African American women have had a long history of political activism in the United States. Before women’s suffrage, the 15th amendment, and even as bondswomen they admonished racism, sexism and classism as tenets of America’s founding ideals. So it not surprising black women today carry on the legacy of those such as Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Anna Julia Cooper, Sadie T. M. Alexander and countless others who fought for full incorporation into the American polity. These women had progressive politics that confronted the status quo and questioned their status as third class citizens.
Today, black women carry this tradition of pushing America – and her political leaders — to substantively address the issues they face. Democratic politicians know they need this group's vote to win elections. Indeed, black women outvoted every other race/gender group in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Recent exit poll data indicates that it's African American women, not men, that are the largest proportion of the Democratic electorate. It is black women who are voting for Hillary Clinton in the primary competitions that have kept her as the frontrunner in this election. Clinton has won nearly 90% of this group's votes in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Virginia. Black women’s cohesive political behavior and consistent support for Democrats illustrates a tactical approach to creating social equality and freedom in a democratic nation.
Similar to her husband, Hillary Clinton demonstrates an understanding of African American life. She appeals to black voters in a way that her competitor, Bernie Sanders has not — in spite of his activism in the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to desegregate residence halls at the University of Chicago. What sets Clinton apart for Sanders is her willingness to relate to black women as mothers. Her work with Marian Wright Elderman and the Children’s Defense Fund may have sensitised her to issues that black mothers face as they attempt to raise children in a society that does not value black lives. Hillary is currently campaigning with mothers of Black Lives Matter, a reminder that she knows how to court this community. She understands black women’s votes matter.
Bernie Sanders is appealing to a younger generation of African American women voters. Millennials and younger members of Generation X are drawn to his rhetoric on systemic racism, ending mass incarceration, and acknowledgment of institutional racism. Many young black women find Clinton’s superpredator comments off putting and Sanders is seeking the vote of this key demographic. Several local Black Lives Matters organisations have endorsed the Sanders campaign. Eric Garner’s (the Staten Island, NY man who was choked to death by a police officer on tape) daughter Erica narrated a Sanders’ campaign ad.
What is evident in this generational split among African women voters is that this group is not monolithic. Politicians need to earn their votes. My book, Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making, demonstrates that there are shared beliefs among African American state legislators. While my book focuses squarely on women elected to the Maryland state legislature, my results can be applied to this population as a whole. I find that black women have similar policy priorities and agree on overarching political issues, yet they arrive at them differently. Generational differences can help explain divergent policy preferences.
African American women’s experiences and social identities influence the emphasis they place on particular political issues. These factors help nuance the influence of race, gender, class and generation. This Democratic primary race shows this group, united on several overarching political issues, differs on who is the best presidential candidate to address these issues. Last Saturday’s Democratic Debate in Flint, Michigan showcased the political power of black women. They quizzed the candidates on a variety of issues including: the restoration of clean drinking water in their city; the provision of livable wages; proposed fixes to public schools; a plan to address state sponsored violence; and how the candidates themselves are addressing their own racial blind spots.
If Sanders and Clinton want this vote, they have to embrace progressive policies.
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