Black Women Leading: From Electoral Engagement to Political Power and Policy Impact
By Maya L. Harris
When black women show up at the polls, as we did in 2008 and 2012, we demonstrate a capacity to deliver decisive wins—just ask President Barack Obama. And, as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe can attest, that exhibition of political might is not reserved solely for presidential election years.
Three election cycles later, hard-nosed political observers are starting to take note. The conversation about black women’s political power is poised to move beyond the historical context of our participation in the Suffrage and Civil Rights movements into a discussion about the yet-to-be-fully-tapped potential of our political muscle at the ballot box.
The Center for American Progress and Higher Heights will soon release a new report detailing the status of black women’s growing voter engagement. The report will provide hard data illustrating the contours of black women’s democratic participation and potential. It will also, no doubt, provide plenty of fodder for political pundits’ ongoing “year of the woman” narrative.
But it is my hope that the report will open the door to a much bigger conversation: one that focuses on the long-term work that must be done to fully harness black women’s political power—strategically and consequentially.
Because if black women are to secure lasting political influence—the kind of influence that commands seats at decision-making tables and leads to game-changing policies that improve and empower our lives and our communities—then we will need to organize around our interests and remain engaged beyond a single day’s turnout every other November.
In addition to advancing our affirmative agendas, such sustained engagement is critically important because we’re not the only ones who are focused on what our increasing political power might mean. In states across the country, where the population and participation of blacks and Latinos is growing, policies are being implemented that will constrain our ability to vote.
In North Carolina, for example, where black women made up over 23 percent of registered female voters in 2012, a controversial law restricting early voting and eliminating same-day registration will disproportionately affect black women. One can only hope that the law’s impact will be mitigated by last week’s court decision suspending implementation of portions of the law.
Measures like North Carolina’s (and similar efforts in Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, to name a few) have the potential to significantly curtail our political influence before it is even fully realized. Being both seen and heard during non-election years will help remind policymakers that we’re watching them when they are most apt to make such controversial and anti-democratic moves—and that we will remember when Election Day rolls around again.
Maintaining an organized political presence between election cycles is not just necessary; it’s possible. Social and civic venues where we already come together—whether sororities, salons or school events—can be powerful opportunities to capitalize on our abilities to organize in ways that fall outside of mainstream political activities
And let’s not discount our collective economic power, which businesses have been tapping for years. Too often we get lulled into believing that our $5, $10 or $25 donations can’t compete when compared to a Koch brother who spends millions of dollars to influence an election. But together, our small contributions represent real financial might, with the potential of pumping millions of dollars into our own causes and candidates. Imagine the black female political talent those funds could support.
Of course, like any other voting bloc, black women—young and old and across the socio-economic spectrum—are by no means monolithic when it comes to our political identities and how we prioritize our concerns. But it is also true that what we share in common is greater than that which separates us. Harnessing those shared interests toward the goal of greater political power and policy impact should be our collective focus beyond the 2014 election.
Maya L. Harris is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, with a focus on promoting policies that strengthen the U.S. economy and democracy through greater inclusion of women and people of color.