Nine black mothers took the stage of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night to draw the country’s attention to the racist violence that took their children’s lives.
It was a rare prime time moment: Black women were centering their pain, and the world was forced to come to terms with it. It was also a moment for the Democrats to promote themselves as the party of diversity.
What better way to do that than to feature black women whose reasons for being there tap directly into the Black Lives Matter movement?
But at least from a policy perspective, the Democratic Party is often at odds with that movement.
While it was appropriate for the convention to present Sybrina Fulton, Geneva Reed-Veal, Lucia McBath, and the other mothers, Imani Perry, a professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, questions the party’s motives.
“I’m frustrated with the Democratic Party because I think they exploit the suffering of black people and black women in particular, who are their most loyal constituents,” Perry told me.
“And I say exploit because every election cycle, black women are on display in various ways, and yet they fail to create policies that are directed to the particular suffering of black women and black communities. They use our suffering in order to elicit sympathy—not just loyalty from black women and black voters, but to elicit sympathy from white liberals as well.”
Perry also noted that all of the talk of women’s suffrage, and about Hillary Clinton’s place in that history, tends to center white women.
For all the gains white women have made in voting rights, black women didn’t always enjoy them. Perry’s grandmother, for example, was 48 years old when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965; most white women began voting in 1920.
Indeed, the Democratic Party owes black women—its most important supporters—far more than symbolic moments on the main stage. Black voter turnout has been increasing since 1996, with black women leading that uptick. In fact, in 2008 and 2012, they voted at higher rates than any other voting bloc, regardless of race or gender.
But a recent study by Higher Heights, a national organization that aims to support black women running for elected office, reports they make up only 3.4% of in Congress and less than 1% of executive-level offices nationwide. There has been only one black woman elected to the Senate.
This is absolutely unacceptable. As it it stands, the Democratic Party is failing black women. It can prop up grieving mothers on national television to draw white liberal support to the party, but can’t back enough black women for public office to at least match the 7.4% of the U.S. population they comprise?
Aimee Allison, senior vice president of PowerPac, which is devoted to electing people of color, reminded me that, less than 100 years ago, only white men could vote. Today, American political power has to reflect the participation of black women and move away from its comfort zone of viewing white men as the safest political investments.
“It just doesn’t reflect our democracy or our population, Allison told me. “It’s got to change. And it hurts to change. And some people in positions of power have to let it go. And if they don’t let it go, we have to take it.”
But how, though?
I asked L. Joy Williams, the founding chair of Higher Heights, how to hold people like Hillary Clinton accountable. She reminded me that black women were very reluctant to criticize President Barack Obama because of the obstructionism of the Republican-led Congress, which many black Americans believe was motivated by racism. He was dealing with much so racism that black women didn’t want to add to the struggle.
“Many of us gave Obama a pass,” Rebekah Caruthers, a Democratic political strategist, told me. “We were so proud of Obama. He accomplished so much by being the president. Then, in combination with all of the hate and vitriol that we’ve seen lodged against him, I think many of us were uncomfortable with having the kitchen table talk of criticizing President Obama in front of quote-unquote mixed company.”
Black women have learned from that experience, Williams said, and likely will not give a President Clinton the same breaks they afforded Obama. Williams said black women should expect a black female nominee for the Supreme Court, real investment in supporting black women candidates up and down the ticket, legislation that will lead to equal pay and lighten the load of child care, among many other things.
All these changes start in Democratic committees at all levels that must be forced to address these issues.
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As much as was made over the mothers on Tuesday night, there aren’t nearly enough black women in elected office who can relate to them. White men and non-black prosecutors are often making key decisions over high-profile police brutality cases, and Democratic prosecutors often side with the cops who killed those black women’s children.
Take Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, for instance.
Bob McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County and a Democrat, was widely criticized for his handling of the grand jury that decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson cop who killed her son.
Anita Alvarez, the Cook County prosecutor and another Democrat, has been accused of attempting to suppress video footage of Chicago officers fatally shooting LaQuan McDonald. The tape was eventually released, and the officers involved were charged.
But activists were so outraged by Alvarez’s handling of the case that they led a robust voter outreach action that bounced her from office. Kim Foxx, a black woman, is now the Democratic nominee for Cook County prosecutor.
What’s more, a Daily Beast report found that Alvarez cleared cops who used deadly force 68 times, with no records to explain her decisions.
These are just two recent examples of how Democrats at the local level have used their power to side with cops who kill black women’s children.
Clinton has been vocal about the need for white Americans to challenge their privilege and engage non-white people in discussions on race and class. She gets credit for that. But her support of community policing and body cameras leaves much to be desired. Why advocate for policies that put more police officers in communities that do not trust them?
She needs to be pushed harder on how she will empower more black women at the local level to make changes to American policing that she can’t from the White House.
A good start would be throwing her support—and challenging the Democratic Party apparatuses at the local, state, and national levels to support—black women running for state house races who actually have more power to introduce laws that challenge powerful police unions or to make policy decisions that support black women. Like Marilyn Mosby, who may have lost her case against the Baltimore cops in Freddie Gray’s death, but at least had the courage to take on the white supremacy of policing in her city.
On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton’s speech will be history in the making. A woman will accept the nomination for the highest office in the land. Clinton will likely evoke the names of Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan, both women who rendered robust critiques of the Democratic Party’s racism and sexism.
What Perry, the Princeton University professor, would like to hear from Clinton is a shout-out to the black female voters who got her there.
“I would love an acknowledgment that black women are the most loyal voters and most likely to vote in elections,” she said. “And Democrats can’t win without us.”
Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, echoed the same points. Democrats have to start investing in black women to repay them for the votes that elect them. Parading black mothers of police violence to make the party seem more progressive than it actually is will no longer be enough.
“In 2008 and 2012, black women carried the Democratic Party,” she said. “We know at this point, in order to win the election, among other things, chief among them is assembling that coalition of black women voters. And, beyond symbolism, what then do black women get in return?”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.