Commentary Politics

Hillary Clinton Can’t Afford to Ignore Black Women

Imani Gandy

Will Clinton work to unleash the political power of Black women, or will she follow the same old scripts?

In the days since Hillary Clinton announced her run for the nation’s highest office, much has been written about her relationship with Black voters, and Black female voters in particular. She is the first Democrat to announce her candidacy, and the lack of enthusiasm from Black voters is palpable on social media. As such, questions have arisen about whether she will be able to match Obama when it comes to Black voter turnout.

Will the Hillary campaign work to unleash the political power of Black women? Or will she follow the same old scripts: chasing the votes of white women and working-class voters?

Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell points out in an article for Essence that Clinton must show that “she has a vision for tackling [Black women’s] greatest concerns,” and that the “Hillary campaign would do well to make a consistent effort to connect with the women of color who are ready to make noise at the polls.”

Elsewhere, at Ebony, April Reign points out that “[t]here is a sense of entitlement that Hillary Clinton has not earned within the Black community, allowing her supporters to mistakenly take Black votes for granted.”

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Clinton’s candidacy may be historic, but it has left some of us cold. To many, like Jessie Daniels at Racism Review and Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra at Jacobin Magazine, she represents the human embodiment of white feminism—a feminism concerned only with white middle-class American women and not with Black and brown women in the United States and globally.

Others are turned off by her white feminist superfans. It doesn’t help that white feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote a pro-Hillary Clinton New York Times op-ed in 2008 in which she claimed she wasn’t advocating for a game of Oppression Olympics—”I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest”—but nevertheless spouted a standard 19th century white feminist gripe: that Black men were given the vote before women.

Nor does it help that after Obama won the Democratic primary in 2008, many of Clinton’s white feminist supportersincluding Clinton’s current billionaire backer Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild—became staunchly anti-Obama, and even declared their support for John McCain.

Clinton’s presidential run comes at a crucial time for feminism, given the ongoing debate between white feminists and feminists of color that has been amplified on social media over the past several years with the popularity of hashtags like Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and the pushback on Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminist tome, Lean In. She will have to do more than spout generic “Rah! Rah! Women!” rhetoric to ensure that Black womenwhose experiences are shaped not just by their gender, but also by their racewill show up for her in the numbers that they showed up for President Obama.

Year after year, Democrats chase the votes of white women, frequently to no avail—white women voted for Romney over Obama in 2012 (56 percent to 42 percent), for McCain over Obama in 2008 (53 percent to 46 percent), and Bush over Kerry in 2004 (55 percent to 44 percent)—while dismissing the women who are the key to their victories.

Not only do political campaigns ignore Black women, but our contributions to Democratic victories frequently go unrecognized. After Terry McAuliffe’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, for example, many mainstream media outlets claimed that “women” won the election for him. While that is true, generally—because Black women are women too—claims that women won the election for McAuliffe obfuscate important facts: that McAuliffe won 91 percent of Black women’s vote while winning only 38 percent of white women’s votes.

Women of color, and Black women in particular (because we have the strongest turnout among women of color), could hand Clinton the White House on a silver platter. But not if she doesn’t work for it. And that means addressing issues that uniquely face us.

How does Hillary Clinton plan to work to restore voting rights? To end the scourge of police brutality against Black people? To reduce the wage gap between white women on the one hand, and Black and Latina women on the other? To overcome barriers that women of color face in health-care access? To reform draconian immigration policies that rip families apart? To ensure that women have the right to safe abortion care irrespective of their ability to pay for it?

If she were to focus specifically on our issues, she could further increase our participation at the polls and inspire us to vote in greater numbers—not just in the upcoming presidential election, but in midterm elections and statewide elections too, thus solidifying Democratic victories at the state and federal level.

According to Maya Harris at the Center for American Progress:

[N]ew research suggests that within this bloc lies a significant opportunity: As their numbers increase and their participation grows, women of color will increasingly have the chance to sway electoral results, influence which candidates run and win, and play a greater role in shaping the policy agenda.

“Issues at the center of the lives of women of color rarely if ever take center stage in the political arena,” writes Harris. “Yet for them, having a consequential voice in our public policy discourse is not an abstraction; it is real, and the lack of it has direct and sometimes detrimental impacts on their world—their livelihoods, their bodies, their children, and their families.”

Improving the lives of women of color necessarily entails improving the lives of white women. For example, if we close the wage gap for Black and Latina women, then the wage gap between white women and men will automatically be closed. The reverse is not true.

The bottom line is this: Black women are a political juggernaut and any campaign that ignores our potential political power does so at its own peril.

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