Black People Need Political Power Independent of the Democrats

Stacey Abrams’ loss in Georgia could have been prevented.

Alicia Garza December 11, 2018

Stacey Abrams nearly became the country’s first Black woman governor, despite widespread voter suppression in Georgia. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Vot­ers in Geor­gia came close to elect­ing Stacey Abrams, who would have been the state’s first Black gov­er­nor and the first Black woman gov­er­nor in the nation’s his­to­ry. Per­haps because Black vot­ers were pre­dict­ed to turn out in unprece­dent­ed num­bers, Geor­gia was a site of bla­tant vot­er sup­pres­sion, com­plete with miss­ing and uncount­ed ballots.

Black voters need to build independent, Black, progressive political power.

Vot­er sup­pres­sion is what the pow­er­ful do to stay in pow­er. In Geor­gia, Sec­re­tary of State Bri­an Kemp was also the GOP guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date, cre­at­ing a Jim Crow-like arrange­ment in which the per­son who makes the rules about who gets to par­tic­i­pate has a vest­ed inter­est in exclud­ing some people.

With the fox over­see­ing the hen­house, the stage was set long before Elec­tion Day. Geor­gia had seen 1.3 mil­lion vot­ers purged from the rolls since 2010 and more than 200 polling places, pre­dom­i­nant­ly in poor and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, shut down, forc­ing many vot­ers to use pro­vi­sion­al bal­lots. Those vot­ers who could get to a polling place were met with long lines and miss­ing equip­ment. Some elec­tion machines in Black precincts lacked pow­er cords. With these tricks, one can see how Kemp eked out an edge of 54,723 votes out of 3,939,328 votes cast.

Imag­ine if Black peo­ple, who make up 30 per­cent of Geor­gia vot­ers, had been able to build a polit­i­cal coali­tion pow­er­ful enough to pre­vent Kemp from ever being elect­ed sec­re­tary of state. Imag­ine if Black peo­ple had been orga­nized enough to pres­sure Kemp to resign from that post once he announced plans to run for gov­er­nor in March 2017. Imag­ine if Black peo­ple wield­ed enough polit­i­cal pow­er to pre­vent Kemp and coun­ty offi­cials from sup­press­ing votes as they have done for the past nine years.

The prob­lem is not that Black peo­ple don’t vote, or don’t vote for pro­gres­sives. Black vot­ers — espe­cial­ly Black women — are the most con­sis­tent­ly pro­gres­sive vot­ing bloc. Exit polls show 94 per­cent of Black vot­ers who vot­ed in Georgia’s guber­na­to­r­i­al race did so for Stacey Abrams.

The prob­lem is that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty does not serve as a vehi­cle for Black polit­i­cal pow­er. The Democ­rats eschew iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” focus­ing on issues in ways that use the expe­ri­ences of white peo­ple as the pri­ma­ry lens. That indi­cates the par­ty is refus­ing to acknowl­edge the ways that racial iden­ti­ty shapes our expe­ri­ences and our life chances. Despite the record 55 Black Democ­rats elect­ed to the House in the midterms, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as a whole does not ade­quate­ly reflect the expe­ri­ences and the dreams of Black people.

For exam­ple, the par­ty health­care mes­sag­ing focused on pre­serv­ing Oba­macare and its pro­tec­tions for peo­ple with pre-exist­ing con­di­tions, as opposed to cham­pi­oning the expan­sion of Med­ic­aid, which mat­ters to Black vot­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the South, where GOP state leg­is­la­tors refuse to accept fed­er­al fund­ing to expand access to health­care for poor and work­ing-class communities.

Build­ing the pow­er and influ­ence of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty alone will not change the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of Black com­mu­ni­ties. Black vot­ers need to build inde­pen­dent, Black, pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal power.

To be sure, Black vot­ers are not as rad­i­cal as Black move­ment activists. They can be social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive on some issues, like immi­gra­tion reform and same-sex mar­riage. But large-scale orga­niz­ing in Black com­mu­ni­ties can change all that. Right now, the Right has an easy time tap­ping into Black vot­ers’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Take Black con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dit Can­dace Owens, a 29-year-old ris­ing star at right-wing youth orga­ni­za­tion Turn­ing Point USA. Owens recent­ly tweeted:

How many black lead­ers’ have spent the last two plus years speak­ing out about unfair sen­tenc­ing for our men — and yet are DEAD SILENT on the prison reform that @realDonaldTrump just got done for mil­lions? You are all false prophets and idols. Zero respect for any of you fakes.

By and large, how­ev­er, Black vot­ers are gen­er­al­ly pro­gres­sive and can be moved fur­ther to the left — if resources are invest­ed to orga­nize them.

At the Black Futures Lab, which I found­ed and run, we define pow­er as the abil­i­ty to make deci­sions over your own life and the lives of oth­ers. It is the abil­i­ty to reward and pun­ish, and the abil­i­ty to shape the sto­ry of who we are and who we can be. It is the abil­i­ty to make deci­sions about where resources go and where they do not go. We are in a strug­gle over pow­er, and we should under­stand it that way — par­tic­u­lar­ly because the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion is using its (stolen) pow­er to change the rules so that they can get more pow­er and you and I can have less of it.

To build inde­pen­dent, pro­gres­sive Black polit­i­cal pow­er it is impor­tant to devise strate­gies that under­stand how pow­er oper­ates. For exam­ple, Black com­mu­ni­ties have expe­ri­enced enor­mous changes in the past decade, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, dis­place­ment, redis­trict­ing and ger­ry­man­der­ing have decreased Black polit­i­cal pow­er in cities and states. Con­verse­ly, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has revi­tal­ized Black com­mu­ni­ties by work­ing to dis­man­tle insti­tu­tion­al racism.

At the Lab, we launched the Black Cen­sus Project, an online cen­sus in which we ask 200,000 Black peo­ple about their polit­i­cal views and involve­ment. This data will be used to help orga­nize Black com­mu­ni­ties to help shape pol­i­cy in cities and states across the nation. In 2018, we trained 100 Black orga­niz­ers and moved almost three-quar­ters of a mil­lion dol­lars to Black-led orga­ni­za­tions root­ed in com­mu­ni­ties that are typ­i­cal­ly left out of democ­ra­cy — includ­ing Black peo­ple liv­ing in rur­al areas; Black peo­ple who iden­ti­fy as les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der or gen­der non­con­form­ing; Black peo­ple who are migrants; and Black peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly or for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed. Com­pared to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee — which invest­ed less than 1 per­cent of the $152 mil­lion it raised in the 2018 elec­tion cycle into hir­ing com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers to mobi­lize Black, Lat­inx, mil­len­ni­al, Asian and rur­al vot­ers in 16 states — we invest­ed almost half of our entire orga­ni­za­tion­al bud­get to invest­ments in Black orga­niz­ing, Black orga­niz­ers and Black communities.

We are in the midst of a strug­gle for pow­er in the Unit­ed States, and Black vot­ers are at the heart of it. A pro­gres­sive coali­tion that can defeat not only Trump, but more impor­tant­ly, Trump­ism can only do so with the active lead­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion of Black vot­ers. And that depends on the cul­ti­va­tion of Black vot­ers as a val­ued and valu­able part of what democ­ra­cy must look like.

Ali­cia Garza is prin­ci­pal at Black Futures Lab and the strat­e­gy and part­ner­ships direc­tor for Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance.
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