A recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies predicted that while Black voter participation typically declines in midterm elections, Black votes were going to be important in eight competitive Senate races and nine competitive races for Governor. Last week’s midterm elections, which produced a Republican reclamation of Congress, were declared “bad news for women.” While I would agree that there are political issues related to the wellbeing of women in general which may be restricted or undermined by a Republican Senate, this midterm election also produced a series of important gains for Black women that are worth noting.
Black Women Represented at the Polls—and Emerged as Winning Candidates
Nationwide, just 36.6% of all U.S. voters turned out for the 2014 midterm election, a decline from the 2010 midterm elections, when the turnout rate was 40.9%. However, exit polls show that the 2014 Black American electorate was at 12%, up from 10% in 2010. This has been attributed in many ways to Black women, who remain a key force for voter mobilization. According to a statement by Melanie Campbell, President and CEO of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation and convenor of the Black Women’s Roundtable, “We had powerful ground operations led by Black women and youth in several states. All of them say turnout was higher than expected, and, in many states more turned out than in 2010 (the full statement is available here).”
Why were Black women so important in this voter mobilization effort? According to political strategist and CEO of Vestige Strategies, LLC Stefanie Brown-James, “Black women, to me, are the core of what it means to be American. No matter what obstacles we face, we have the perseverance, the strength, and the strategies to overcome them…and bring others along with us!”
Black women continue to lean toward a Democratic agenda—an analysis of exit poll data showed that 91% of Black women favored Democrats, compared with 67% of Latinas and 52% of all women. This is something that Stefanie Brown-James attributes to Black women’s search for a political agenda that is responsive to their issues of concern.
“I believe that you have the Democratic Party representing more ideas that relate specifically to everyday people—the economic challenges, early childhood education, making sure we have sick days…The Democratic Party is more of a champion on these issues. Republicans have a more conservative approach,” Brown-James told EBONY.
Black women experienced historic wins in New Jersey, where Bonnie Watson-Coleman was elected to Congress and in Utah, where Mia Love became the first Black female Republican elected from this state to the Senate. In North Carolina, where early voting increased by 45%, Black women emerged as winning candidates in a variety of public offices.
At least 101 women will serve in the 114th Congress. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, there were 11 newly elected women to Congress during this midterm election—seven Democrats and four Republicans. Five of these newly elected women are Black—Alma Adams (D-NC), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-NJ), Mia Love (R-UT), and the new delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands Stacey Plaskett (D-VI).
Pay Attention to the Agenda
While we celebrate these successes at face value, it is important to continue to examine the extent to which these gains produce a legislative agenda that is responsive to the conditions and priorities of Black women and girls. Economic issues such as the crisis of low wage employment and underemployment, quality of life issues such as a dearth of affordable housing and healthcare, and draconian criminal justice policies continue to disproportionately affect Black women. We must ask, to what extent is Congress developing coordinated responses to these issues and others of concern to Black women?
Recognizing the historic election of a Black woman does not mean that we have to silence our critique of the impact of a political agenda on Black women. In other words, it is fine to note the historic nature of Mia Love’s election, however it is more important to rigorously interrogate how her political agenda may be inconsistent with the priorities and concerns of Black women. For example, while Black women have been noted to support the Affordable Care Act, Love favors repealing what she calls the “job-killing Obamacare law,” and while Black women’s organizations have express their concern regarding gun safety, Love has professed a refusal to “compromise” on gun control.
It also important to apply this same critical lens to representatives in the Democratic Party.
“Black women are waking up and saying, wait a minute! We need a return on our investment,” said Brown-James. “I honestly think you are going to hear more of that cry from Black women, who are going to say to the Democratic party, you all not only need to be accountable to the community, but to those who are at the table making the decisions.”
In short, voting and election trends matter. However, elected officials’ accountability to Black women as a core voting and emerging policymaking constituency matters much more.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar, author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century, and a forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.