While the Democratic Party is famously diverse, the televised face of the party was notably black and female at the party’s recent national convention in Philadelphia.
In speech after speech touting unity and togetherness, cameras singled out black women, especially during the climactic speech by Michelle Obama in which she explicitly connected the experience of breaking the first lady color barrier with the prospect of Hillary Clinton breaking another barrier by becoming the country’s first woman president.
By the time Clinton took the stage July 28, the message was clear: in this very crucial election, black voter support of Clinton is essential — and black women’s support of the first woman candidate is most essential of all. Eight years ago, they made history by voting for Obama in record numbers and putting him in the history books; they can do the same for Clinton in 2016.
Thus far, black women have thrown their vote solidly to Clinton — she won the demographic easily in the primaries, especially in the South. One reason is that this year’s “hope and change” candidate, Bernie Sanders, simply didn’t make enough inroads into black communities to tap the vote Obama mined in 2008. Another reason is familiarity: black folks have been loyal to Bill Clinton since he was first elected in 1992, and Hillary is, in some ways, an extension of her husband.
It helps that Hillary has a track record advocating for families, children and the disabled, and that, as a lawyer, she worked for civil rights. She never had the same warm public persona as Bill — the oft-described first black president — but her seriousness and air of no-nonsense still resonated with black women. Neither was she an Eleanor Roosevelt — who openly championed racial justice when her husband FDR couldn’t or wouldn’t — but Hillary was connected with such notable black women as Marian Wright Edelman, a key mentor.
It was significant that at the DNC convention, black women were not just delegates but held prominent leadership roles: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opened the convention, and longtime political strategist Donna Brazile took over for embattled former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
On the second day of the convention, soul singer Alicia Keys gave an impassioned performance of “Superwoman,” a number dedicated to Mothers of the Movement, a group of black mothers of children who had been slain by gun violence.
The song wasn’t explicitly about Hillary, but it dovetailed with the convention’s theme of Clinton ushering in a new movement herself by being elected America’s first woman president.
But not everyone is buying this heavily marketed picture of cross-racial political sisterhood. As we’ve been hearing throughout the campaign, young people are significantly less enthusiastic about Clinton than older folks — and black women are no exception.
Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary was Symone Sanders, a black millennial and one of many black progressive voices that repeatedly expressed disenchantment not simply with Hillary, but with the Clintons generally. Those voices reject a status quo that they believe doesn’t serve the interests of black folks — and hasn’t for a long time.
Earlier this year, both Clintons were put on the defensive when members of Black Lives Matter and others took Hillary to task for her remark in 1996 that certain gang members were “super-predators” who the government had to “bring to heel” — comments that seemed in step with the law-and-order times.
But now that many people are reviewing how we got to this place of unabated police brutality and mass incarceration, it’s clear that the path was paved with the policies of President Bill Clinton, who despite being popular with black folks, built the success of the Democratic Party largely by tacking to the right. That meant that Democrats and Republicans have converged on many things in the years since, including a push for so-called law and order.
But all these critiques are being somewhat overshadowed by Democratic zeal to defeat Republican nominee Donald Trump. Blacks have their issues with Hillary, but Trump is beyond unpopular; he recently polled at an unheard-of zero percent amongst likely black voters.
While unprecedented, the zero support number should not be too surprising, given Trump’s open xenophobia, his penchant for quoting fascists like Mussolini and his recent declaration that he, like Richard Nixon before him, would run as the law-and-order candidate in 2016.
It isn’t hard for Democrats to sell the idea that Trump would be a disaster for black people — and pretty much all people with a stake in the notion of social justice and equal treatment. But, once again, black people are being asked to sacrifice ideals for pragmatism, to vote not so much to advance their interests but to avert total ruin.
It’s the familiar lesser-of-two-evils scenario that’s particularly unappealing this year, as Democrats of all colors, including black women, have fought hard to pull the party back to the left.
Most problematic of all, black women are being asked to vote alongside white feminists who see Hillary as a champion of their cause. But black women have a tortured relationship with the feminist movement, to say the least.
Historically, the feminist movement has not stood with black women in their campaigns of racial equality. Time and again, suffragists and other proto feminists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries refused to join arms with fellow black suffragist, anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm was the first black and the first woman in either major party to run for president in 1972; and though the National Organization for Women personally endorsed her, it officially endorsed white, male George McGovern (to be fair, black elected officials did the same thing).
We are faced today with the same scenario of voting strategically in order to keep the country out of the clutches of rabid conservatives who exploit racial fears in order to keep themselves in power.
Hillary surely doesn’t have the magic Obama had — the magic that wooed black women away from her to his campaign in 2008. This time, black women will have to bring the magic to Hillary’s cause in order for another kind of history to be made.