Jatia Wrighten, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University
Black women continue to occupy a unique position in American politics. Their status remains widely misunderstood and undetermined. This article focuses on one aspect of that problem that is often overlooked: the exceptional burden they carry in the democratic process.
This burden, as I define it, is the two-fold problem of continually supporting a party that does little to elevate Black women’s positions within the party or the electorate. It would seem as if their support is continually taken for granted, despite the evidence showing how integral Black women’s support is to a functioning democracy – so important, in fact, that the Republican Party has gone to great lengths to suppress that vote and the activities associated with it. Black women continually carry this burden for a country that routinely and systematically oppresses them. In the words of Malcolm X,
“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
In spite of this, Black women are a force to be reckoned with, in both the electorate and the Democratic Party. They break down barriers and achieve feats once thought impossible as a result of discriminatory practices and laws that prohibited them from voting and running for elected office. Why do Black women continually carry the burden of Democracy for a country that routinely and systematically oppresses them? The answer to the question of why seems to be that Black women know that democracy, and the very institutions that sustain this democracy, are at risk of being dismantled. In the following section, I point to several relevant examples of Black women’s tour de force in both the electorate and the Democratic Party.
Douglas Jones vs. Roy Moore
In the 2017 Alabama U.S. Senate race, Douglas Jones ran against Roy Moore. Doug Jones, a Democrat, had a predicted slim chance of winning. However, his opponent, Roy Moore had a controversial background, where he had been accused of sexually abusing teenage girls. Black women came out in record numbers to vote for Jones who won the race, the first Democrat in a generation to win a senate seat in Alabama. He won with the overwhelming support of Black women voters (98% of their vote). According to CNN exit polls, only 34% of white women voted for Jones and 63% voted for Moore.
“Doug Jones would not have won today without the turnout we saw from African American voters,” said Simone Sanders, a Democratic strategist. “Black women have been absolutely clear in their support for Democratic policies and Democratic candidates. It’s high time for Democrats to invest in that effort.”
Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump
In the highly contested 2016 presidential race, where the first woman nominated by a major political party ran for President of the United States, Black women were some of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s most solid supporters. “According to exit polls, more than 90% of Black women voted for Clinton, continuing the trend that shows that few demographic groups are as faithful to the Democratic Party as Black women” (Scott, 2017). 2 Although Clinton did not win the presidency, the power of Black women’s support was key to her success in many states. When broken down by race, the majority of non-college-educated white women (64%) voted for Trump, while 35% backed Clinton. Black, Hispanic, and other non-white women backed Clinton in far greater numbers–Black women 95%, Hispanic women, 70%, and other non-white women, 81%.
Jennifer McClellan ran for governor of Virginia in 2021. In the Democratic primary she came in third behind Terry McAuliffe, who ultimately lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin, and Jennifer Carroll Foy. In 2023, McClellan, a champion for policies that benefit Black communities, won a firehouse primary, making her the first Black woman elected to Congress from Virginia.
These cases suggest the importance of Black women in the electorate. Many will point to Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential candidate as significant evidence that the Democratic Party recognizes the importance of Black women. On the other hand, considering the importance Black women’s votes have played in the electorate, it would seem that this selection is strategic. In choosing Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party solidified Black woman’s support in the 2020 election. This is because Black women know what is at stake in every election. Democracy and the legitimacy of our institutions are always on the ballot.
American Democracy has never been available to all groups in this country, least of all, Black women. It is the only system and avenue Black women have in the attempts to achieve equality. This is a heavy burden to bear, but one that Black women deem worth the effort.