Women of Color Can Make or Break the Presidential Race

“Authenticity is key to courting this constituency”


Women of Color Can Make or Break the Presidential Race
Donna M. Owens
June 12, 2019

In April, on the historically Black campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, a not-so- quiet political revolution was taking place.There, in all their multihued glory, was an overflow crowd of more than 1,700 racially and ethnically diverse sistas — Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islanders, plus representatives from 40 organizations. Hailing from across the country, they’d come to take part in the first-ever presidential forum centered around women of color voters.The confab, organized by She the People — a national network that seeks to empower women of color politically — was a chance for these voters to hear from the sea of candidates (most of them White men) looking to unseat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. With less than 16 months until the general election, women of color — who are sometimes dubbed the “new majority” — have emerged as one of the coveted voting blocs candidates want to woo and win.We are building coalitions. We want to see who is showing up for us and where.“This election will not just be about red and blue states, but which candidates are willing to address the racial, gender, social, and economic justice issues impacting women of color,” says She the People founder Aimee Allison. “We are building coalitions. We want to know specifics about policy platforms and who is authentic. We want to see who is showing up for us and where?”While there are more than two dozen Democratic contenders, plus a handful of Republicans running, this forum drew eight candidates. California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. housing secretary Julián Castro, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke attended. Also on hand: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Trump is slated to announce his re-election bid at a rally in Orlando, Florida, later this month.

Women in the audience quizzed the candidates about everything from universal health care to reproductive justice to wage equity. Meanwhile, across the country, women of color are pushing in greater numbers to hold candidates accountable to their communities. Sayu Bhojwani was born in India and raised in Belize. Today, the proud immigrant is president of New American Leaders, which trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for office. “Women of color are trailblazers for justice and hold immense political power,” she says. “[We] are key to winning the White House in 2020 and other races up and down the ballot.”

Data shows that in the 2018 midterms, nearly 88% of women of color voters skewed Democratic, compared with 48% of white women and 38% of white men. Women of color represent large constituencies for the Democratic vote in several early states: In 2016, the group was roughly one-third of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, and nearly one-fifth of the electorate in Nevada. Women of color are also highly represented in large-scale electoral prize states such as California and Texas, where each Democratic primary electorate is composed of roughly one-fourth women of color.

No matter where they reside, women of color are organizing in civic and political spaces. LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, has organized a bus tour to mobilize folks in the Deep South. Arisha Hatch, managing director of campaigns at the advocacy group Color Of Change, says their team has begun sitting down with various candidates to assess whether their platforms empower people of color.

Whether the candidate is Pete Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has captured attention as an openly gay presidential contender, Joe Biden, the former vice president, or Harris, the only Black woman (of Indian and Jamaican heritage), women of color are expressing a desire to be heard and deeply engaged. “The road to the White House must include a stop by a Black woman’s house,” says Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, which works to elect Black women. “They can sit down, have a cup of tea, and address the issues that affect Black women, our families, communities, and nation.”

In order to win the Democratic presidential nomination, candidates must demonstrate an unyielding commitment to halting the rise of bigotry and curbing widening racial disparities.

Carr noted there is a need for policies that will serve to “build economically thriving, educated, healthy, and safe communities” and provide Black women seats at decision-making tables.

Several recent polls have highlighted the aspirations of Black voters. The Black Futures Lab released “More Black than Blue: Politics + Power in the 2019 Black Census,” which surveyed 31,000 Black people nationwide. The report was published in partnership with Color Of Change, Demos, and Socioanalítica Research. “More than half of respondents said politicians do not care about Black people and their interests,” says Alicia Garza, principal at the Black Futures Lab and co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

The group BlackPAC also surveyed registered Black voters across the country. Its poll found that racism and discrimination were core concerns. Other top issues included health care, jobs and the economy, education, police accountability, and the environment. “In order to win the Democratic presidential nomination, candidates must demonstrate to Black voters — through policy solutions and moral conviction — an unyielding commitment to halting the rise of bigotry and curbing widening racial disparities in our economic, health care, and education systems,” says Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC’s executive director. Among respondents to the BlackPAC poll, Biden and Sanders had the most name recognition (both 97%) as well as the highest levels of support for their candidacies (45% and 15%, respectively). Warren, Harris, and Booker rounded out the top five.

What else do many women of color want to hear presidential candidates tackle? Paid family leave. A slew of organizations are championing the issue: the Black Women’s Roundtable, UnidosUS, United for Respect, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Partnership for Women & Families, to name a few.

During a June 5 forum on Capitol Hill, experts discussed how the proposed “Family Act” in Congress can make vital improvements for people of color. “I believe presidential candidates should be focused on paid family and medical leave, especially the Family Act, a bill all the senators running for office have co-sponsored,” says Sade Moonsammy, a project manager for Family Values @ Work, which has offices in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. “I give Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand high marks for talking about the issue often on the campaign trail.”

Afua Atta-Mensah is a lawyer and executive director of Community Voices Heard in New York City. She says the group has about 5,000 members, who she described as 82% women, primarily Black and Latina. “We’re not monolithic — we are from Trinidad, Barbados, Honduras, and elsewhere. The members are mostly working-class women of color. But we want to flex our political might in a more intentional way,” she says. Asked which candidates seemed to be getting buzz, she notes “excitement” about Harris and the messages of Sanders, Warren, and Biden as being well-received among the membership.

You put us last on your list, we’ll put you last on ours.

Danielle Atkinson is the founding director of Mothering Justice, a statewide organization working to improve the lives of Michigan families by equipping the next generation of mothers to be policy advocates. “We have a diverse population here,” she says, “including large Arab and Latino communities.” Atkinson explains she was “heartened” by Warren’s plan to reduce high maternal mortality rates among Black women, Harris’ focus on providing impoverished Americans “a safety net,” and Booker’s policy initiatives which include a sweeping plan to curb gun violence in the U.S.

In this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, many women of color have said the coming election will inject new urgency into critical conversations that presidential candidates must have with the American people. For instance, the Democratic National Committee recently announced that at least one woman moderator be required at each presidential debate. That drew praise from Jennifer Klein, chief strategy and policy officer at TIME’S UP. “[We have] four simple questions for candidates that get to the heart of the pocketbook issues that matter to women across the country,” Klein says in a statement, noting issues such as sexual harassment, closing the pay and opportunity gap for women, mandatory paid family and medical leave, and safe, affordable childcare. “There’s simply no reason that questions about the issues relevant to us aren’t being asked.”

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committees and a She the People honorary host, says that women of color intend to put candidates on notice that platitudes are not going to be enough to get their votes. “You put us last on your list, we’ll put you last on ours.”