How Black Women Like Me Reckon With America's Political Process


I was 4 when my older sister, Tenisha, was shot and killed while walking down a San Francisco street with a friend one Friday night. It was the type of bullets-don't-have-names misfortune that was, and remains, unshakably common in many black neighborhoods across the country. Reward posters went up, but no one was ever arrested in the case. The reality of Tenisha's absence has shaped every facet of my family's being, but has most profoundly defined the way that we do — or don't — engage with the political process.

Take, for instance, the moment a few years later, when I was walking past the Northern District Police Station in San Francisco's Fillmore District with my mother one afternoon. I was 7, maybe 8, when I noticed a huge black dog chained to the flatbed of a truck parked outside the station. The dog lunged and growled at me, and I hid behind my mother, terrified. My mother grabbed my hand and marched me into the police station a few steps away, where she demanded to talk with someone on duty. The person she met was white and loomed very large behind his desk. I don't remember what she said, but I do remember that she was so angry when she said it that spit was flying from her mouth. Even at that age, the subtext of her demand was clear: Prove to me that you can show the slightest bit of interest in my daughter's life.

The officer's response was dismissive, at best: "We'll take care of it."

To my surprise, my mother wasn't angry when she left — she seemed affirmed. She also knew that these folks were not to be trusted.

It was around then that we stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It didn't matter the occasion. Graduations, assemblies. If I dared to stand and place my right hand over my heart, my mother gave me a knowing glare that demanded I have a seat. It was a silent protest — radical now that I look back on it. "It just wasn't fair," she said about the pledge when I asked her about it recently. "We never had the same rights as other people."

Despite her disillusionment with American patriotism, she would still call me before every election to talk through candidates and ballot measures. One time, I asked her if she's always voted.

"Oh, yes," she told me.

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My mother is one of the roughly 20 million black women who have proved extremely loyal to American democracy. These are the women that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have courted aggressively in their bid for the White House — and for good reason.

In the 2012 presidential election, 74% of black women voted, a higher rate than any other group. In 2008, black women accounted for 60% of all black voters, and voted overwhelmingly — to the tune of 96% — for Barack Obama. Four years later, more than 98% of black women under the age of 30 voted for Obama, compared to only 80% of young black men. Black women's political participation extends beyond voting to elect the country's first black president. In Virginia's 2013 gubernatorial race, black women voters turned out at higher rates than any other group on Election Day. These numbers have made black women the "most reliable progressive voting block," according to a report from the Black Women's Roundtable.

Clinton has won endorsements from Sybrina Fulton, Lucia McBathGwen Carr and Maria Hamilton — black mothers who have each lost sons (Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner and Dontre Hamilton, respectively) to violence by police or vigilantes. Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Sanders, won an endorsement from Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who died during an arrest by New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo. That these women's endorsements were sought at all shows just how important black women are to today's political process.

Throughout the campaign, both Democratic candidates have come under scrutiny as to their records on issues that impact black lives. Clinton in particular has been heavily criticized for supporting policies that have devastated the black community. Rutgers history professor Donna Murch issued a scathing look at Clinton's political past in the New Republic. Murch recounted the Democratic Party's embrace of tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s. But most prominently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, wrote in the Nation that Clinton doesn't deserve black people's votes because, as first lady, she supported President Bill Clinton's crime and welfare reform policies.

"Some might argue that it's unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago," Alexander said. "But Hillary wasn't picking out china while she was first lady. ... She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures." 

Among that lobbying was support for legislation that would cut down on the nation's so-called "super predators," a media-driven archetype of allegedly dangerous youth of color. "They are not just gangs of kids anymore," Clinton said in support of a 1994 crime bill, as Alexander notes. "They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

Bernie Sanders has also been taken to task. He too supported the 1994 crime bill, and unlike Clinton, who was not in elected office at the time, actually voted for it. At the time, he took to the Senate floor to deliver an impassioned speech. "There are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them," he said, before observing the legislation's potential drawbacks. "But it is also my view that through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime and violence.

In August, two Black Lives Matter activists, both young black women, stormed the stage at a Sanders speech in Seattle, arguing that his populist message was woefully lacking in any real commitments to racial justice. More recently, Sanders has been criticized for his opposition to reparations for American slavery. "Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is 'nil,' a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator's own platform," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic. While Clinton has lived the better part of four decades in the public eye, Sanders has existed in relative obscurity in Vermont, where his leftist message has gone largely unchallenged.

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I was one of those kids of the 1990s. I remember when my friends and I were wary about walking downtown to Old Navy after school in matching outfits, lest we be considered a gang by police thanks to California's Proposition 21, a law that was passed in 2000 on the heels of the Clintons' tough-on-youth-crime craze. 

Fast forward to today, and I'm trying to make sense of my own ambivalence to the political process, not just as a journalist who's trying to cover a national election, but also as a black woman who was taught to think critically about allegiance to my country.

"I was one of those kids of the 1990s. I remember when my friends and I were wary about walking downtown..."

I'm not the only one trying to make sense of this election and how it will impact my life. On a freezing cold January day in Chicago, I visited the official headquarters of Black Youth Project 100, a membership-based group with multiple chapters spread across the country. I was greeted by three smiling young black organizers, all in their late 20s or early 30s, sitting at separate desks in a cluttered office that's no bigger than a small dorm room. The room was full of organizing essentials: brown boxes that probably once contained T-shirts, flyers, maps or reports.

In just two years, BYP 100 has become so powerful that it was one of only a handful courted by embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the days after police released video of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black boy, being shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. The public was angry and calling for the mayor's resignation. Emanuel, facing the worst political disaster of his decorated career, wanted to show that he had pull with the city's young black core, so he did what most powerful people do when they're in trouble: He asked for a meeting. 

The group declined.

A group with that amount of guts surely has got to have a big, flossy sign somewhere announcing that they exist. But there was no big banner in that tiny little office. Just boxes.

"So this is where the magic happens," I joked.

"Nah," laughed one organizer named Jason Perez. "The magic happens out in the streets."

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It's those streets which have formed perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for Clinton and Sanders in their bid to win the White House. Black youth, long derided for their alleged political apathy, form the nucleus of a modern American political movement centered on black lives. It's a movement that's largely been led by young black women who have made it clear to the Democratic Party that their votes, which have propelled candidates in every recent national election, are not a given. 

The irony is that Clinton, long a beacon of hope for feminists aching to see a woman take office, has also stacked her campaign with black women — Maya Harris, a policy expert; LaDavia Drane, her director of African-American outreach; and black feminist writer Zerlina Maxwell — who know exactly what's at stake.

"We're sophisticated voters, sophisticated thinkers, we're not just going to hand out our vote to anyone," Drane told Mic. "I believe that [Hillary's] earning black voters' trust, [and] she's been doing it for a long time now."

It's those streets which have formed perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for Clinton and Sanders in their bid to win the White House.

That trust is hard to find elsewhere in the country. "It didn't make people happy that we did not take that meeting," Charlene Carruthers, BYP 100's national director, told Mic on a frigid day in Chicago over lunch about turning down Mayor Emanuel's overture. "A lot of older black leaders were upset, probably because it made them look bad because they were once again falling in line with the mayor's agenda, which does our folks no good. We don't represent anybody but ourselves."

BYP 100 draws its name from a July 2013 meeting in Chicago. Spearheaded by Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political scientist and author of the book Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, the meeting brought together 100 black organizers and activists to talk about how to tap into the political power of young black people in America. During the meeting, on July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy who he shot in Sanford, Florida. The decision was met with disbelief and outrage, in part because Martin's case had galvanized the segments of the country's population that had long been frustrated by violence against black youth that was either directly or indirectly approved by law enforcement.

"Our hope and community was shaken through a system that is supposed to be built on freedom and justice for all," the group in Chicago said in a videotaped statement the day after the verdict. "We are your sons and daughters. We are the marginalized and disenfranchised. We are 100 next generation leaders."

The energy from that meeting led, months later, to the formation of a national organization, with five chapters in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., New York City, New Orleans and Detroit. In the years since, the group has released a policy agenda that includes reparations for slavery, which both Clinton and Sanders are against. They've advocated for an increase in the minimum wage, an end to so-called "crimes of youth" — violations of curfew, school disciplinary offenses — and, occasionally, taken to the streets to protest.

"I'm tired of being called a protester," Carruthers said. "I am not a protester. I'm an organizer. And for some things, I'm an activist. Do I protest? Sure. But I'm not a fucking protester."

For Carruthers, protests are merely one of many ways to demand accountability. In her organizing work, Carruthers is committed to restoring dignity, not just in herself, but in others. At the heart of that commitment is a belief that real political change often happens far from the ballot box. "A trope that has continued for as long as I've been voting is that [people] should vote for the lesser of two evils. That's not presenting itself for me in 2016," Carruthers said about her own ambivalence about Clinton's candidacy. "I don't see either [Clinton or Sanders] as the lesser of two evils," though she admits, "perhaps that's because Hillary Clinton has been around a long time."

It's that history that neither she, nor the black women who are conflicted about the election, can escape.

Phil Sears/AP

Carruthers' motivation to build grassroots power makes sense. Despite our high levels of voter turnout, black women haven't always benefited from American democracy. Of the 102 women who serve in Congress, only 18 are black. Similarly, there are 1,787 women who work in state legislatures across the country, and only 242 of them are black.

"You have to be the resistance," Rep. Barbara Lee of California told her hometown paper, the Oakland Tribune. "You have to keep trying to work with the Republicans to do something that works for the country. You can't have a defeatist attitude. I think being a black woman in America, a double minority, I'm used to having to battle. It's another battlefront. You can't rest."

That lack of representation has had political consequences. Black women like my sister are more likely to be murdered than any other group of women in America. That's especially been the case for black transgender women. Black women are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence, constitute a frighteningly high rate of new HIV infections in the United States and, though they work at rates higher than any other group of women in the country, black women over the age of 65 have the lowest household income of any demographic in the country.

Black women like my sister are more likely to be murdered than any other group of women in America. 

"Causes and candidates that speak to the unique interests that women of color share would surely benefit politically," wrote Harris, an attorney who later became a policy adviser for Clinton's presidential campaign, in a 2014 policy paper for the Center for American Progress. "However, far more important are those benefits that will flow to women of color once the democratic process is more responsive to their needs and concerns."

Political leadership's response to these problems has been underwhelming. In 2014, the president announced My Brother's Keeper, a program that matches $200 million over five years in private money with federal funds to provide mentorship and other support for at-risk young men of color. It took a concerted call from black women, including 1,000 who signed an open letter to Obama, for the White House to announce a similar effort for at-risk girls of color.

It's this political reality that has shaped some young black women's opposition to either candidate. "Black women seem to participate the most actively in democracy, and get the least from it," wrote Alicia Garza, the 34-year-old co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization, in Time. Months before, the group announced that it would not endorse a 2016 presidential candidate because "sometimes you have to put a wrench in the gears to get people to listen." That came after the group rejected an overture from the Democratic National Committee.

"The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain black people's efforts to liberate ourselves," the group wrote in a statement. "True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party."

Clinton's campaign has absorbed the criticism. "I think that every candidate is being challenged by the movement, and I think that's a good thing," Drane told Mic. 

Like reward posters, movements inevitably fade. Exactly 26 years after my sister's death, I still come across her brown face smiling at me from barbershop windows on Divisadero, right beneath big, bold print offering a $250,000 reward from the San Francisco Police Department for information about her murder. On some, the edges are frayed and the white paper has turned brown.

But sometimes the paper is new.

Every year, my mother prints new posters. She hands them out to neighborhood friends and businesses that remember either my sister's death or the way that she lived: loud, rambunctious, free. All these years later, my mother is like countless other black women in America who are still searching for justice. Sometimes they join political movements to demand accountability. But many times they don't. They get up every morning and they watch the news. Carefully. And then they vote.