Ally or Adversary?

Democrats, Black folks and the latest presidential debate

This article was originally published in The Final Call

BY BARRINGTON M. SALMON -CONTRIBUTING WRITER- | LAST UPDATED: DEC 2, 2019 – 12:21:49 PM

Black women have proven over time to be the most dependable and consistent bloc of voters for the Democratic party, powering candidates to victories in Alabama, Virginia, New Jersey and other states and cities in 2017, the 2018 midterms and 2019.

Democratic presidential candidates from left: Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; former technology executive Andrew Yang and investor Tom Steyer participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate, Nov. 20, in Atlanta.

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Yet, that loyalty has not often been reciprocated, as Black women have been ignored by the Democratic establishment; been sidelined; have had to fight for their voice to be heard; demanded a place at the table; and pushed and prodded reluctant party brass to focus on their myriad issues, needs and concerns.

The Nov. 20 Democratic debate in Atlanta, Georgia, illustrated for a number of Black women interviewed by The Final Call, the tensions and unease that have frayed the alliance.

“Senators (Kamala) Harris and (Cory) Booker elevated issues of concern to Black people,” said Dr. Melanie Campbell, who spoke to a reporter while waiting at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for a flight home after watching the debate. “Cory and Kamala carried it the strongest. This is the challenge. The candidates haven’t spoken much about race, racism, voting and not a lot about criminal justice or policing reforms to any degree.” Dr. Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable Public Policy Network, said what she feels is missing is a debate with members of the Black press as moderators.

“The debate forum should focus on criminal justice and social reform issues, voting rights, domestic issues, economic justice, the attacks on Black people and things affecting people in their everyday life,” she explained.

But that hasn’t happened, said activist and organizer Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, because Democrats treat Blacks as pawns and fodder. “There are no real policies and practices showing that Democrats want to deal seriously with African Americans. They blame Black people when they lose and they will not talk about material conditions that people are dealing with,” said Ms. Sankara-Jabar, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., and co-founder of Racial Justice Now! “Every day working class people are hurting. We are not well. The Democratic Party has not done enough to remedy this or the courts dismantling Civil Rights and Affirmative Action,” she argued.

The Executive Branch has failed us, the Legislative Branch has failed us and we’re about to get our ass kicked by the courts which Trump has been packing. That’s why we have to build our own party.” For Black people, voting and voting for the Democrats is harm reduction, said Ms. Sankara-Jabar.

“It’s a strategy, but it will never get us where we need to be,” she said. “People are suffering, dying, not having their basic needs met. It’s worse now than in the ‘90s economy. When White folks catch a cold, we catch pneumonia. We need to stop bleeding then deal with the underlying trauma.”

Kristal L. High Taylor, a Millennial activist, lawyer, policy advocate and entrepreneur, said there is a tension between Black people and the Democratic Party, an interesting dichotomy, she said, where party officials have never addressed “a full and complete reckoning of the issues.”

One DC Meeting

“More broadly I would say that the system works if the goal is to keep in power the vested interests who have always controlled the country—wealthy White men,” the Raleigh, North Carolina resident said. “The party mechanism has to change, and a new definition of the party process has to be made clear.”

That means replacing the current system of “retail politics” with one that accommodates people who are diverse, committed, have fresh ideas and a solid work ethic, she said. It is also critically important to reform the campaign finance structure so that people other than the very wealthy or those tied to wealthy donors have a chance to run for office and win.

“Given the demographic shifts and the people who vote for them, you’d think Democrats would focus on this but that’s the ‘challenge,’” Mrs. Taylor said. “There’s a tension between engagement and where you’re seeking strategic counsel. How are Democratic leaders leveraging this bloc?”

Again” rally at Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi, Oct. 2, 2018. Democrats are waiting for a clear-cut challenger to emerge from the field of candidates.

They’re not, Ms. Taylor said, because the Democratic establishment continues to cling to the misguided belief that attracting the White working class and Reagan Democrats back to the party is a winning strategy.

“People of color show up but instead of acknowledging this group, Democrats have moved in the opposite direction,” said Ms. Taylor. “In some ways it’s weird but it’s predicated on fear. The idea exists that the only way White people can survive and thrive is by oppressing others. Some level of that has always been engrained in America.”

Tamieka Atkins told The Final Call she didn’t watch the debate because she customarily catches up a day or two later. But she said she’s read all the think pieces and analysis in the debate’s aftermath.

“It’s more an exercise in futility and posturing,” she said of the debates. “There’s some good talk but not good plans. Healthcare is very important to African Americans and a big part of their quality of life but no one’s talking about it in a way to help those listening. Folks are looking for easy comparisons but they’re not getting it.”

The Atlanta resident said she’s completely non-partisan but added, “the Democratic Party doesn’t take us seriously.” Ms. Atkins is executive director of ProGeorgia, Georgia’s state-based non-partisan voter engagement advocacy organization. She was the founding director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Atlanta Chapter.

She is one of a cadre of organizations and individuals in the South who well before 2017 ratcheted up the ground game—crisscrossing the state, knocking on doors in neighborhoods and communities where some Democratic politicians and operatives never thought to go, talking to residents, listening and encouraging them to register and then making sure they made it to the polls.

“We registered 24,000 people in 2019 and 8,000 in 2017,” said Ms. Atkins, a member of the State Voices National Network of Tables. “When I knock on doors as a part of these grassroots programs, people aren’t demoralized. People are definitely engaged. They have a deeper curiosity and make the decision to stay involved. Folks are asking a lot more questions about voting machines, polling stations and other things.”

Ms. Atkins is working on voter mobilization and organizing in Georgia, which is widely acknowledged as the epicenter of voter suppression and voter manipulation by the Republican Party, aided and abetted by Gov. Brian Kemp. As Secretary of State, Mr. Kemp orchestrated voter purges and blatantly used other forms of voter manipulation and intimidation. For example, his office struck more than 1.5 million voters from the rolls between 2012 and 2016.

He was able to do that because Republican legislators, since 2013, doubled down on the opportunity to roll back voting rights for Blacks after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. This removed Department of Justice oversight of Georgia and its 159 counties and eliminated the need for preclearance from the federal government of any changes to the voting apparatus and/ or procedures. Mr. Kemp and state election officials cut back early voting, closed 214 polling stations— the majority in Black districts—and blocked 53,000 voters from casting a ballot in 2018 because of the “exact match” program.

Ms. Atkins said she and members of the Domestic Workers Alliance have been on the frontlines of the fight to secure affordable health care for Georgia residents who qualify. She said Georgians have two options, private healthcare insurance and Medicaid waivers that are offered to one-third of the residents who quality. Georgia is one of 14 states where state officials refuse to expand Medicaid.

“They took the power to expand Medicaid from the governor and gave it to the Legislature and now two-thirds of the legislature would have to vote for expansion for it to be implemented,” she said. “Who gives away power? We were pissed because we (the Domestic Workers Alliance) had been working on this for three years.”

Dr. Monique Gamble said she appreciated Sens. Harris and Booker picking up the slack and articulating the issues of concerns that resonate with Black people. She singled out Julian Castro for also centering his campaign on race and racial issues, saying what few of his colleagues have uttered or articulated.

Mr. Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas did not qualify for the recent debate. “The Democratic Party is supposed to be the big tent but there are unique challenges,” said Dr. Gamble, visiting assistant professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia. “We need challenges, but this is a blessing and a curse. Being a big tent is a good thing but if you have tough issues you’re wrestling with, that makes it more difficult,” she said.

“There’s nobility in embracing a diverse group of people and it is respectable, but it also could inspire cowardice. Diverse groups have diverse issues and it takes courage to face and deal with them.” 

voters_12-03-2019.png

Students registering to vote, Sept. 25, 2018. Observers say Black voter registration is key to the 2020 Presidential election.

Dr. Gamble also faulted the Democratic Party for reaching backwards for Reagan Democrats and wished aloud that more Democrats would take former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ political tack and adjust to the current political climate where Republicans are doing whatever they need to stay in power, while Democrats call for politeness, civility and unity.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who could use the attention are ignored,” said the Alabama native. “They have a preoccupation with the White working class which is illustrative of where the Democrats’ policies and interests are and what they’re focused on. Black and Brown people are most consistent— no one wants part-time love.”

Dr. Gamble said the centrist-progressive split is real and used her father as an example. He’s a centrist who voted for Reagan and George Bush. He’s a military veteran who is uncomfortable with the progressive agenda.

“I’m not where he is but I’m not as far left as Sen. Elizabeth Warren,” she said. “My healthcare position is Medicare for All while centrists prefer Obamacare. The overhaul of American institutions is scary for some people. For older Millennials and Gen Xers, life is harder. The problems we are inheriting are deep and big. Incremental bites is not enough.”

The interviewees agreed that Mr. Trump has ushered in an era of open racial hostility and aggression, has emboldened White nationalists and other hardline White people, embarked on dismantling the administrative state as he promised during his campaign and has opened a Pandora’s box of racial animus, hatred and White privilege that will continue to haunt this country long after he’s done.

Dr. Campbell said the Democratic Party must focus on diversity and inclusion, invest in the organizations and leadership and continue to hire Black staffers who are self-assured in their Blackness and their expertise. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Atkins spoke of the need to learn the lessons from the past and put a laser focus on local and municipal elections.

Ms. Atkins said she and her colleagues are paying close attention to voting, the 2020 census, the legalization of marijuana and the reduction in the incarceration rate.


“We’ve learned how quickly things can change after eight years,” Ms. Atkins said. “We’re living it. It should be a lesson to us. There are structures that allow White supremacy to flourish at the federal level. We have to challenge local positions of leadership where White men are over-represented.

“White political operatives came to us, but they have their own agenda. We’re just doing our own thing. We started the Women of Color Initiative and have been touring and having listening sessions. At the end of the day, we’ll develop our own agenda, develop our shared collective vision,” she said.

Dr. Gamble said she has concerns about the threat of the toxic racial environment on Black people. She doesn’t believe that Joe Biden is the answer and is fearful about the upcoming election because she’s not fully convinced someone won’t manipulate the electoral system again.

“Nothing has stopped since 2016,” she said. “We could have a viable candidate and someone could throw a bomb like (former FBI Director) James Comey did just before the 2016 election.” Mrs. Sankara- Jabar said she supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 and supports him now even though some parts of his platform and agenda does not completely align with hers. She fears that the Democratic Party might do in 2020 what it did 2016 and sabotage Sen. Sanders so he doesn’t get the party nomination.

“It’s complete bulls*** to say he’s too far left. This is really about neoliberalism,” she said. “People don’t want a … neoliberal. If Democrats chose this, they will continue to lose.”

Meanwhile, she said Africans in America need to build their own party.

“We need to strategically work together. I believe in theory and practice that we have to build Black independence and self-determination but still interact with our allies,” she said. “We don’t have a choice. I’m a supporter of reparations because we’ve never been made whole. We have to have a ‘two-ends’ strategy of building in the midst of White extremist terror as African Americans did during Reconstruction.

“Ultimately, my politics is about liberation. And we can learn from the past because we have the blueprint from which to learn.”

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