Originally Published in The Final Call
BY BARRINGTON M. SALMON-CONTRIBUTING WRITER- | LAST UPDATED: DEC 25, 2019 – 1:10:15 PM
As 2019 draws to a close, Black people across the country are engaged in the timeless ritual of looking back over the prior 12 months to access their gains and losses personally and across and between social, political and economic spheres.
A shroud of concern and anxiety has hung over Africans in America since 2016 which ushered in an overtly hostile administration and policies that have forced Black people to be defensive generally. Yet for more than a few African Americans, events affecting Black people in 2019 and the still unknown prospects for the upcoming presidential election in 2020 are enough to galvanize them even in the face of sometime numbing assaults on their person and communities.
At the end of the day, observers and analysts said Black people are seeking to attain the same things Whites and other American have: financial and economic stability, access to quality healthcare, a good education, safe neighborhoods and good jobs.
But Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever said she believes that Blacks have seen “a slight continuation of the trajectory downwards.”
“Unemployment is still double that of the White population and wages connected to jobs are stagnant or falling,” she said. “This goes to the heart of quality of life issues. Are we really financially secure in the face of the ramping up of gentrification and the difficulties of finding and securing affordable housing?”
Black women making moves amid setbacks
Dr. Jones-DeWeever, a political analyst, commentator, best-selling author and speaker, said in the midst of great hardship are events and circumstances that buoy the spirit.
“A beautiful South African woman was named Miss Universe. It’s the first time a woman wearing an Afro has been crowned,” said Dr. Jones-DeWeever. “This is a moment where we as a world community can acknowledge the beauty of Black women.”
South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe making her the first Black woman to win the celebrated beauty pageant since Leila Lopes in 2011.
This has also been a record-breaking year for Black women vying in beauty pageants. It is the first time that the winners of Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss America and Miss Teen USA are all Black women.
Dr. Jones-DeWeever said the joy of celebrating the power and beauty of Black women is leavened by the recent decision of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to suspend her campaign for president and essentially drop out of the 2020 race.
Sen. Harris’s decision was met with surprise, anger and frustration by a wide cross-section of Black women on social media platforms and other places where African American women gather and confer, whether in person or virtually.
“I was shocked. It seemed too early. I was disappointed to see her drop out. She had a historic run,” Dr. Jones-DeWeever said. “She was only the third Black woman to run for president. What was troubling was the particular level of vitriol directed at her. You can decide to not support a candidate without being so vile and disrespectful. It came from Black men and Black women too. I think we still have a lot to learn.”
Michele L. Watley, a communications strategist, political consultant and civic and community engagement specialist, agreed with Dr. Jones-DeWeever’s assessment.
“I was surprised she stepped out so early,” said Ms. Watley, a Kansas City, Missouri, resident. “You can ignore the campaign’s struggles but campaigns with less management experience, lesser expertise and resources are still in the race. Now the debate will lack diversity. The (Democratic) Party has had that problem and has not sufficiently dealt with it.”
Yet, both Ms. Watley and Dr. Jones-DeWeever point out, the impact and power of Black women in recent election cycles isn’t a fluke and cannot be ignored.
“Black women are the hot thing,” said Ms. Watley, who served as the African American outreach director for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and is president and founder of The Griot Group. “They are getting people elected and changing the political land-scape and the political climate. We have led on movement issues, are the highest educated group in the country, yet we have no Black women CEOs. We check the boxes, do the work but are not able to achieve certain political goals. We have not been able to get Black women through the primaries,” she added.
“Sen. Harris was highly qualified as California’s attorney general and has been an effective senator no matter what you think about her prosecutorial record. I think Sen. Harris was treated differently. She was held to higher standards and a higher threshold that she could never have met.”
Cauious optimism, but a sobering reality
Dr. Monique Gamble described 2019 as an “up and down” year, nerve-wracking and a source of diminished optimism. The country’s turn to the right, it’s embrace of White nationalism and extremism, the conscious of certain Whites to police Black behavior and the unrelenting threats against Black people from all sides have caused deepening concern about the future of Africans in America, she said.
Dr. Gamble said she worries about the threat of the toxic racial environment on Black people. Of equal concern, said Dr. Gamble, visiting assistant professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia, is the manner in which President Donald Trump has attacked and eroded what many thought were America’s enduring institutions, including Congress, the courts, the media and the intelligence community.
“I have seen him flout norms and there’s no accountability. Without question, what we’ve seen during this presidency will, without question, will cause lasting damage,” she said. “I was an institutionalist who believed that what the Founding Fathers produced was unique and a progressive idea for those times. But this administration has blasted holes into institutions we were taught were impregnable.
“It feels like institutions as powerful as America has, is being operated by people who are trash. Ultimately, these institutions are only as good as the people who adhere to them. It’s not just Donald Trump, it’s the enablers in the Senate and House. I am concerned that every level of our institutions has been broken.”
Dr. Gamble, an Alabama native, said the impeachment hearing in the House of Representatives where the Democratic majority just returned two articles of impeachment against President Trump, reflect that depth of the problem.
“We’re seeing something in our lifetimes few of us ever expected to see. There was a clear obstruction of justice and a clear violation of what the president is supposed to do but the Senate will not do what’s required.”
She said she agrees that what’s playing out is a war for America’s soul, “but it’s deeper than most people think.” Dr. Gamble said she doesn’t trust the electorate to do the right thing in 2020, has lost faith in America’s institutions and doesn’t believe that Joe Biden is the “answer.”
“I’m fearful about the upcoming election because I’m not fully convinced someone won’t manipulate the electoral system again,” she said. “I don’t know what 2020 holds. Any number of terrible things is possible, such as Trump refusing to leave office and triggering a constitutional crisis. Folks are threatening violence and the House and Senate do nothing.
“I’m always hopeful and optimistic but I have become a ‘show and prove’ person.”
According to the Pew Research Center, since the 2016 presidential election, Blacks and people of color have been making history across the U.S. by winning mayoral races and school board seats in places where their families were once ignored or prevented from voting.
In November, for example, voters in Bowie, Maryland, elected Tim Adams, the city’s first Black mayor. In Chicago, attorney Lori Lightfoot became the first Black and gay woman to become mayor. In Alabama, Montgomery residents elected Montgomery County Probate Judge Steven Reed as the first Black mayor in the city’s 200-year history in November. And about 90 miles away in the city of Talladega, Alabama, Timothy Ragland began serving as the city’s first Black mayor.
In the judicial sphere, political appointments by President Trump of federal judges was a major issue this year that has flown under the radar. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the unabashed support of Senate Republicans, President Trump has appointed 157 judges to the federal bench in less than three years. He has overseen the confirmation of more judges than any of his recent predecessors at the same point in their presidencies. Almost 30 percent of all U.S. Circuit Court judges are Trump appointees.
With the judges serving lifetime appointments, the effects of their conservative, far-right decisions will be seen and felt long after President Trump leaves office. The damage to civil rights, gender, employment and labor union activity, LGBTQIA and other issues will be significant and consequential, critics say.
“What’s happening in the courts scares the hell out of me. I worry about the world my sons will have to navigate,” Dr. Jones-DeWeever said soberly.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told USA Today in 2018: “It is most unfortunate. It turns the clock back on years of work and effort that went into promoting judicial diversity.”
She has been warning the public about the danger posed to African Americans, people of color, the poor and the most vulnerable by President Trump’s judicial appointments. The president, Sen. McConnell and the Republican leadership have concentrated on ramming through nominations to federal, district and circuit courts with many called unqualified, others who are openly hostile racially, or have expressed or written in support of gender bias, while others refuse to accept settled law.
“This is a huge issue,” Ms. Clarke explained during a 2018 panel discussion on the effects of the Trump administration on the country. “There are 140 vacancies in federal courts. The judiciary has always mattered to Black people because it is a place of last resort. Ninety-nine percent of cases are heard in federal and district courts. Ninety-one percent of those Trump is putting forward are White and male and they are the fringe. He’s turning back the clock to the Jim Crow era.”
Despite the monumental shifts and the burgeoning power of Black women, African Americans face some daunting challenges just to cast a vote. Since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states that were once required to get permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to enact voting laws have been free to implement limits to voting that activists say has had negative impacts on every major and smaller election since.
The high court ruling against the federal government in the Holder v Shelby case in 2013, was followed closely by several primarily southern states, enacting a series of draconian laws that have made it increasingly more difficult for Blacks, Latinos, students and the elderly to cast their ballots.
The Republican legislators supporting these bills claim that the measures are an effort to block voter fraud. Their critics contend that the laws are a way to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to vote Democratic.
Voter suppression and voter manipulation is alive and well, said Ria Thompson-Washington, which is why she has been focused on organizing, educating and mobilizing Blacks, members of the Latino community, African Diaspora communities and others working for about 18 months. She is the senior national coordinator for the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. and the Election Protection organizer for six states: Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee and Virginia.
What she’s seeing at the grassroots level in the places she visits and works gives her a great deal of encouragement going into 2020.
“This was a monumental year for voting rights and people engaging in the voting process,” Ms. Thompson-Washington said. “There’s been an increase in civic engagement with Black and White people. This has been a year of growth. People are aware that 2020 is looming. I think 2020 will have record numbers,” she added.
“I’ve been involved in organizing and voting programs. In Louisiana, for example, more Black people voted on Nov. 16 than all year. In Mississippi, 20 percent more young people voted. I have seen so many more Black elders engaged in this work. They’re having inter-generational conversations and I’m there. I’m older than the younger and younger than the older.”
Ms. Thompson-Washington said she generally engages with communities where residents allow her to come in and assist them. She said she works with state and national groups that form civic engagement groups to prepare participants to vote in local, state and national elections.
“I’m here to see what they need,” she said. “I’m trying to make sure the landscape is different. I empower communities and let them know that there are lawyers at the other end of the hotline phones. I train protestors to exercise their constitutional right and I train lawyers to engage as monitors.”
Ms.Thompson-Washington, whose mother was from the Dominican Republic and whose father was a sharecropper from South Carolina, said she is staying honest to her heritage and roots but fighting for electoral and related changes.
“Impeachment boils down to the election being stolen,” she said. “If we can’t correct what happened at the highest levels, nothing will change. We have to hold people at the top accountable. People cannot disengage from this process.”
At the end of the day, what she does and tries to foster is voting and leadership. “We tend to see ourselves as too small, but we have everything we need to make change,” Ms. Thompson-Washington explained.