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‘If not now, when?’: Black women seize political spotlight

MARIETTA, Ga. — The little girl ran up to her, wide-eyed and giddy.

“Are you Charisse Davis?” the fourth grader asked.

Davis was stunned. A former kindergarten teacher and librarian, she was more accustomed to shuttling her two sons to basketball practice than being seen as a local celebrity. But now she had been elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board, gaining office in a once conservative suburban community where people who look like her rarely held positions of power.

Something had changed in this place, and something had changed in her.

“I love your hair — your hair looks like my hair,” the girl squealed, calling friends over.

It was a moment both innocent and revealing: Not just a child seeing herself in an elected leader, but also a reflection of the rapidly building power of Black women. It’s a momentous change that could make history on a national ticket and determine the outcome of the presidential race.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of extraordinary division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”

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Black women have long been the heart of the Democratic Party — among the party’s most reliable and loyal voters — but for decades that allegiance didn’t translate to their own political rise. There have been zero Black female governors, just two senators, several dozen congresswomen.

And the people representing them instead have not met their needs: Disparities in education and opportunity resulted in Black women making on average 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Long-standing health inequities have caused Black people to die disproportionately from COVID-19.

And countless cases of police brutality have left many Black women terrified every time their children pulled out of the driveway, fearing that they might not make it home alive.

Now Black women are mobilized and demanding an overdue return on their investment. Over the last several years and across America, Black women ran and won elections in historic numbers, from Congress to county school boards.

This transformation is taking place in once unlikely places, suburban counties in the South. Places like Cobb, a rambling expanse of strip malls and subdivisions just north of Atlanta that doubled in population midway through the last century as white people fled the city. Then, slowly, families of color followed, also seeking bigger yards and better schools.

The year Charisse Davis was born, 1980, Cobb County was 4.5% African American. Now it’s more than 27% Black and 13% Hispanic. Its politics caught up with its demographics: In 2016 Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to eke out a win in Cobb County since Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, in 1976.

President Donald Trump’s presidency, which has fueled racial divisions and appealed to white grievance, unleashed for some here an overwhelming urgency. They added their names to down-ticket ballots; they canvassed; they knocked on doors.

When Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive Democrat, ran for governor in 2018, she focused her campaign on women of color. In that election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots — 20,000 more than voted in midterm elections four year earlier.

Although Abrams lost narrowly statewide, she won Cobb County handily. Meanwhile, Lucy McBath, a Black mother whose 17-year-old son was killed by a white man who thought his music was too loud, won a congressional seat that includes part of the county, a district once held by conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich.

Charisse Davis looked at the school board members and saw no Black women, so she ran and won. Another Black woman became the chair of the county’s young Republicans. Two joined the Superior Court bench. A teenager ran for class president, and she won, too.

“We’ve been watching from the sidelines and allowing other people to take their turns, and take these positions of power,” Davis said. “Now here we are to essentially fix it.”

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The first county Democratic Party meeting after Trump’s election was standing room only.

“It was almost like a support group. We had to be together, we had to grieve and yell,” Davis said. “What happened?”

Across the county, there was soul searching over how Clinton lost white, working-class voters, but much less on why Democrats also lost some of the support of this core constituency.

Historically Black women vote in extraordinary numbers, and they don’t vote alone: They usher their families, their churches, their neighbors to the polls.

But in 2016, African Americans did not turn out in the numbers the party had come to expect. For the first time in 20 years, their turnout declined in a presidential election. About 70% of eligible Black women voted in 2012 when President Barack Obama, the first Black president, secured a second term. But in 2016 that number slipped to 64%, its pre-Obama level.

While there were multiple reasons for Clinton’s loss, including a large defection of white voters, some saw the drop-off as a sign that Black voters had been taken for granted. Organizations sprang up across the country to motivate Black women to organize, run and win.

“We have never been at this moment,” said Aimee Allison, who in 2018 founded the network She the People, which is working to turn out a million women of color across seven battleground states. “For us as a group to recognize our own political power means that we also are demanding to govern.”

The power of Black voters was demonstrated when they overwhelmingly backed Joe Biden in the South Carolina primary, giving him a staggering victory that rescued his campaign and set him on a path to the nomination. Black women made up about one-third of the Democratic voters in the state and roughly two-thirds voted for Biden, according to the AP VoteCast survey.

Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and at least six of the contenders are Black — including California Rep. Karen Bass, who said, “I think what we’re looking for is representation, acknowledgement, inclusion.”

Those who advocate for Black women in politics say the stakes have never been higher.

They emphasize that Trump’s administration has failed to contain the coronavirus that has killed more than 154,000 Americans, a disproportionate share of them African Americans. He has responded to mass demonstrations over police violence by calling protesters thugs and encouraging law enforcement to beat them back with force.

“Given how directly Black women have been impacted by the incompetence and the malfeasance of the Trump administration, Black women are going to be at the forefront, not only giving rise to voter turnout, but also shaping the conversations that we will be having in this election season,” said Abrams, whose name has also been widely circulated as a possible Biden running mate. “It has been a sea change in how vital our voices have been.”

Black women can meet this moment in a way no one else can, they say: The world watched the video of George Floyd begging for his mother as he was dying under a police officer’s knee.

Charisse Davis’ sons, 10 and 14 years old, asked her: Why won’t the officer just let him get up?

When she looks at her own sons, she sees her babies. But the older boy is now taller than she is. He likes hoodies. She worries a stranger might see him as a menace, not a boy whose mother still has to remind him to floss his teeth.

“That is the reality of being a Black mother in this country,” she said.

She gets messages after school board meetings: “People like you are the problem,” one said. “She’s a racist,” a man wrote. Another described her as “defiant,” and said he had his son watch school board meetings “to see how he shouldn’t behave.”

She hears: You don’t belong there.

“You are dismantling the machine, rocking the boat, and all of those things are the way that they are by design,” she said, and added that one of the high schools in the district she represents is named after a Confederate officer.

“That is what the country is built on, that is racism, that is systemic racism, that is white supremacy. It’s all these things we don’t talk about. But if not now, when?”

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When Chinita Allen’s 20-year-old son was home from college earlier this year, he and a friend went to work out at their old high school in the affluent, predominantly white part of the county where they live. He had been a football star there. But someone saw two Black men and called the police to report suspicion.

She posted her son’s story on Facebook, and it rocketed around this community.

In the not-so-distant past, she might not have spoken up. A soccer mom and educator, she had long avoided talking about race, rocking the boat — until Trump won. Now she’s the president of Cobb Democratic Women and leading the charge to try to turn the county totally blue.

“It’s all about knowing your worth,” she said. “We’ve always been here, like the Underground Railroad. But it’s surfaced now. In a big way. It’s a rail train.”

Black women powered the civil rights movement, but rarely became its stars. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers, Ella Baker and Dorothy Height never held political office, but they played a critical role, said Nadia Brown, a Purdue University political science professor.

Only occasionally did their work lead to elective office, as it did when Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, and a candidate for president in 1972.

But the landscape changed dramatically over the last several cycles. Just two years ago, five Black women were elected to Congress, four of them in majority-white districts, according to the Higher Heights Black Women in American Politics 2019 survey. Congress now has more Black women than ever before: 22 congresswomen and one senator, Kamala Harris, who is just the second to serve in that chamber and a prominent contender to be Biden’s running mate.

The change has extended to state and local offices. Two black women are running for governor in Virginia, and if either of them win, she would become the nation’s first Black female governor.

In Cobb County, Kellie Hill made history in June as one of two Black women elected to the Superior Court bench. When she first moved to Georgia 30 years ago, fellow lawyers assumed she was her secretary’s assistant.

“I said for years, ‘Maybe one day they’ll be ready for me,'” Hill said. “And as exciting as it is to be the first, it’s a little unbelievable that we’re having a conversation about being the first in the year 2020.”

Although they make up about 7.5% of the electorate, less than 2% of statewide elected executive offices were held by Black women as of November 2019. They account for less than 5% of officeholders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress and state legislatures, according to the Higher Heights survey.

“Black women have done everything that America told us was going to make us successful and we’re still at the bottom in terms of our return,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

Black women are posting faster educational gains than any other demographic group in the U.S. — seeing a 76% jump in the number of college degrees earned over the past 20 years, but they aren’t reaping the promised economic benefits. On average, Black women made 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes. But that drops to 55 cents for Black women with a professional degree compared to white men with the same level of educational attainment.

“People told us that education is key to being successful,” Brown said. “What did Black women do? Black women, out of any constituency group in this country, we enter college more than any other group in this country. Then why does the wealth not reflect that?”

As a result, said Bev Jackson, chair of the Democratic Party’s Cobb County African American caucus, Black women have a special resiliency: They have no safety net, so Black women just learn to walk the tightrope better.

Jackson thought about how much she wished her parents had lived to see a Black woman come so close to the Governor’s Mansion. Her family’s roots in Cobb County go back more than 100 years. Her parents went to segregated schools and sipped out of separate water fountains.

Once, when Jackson was a little girl, she sat down at a lunch counter because she wanted a cherry Coke. The waitress just passed her by, refusing to serve her.

Now Black women around her are daring to run, to win and to demand their leaders fix the broken system that maintains disparities in policing, health care, education, economics.

“You have taken our votes for granted for years. But guess what?” she said. “It’s payback time: What are you going to do for us?”

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Republicans aren’t immune to this awakening.

DeAnna Harris was recently elected chair of the Cobb County Young Republicans, the first Black person in the post. To highlight local Black Republicans — the district attorney, deputy sheriff, a former state representative — she held her inaugural event at the historic African American church she attends. The crowd was diverse, she said, and she was proud of that.

She tries to make a conservative pitch to other Black voters by touting the ideals she believes in: small government, gun rights, religious freedom, anti-abortion. The response is generally something along the lines of, “but I don’t like Trump.”

“He’s never served the role of politician, who gets up there and smiles and says all the right things and winks at the camera, and then when you turn around they stab you in the back,” Harris said. Though she doesn’t like his tone or his tweets, she supports Trump because of his conservative policies.

But she also believes it’s imperative that Republicans broaden their base. The party should look like America, she thinks, and right now it doesn’t.

The Democratic Party of Georgia is confident that enthusiasm is on its side. Fair Fight Action, the organization Abrams founded, calculated that Georgia has more than 750,000 new voters who were not registered in 2018, 49% of them voters of color. And despite a pandemic and hourslong lines in some polling places, more Democrats voted in June’s presidential primary than in 2008, when Obama was on the ticket.

That Democratic energy can be particularly seen in these northern Atlanta suburbs. McBath, the incumbent in the 6th Congressional District, ran unopposed and got 26,000 more primary votes than the five Republicans candidates combined. In Cobb County, almost 33,000 African Americans voted in the 2016 primary. In the 2020 primary: more than 52,000. Both of the state’s Republican senators are up for election, putting Georgia on the front lines of the fight for control of the Senate.

“The 2020 election cycle is going to be key to changing the course of history in this country,” said Nikema Williams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, who was selected to replace Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in July, on the November ballot. “We’re a battleground in Georgia now, and Black women are leading the way.”

In Cobb County, even some who can’t vote themselves are determined to thwart Trump’s chances of reelection. Gabby Bashizi was one of thousands of teenagers who plotted on the social media site TikTok to reserve tickets to Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, then not show up.

Trump said he expected a million fans to attend. There were about 6,000, and lots of empty seats.

“I think he’s really dangerous,” said Bashizi, 17. Her father is an immigrant from Congo, so it feels personal every time Trump calls immigrants criminals or Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs.” “We all feel it. We all go home scared. Is it going to be me next?”

When she was younger she struggled to find self-worth. No Disney princesses looked like her. People touched her hair, like it was a strange curiosity. In the sixth grade, she buzzed it to the width of a bottle cap, and cried and cried.

Then she started seeing Black women ascend.

“Seeing them fight their fight on the national stage has led me to be able to fight my fight on a personal level,” she said. She grew her hair out again.

Charisse Davis said that it is these young women who give her hope for a better day: They are idealistic, coming of age in a time when Black women are rising, and they can look around, see people like themselves and believe anything is possible.

She knows an 18-year-old named Audrey McNeal. McNeal ran to be the class president at her mostly white high school, and lost. She thought of a poem she once wrote about a princess envious of her brother because one day he would be king; she wanted to be powerful. She ran again, and won.

“It’s about time we represent ourselves,” McNeal said. Now she’s a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She’s heading to Barnard College to study politics.

She thinks she’ll be secretary of state one day. And then, maybe, president.

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Associated Press writers Angeliki Kastanis, Josh Boak, Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.

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