Keith Ellison spent the two hours mostly in silence. The Democratic congressman from Minnesota—and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee—flipped through a white binder, jotting notes with a royal blue pen that perfectly matched his tie. He typed into his plum-cased smartphone. He gestured to an empty seat for some latecomer slipping into the back of the room. Whenever a speaker mentioned his name, especially with a compliment, Ellison gave a thumbs-up. But mostly he was in receiving mode—the deferential host of a discussion on “ReCentering the Experiences of Black Women to Achieve Economic Justice” at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference in Washington.
The panel included the critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who pioneered the concept of intersectional feminism, which describes how overlapping systems of oppression like race and gender compound one another. (It’s “the way to analyze issues of equity,” Ellison stressed to the crowd.) Crenshaw was joined by Valerie Wilson, who directs the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy; Brittany Lewis, a doctorate research associate at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs; and Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. An abundance of expertise for the issue at hand.
But Ellison had extra reason to provide a platform for these speakers this week. Black women are the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters, yet many of them are feeling neglected eight months into Donald Trump’s presidency. Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist who served as Bernie Sanders’s press secretary during last year’s campaign, is fond of saying that “black women voted at 94 percent for Hillary Clinton, and they have yet to get a thank-you card.” Instead, many resent what they see as a new Democratic focus on chasing the white working class, which backed Trump. It’s one possible explanation for Wednesday’s Black Women’s Roundtable/ESSENCE poll showing an 11-point decline from last year in the percentage of black women who believe Democrats “best represented their interest.”
“It does not make logical sense, statistical sense, or any kind of sense that one can imagine to pour money into chasing a demographic that has not supported you for half a century, rather than watering the garden that’s in your own backyard,” Avis Jones-DeWeever, a policy advisor to the Black Women’s Roundtable, said during a presentation of the survey’s findings. On Thursday she stressed to me, “These findings need to be a wakeup call for the Democratic National Committee,” which “has made a political decision post–the 2016 election to put all their eggs in the basket of the white male electorate” and “basically distance themselves from black women.”
Holli Holliday, a consultant who, like Jones-DeWeever, worked on the survey, was flabbergasted by the results. “We looked at the numbers several times,” she told me. “We were shocked.” But plenty of black politicos at the conference were unsurprised by the poll’s findings. Mobbed by a raucous group of fans down one of Washington Convention Center’s vast corridors on Thursday afternoon, Reverend Al Sharpton vented, “It’s what I’ve been saying. People in the Democratic Party must deal with the issues that are concerning people on the ground, particularly black people. This whole move to try to go toward the right and get Trump voters that’ll never vote for them—they are going to start hemorrhaging black voters.”
Like Jones-DeWeever, Sharpton concluded, “This poll ought to be a signal to them that you cannot take your base vote for granted. You cannot go to other voters and make your base vote feel abandoned. This is a drop of 11 percent. You gotta remember that black women voted overwhelmingly for Hillary when white women voted for Trump. Now you’re sending every signal you’re going away from them, which gives the message, ‘I’m gonna to take y’all for granted. You ain’t got no place to go.’ That poll says they do have some place to go: They’ll stay home. And that’s dangerous. It has severe implications, if this is coming out in September, for the midterms, and it’s not good for New Jersey and Virginia now.”
Sharpton’s reference to the two governor’s races this fall speaks to the immediate political stakes of solidifying support from black women. Democrats can’t afford a deflated base, particularly in off-year elections where base turnout is everything. But this week’s polling also emphasizes long-term questions for the party: How could black women support be slipping at the very moment the Republican Party is consumed by white identity politics? And what does it say about Democrats’ identity as the multicultural party?
For both Avis Jones-DeWeever and Symone Sanders, the most vivid representation of the Democrats’ neglect of black women was the rollout of the party’s “A Better Deal” agenda in July. Congressional leadership trekked to the small town of Berryville, Virginia, to stage a press event in a park. Sanders said she cringed as the party “centered a message about the economy that does not include black women.” She told me, “They went way far out in the boonies of Virginia to launch it, when they could have gone down the street to Southeast D.C.” Meanwhile, Jones-DeWeever was incensed by the “Better Deal” slogan itself. “What the hell is that?” she asked. “Who are you going to motivate with that? Who are you going to inspire with that?” At the very least, Sanders said she’d have “launched the thing with some black women, with a multicultural coalition.” Both she and Jones-DeWeever would also have made the same change to Bernie Sanders’s clunky unity tour with DNC Chair Tom Perez back in the spring, which Jones-DeWeever thought was focused on “Bernie bros.”
Plenty of black men and white women would challenge that idea. But before his panel on Tuesday, Ellison acknowledged that black women often get short shrift in progressive discourse. “When we talk about racial justice, so often it’s the black men we end up talking about,” he said. “When we talk about gender justice, so often it’s the white women we end up talking about.” The crowd, which was comprised primarily of black women, then began to murmur with approval. “Where are all the sisters?” Ellison asked.
Ellison pledged to help more of them get elected. He told Thursday’s crowd that “we should absolutely pursue it right away,” adding, “We cannot have a situation where only black women are raising money and helping black women candidates. Everybody has to help black women candidates. If you are a feminist black woman, you should be helping black women. If you’re a black man, you should be helping black women. If you’re white man, you should be helping black women. Everybody should be promoting the genius that resides inside of black women.”
One woman in the audience wanted to see more action from national Democrats. Alexcius Branch, a 44-year-old State Farm insurance agent from Tucker, Georgia, who is mulling a run for the state legislature, told Ellison that prospective candidates need more attention, advice, and investment from people like him. “We’re not going to be able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” she told me. “It’s going to take men, both white and black, men in positions of power, and other women who have been afforded the opportunity, to reach down and help the next generation, to continue to have a pipeline to make that representation a little more equal.” She added, “As an African-American woman, I feel like too many decisions are being made about us, without us.”
Ellison agreed to talk with Branch, who told me, “I’m going to definitely take him up on his offer. I’m gonna give him a call.” As an aide whisked Ellison out of the convention center toward a waiting car, he acknowledged the Black Women’s Roundtable/ESSENCE polling and didn’t dispute its significance. “They’re disappointed,” he told me on the sidewalk. “They believe we should be standing up for them. And they’re right. It’s the Democratic Party’s responsibility to win the support of this critical base... It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re fighting for things that make black women’s lives better. I pledge to do everything every day. That’s why we did this forum.”
The congressman said all the right things. He told me the party would invest in training black women candidates and campaign managers, pouring more money into their communities. Looking back on President Barack Obama’s program to help young black men succeed, Ellison said “the problem is black women feel like, if you’re going to do ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ that’s fine, but what about ‘My Sister’s Keeper,’ too? ... I don’t blame ‘My Brother’s Keeper.’ I’d simply say we’ve gotta have some symmetry.”
“Now the question is, what is the action plan?” Sanders said to me. “If the party wants to be the big-tent party of everybody, if we want to win in the midterms and potentially regain the White House in 2020, we have to do better at speaking to all people authentically and making sure we don’t forget about our base.” With “A Better Deal,” she said, “It would seem as though the economy is only relevant to white America,” which wasn’t her approach on the Sanders campaign. “For Bernie’s economic plan,” she explained, “I specifically had numbers on how what we’re talking about affects the African-American community. I also specifically had numbers on how that specifically affects black women.”
That’s the kind of intersectionality Ellison raves about. And adopting it as a political strategy is vital to rebuilding in the age of Trump while maintaining those core, loyal voters. “Let’s say 10 percent of black women don’t show up or 15 percent,” Sanders theorized. “What are you replacing the 10 or 15 percent with? What happens when your 90 percent drops to 82? And you need the 90. The 90 is barely holding on. I’m just saying.”