These are exciting yet tumultuous times politically, in no small measure because of the vibrant and insistent involvement of black women. We see history being made by The “Georgia Five,” the record-breaking group of black women vying to fill statewide office posts as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, state schools superintendent, and labor commissioner. Political advocacy groups run by and focusing on black women are hotly contesting voting rights attacks in states as politically disparate as North Carolina and Wisconsin. Even young black women are finding their voice through advocacy groups like Million Hoodies (@MillionHoodies) and Black Youth Project (@BlackYouthProj), both of which have taken leadership roles in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies. To fully understand this dynamic, one has to go back two election cycles.
The Pew Research Center declared the 2008 election the most “racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history.” Blacks represented 12.1% of all voters who cast a ballot, and had a 65.2% voter turnout rate (less than one percentage point behind the white voter turnout rate) which measures the percentage of all eligible black voters who actually voted. While impressive, some discounted the importance of these statistics, reasoning that we should expect black voters to run to the polls to support “their” black candidate. But there was more: at 68.8%, black women led all demographic groups with the highest voter turnout rate among eligible black female voters—for the first time ever. People seemed stunned at this turn of events. Groupthink and black politics aside, no one really expected this result from the most-overlooked, least-consulted voting bloc in our country. Black women walked neighborhoods, called friends and family, handed out leaflets, donated $5.00 at a time each payday, both informally though social and personal networks, and formally as part of local campaign offices. Obama infused hope in hearts and homes where it had been scarce for too long.
By the time the 2012 election came, support and naïve enthusiasm might have faded somewhat but again black women were the darlings of election night. This time around, the results were even more decisive. Blacks had the highest percentage of votes cast for Obama—93%, and of black women who voted, 96% voted for Obama. David C. Wilson, political science professor at University of Delaware, concludes, “These very basic points call into question what the 2012 election was really about: Was it about the economy, or was it really about the “type” of leadership desired by a new coalition of American voters largely consisting of progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting racial minorities?” “Progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting” aptly describes where black Christian women (BCW) often find themselves, making a variation of Professor Wilson’s question a good one to ponder: What are politics and elections really about for us? Are they about giving white America political comeuppance for the inexcusable way blacks and other minorities are treated in this country? Are they a way to push to the forefront our concerns about domestic violence, racial disparities in health and criminal justice, adequate and affordable housing and daycare, and living wages? Can they, and should they be a means of witnessing to the world around us the truth of the gospel and its relevance to life’s challenges and oppressions?
As black women continue to rise in political influence, BCW are increasingly forced to consider questions like these, culminating in one even more difficult: How do we politically engage in a biblically faithful way when neither Democrats nor Republicans, neither white evangelicals nor the weakened “Christian right” completely reflect all of our values and beliefs? Black women might seem the next best hope, but troublesome, too is the ascendance of black women who label themselves as political progressives but who act and think in line with traditional liberal platforms and positions. The problem is not in supporting issues that relate to the black part of us. Not many black women would argue against fair housing, equal pay for equal work, equality under the law in the justice system, or voting rights for all. The conundrum comes when we consider issues like marriage equality, sexuality and contraception, abortion, and others typically categorized more as theological rather than political.
BCW acknowledge the responsibility to maintain a faithful Christian witness across the full spectrum of political policies and issues but too often it seems easier said than done. For those who desire to find a more fully integrated political sweet spot, a few things might help ease the psychological and spiritual dissonance that comes from trying to honor all parts of the BCW identity—female, black, and Christian.
First, decide that non-involvement is not the answer. Sometimes concern defaults to avoidance because engagement focuses on the areas of common ground between BCW and those seeking their support. This approach often results in silence on vital social and cultural problems. Especially on the tough issues, BCW cannot be silent. The BCW voice and viewpoint need to be part of the political discourse in homes, churches, city halls, and on the national stage.
Second, carefully investigate the policy positions and agendas of prominent advocacy groups led by black women and others. Get familiar with language and lingo. For example, marriage equality and reproductive justice/reproductive health are common phrases used in support of same-sex unions and abortion. For example, Higher Heights for America and Black Women’s Roundtable are two highly visible and active groups. They both support positions that are not problematic, and some that are. Higher Heights describes its mission as investing “in a long-term strategy to expand and support Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthen their civic participation beyond just election day.” This mission is supported by its #BlackWomenLead, #BlackWomenVote, and #SundayBrunch initiatives, all focused on increased and informed voting by black women. But curiously, it also issued a report, “Black Women’s Response to the War on Women”, in which support is evidenced for abortion. Another black woman-led group, Black Women’s Roundtable, a program of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, “is viewed as being among the most powerful coalition of African-American women in the country, mainly because of the clout held by its membership”. In 2013, its president Melanie Campbell participated in high-level fiscal cliff discussions at the White House, and Campbell was also present at a February 2014 meeting in which civil rights leaders presented a document outlining the black community’s agenda for jobs and freedom. In March of this year, the Roundtable issued a groundbreaking report, “2014 State of Black Women” in which it lists as a policy agenda item: “End war on women in the states including reproductive justice and women’s right to control their own bodies.”
Third, focus more on local political involvement. National groups strive to appeal to the broadest constituency possible, which often results in policy positions that most BCW do not support. But what can’t be supported nationally can be impacted locally. Research opportunities in the community– whether through churches, sororities, or other community-based organizations—to engage with those issues that require biblical fidelity and can better reflect the obligation to do justice in all areas of our political participation.
Just as “all politics are local,” all issues have a root or some relation to one’s lived theology, and black Christian women must step in to the gap between progressive and liberal politics.