A photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. Five women in front are wearing #BlackLivesMatter shirts, and four out of five are raising their fists.

Laurie Schaull/cc 2.0

State of Disunion

Laurie Schaull/cc 2.0

Black Women Knew. Will the Nation Finally Listen?

Black women have maintained the glory of a party—and a nation—that has never given us a fraction of what we have provided. It's time for things to change.

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As the ascendancy of Donald Trump has breathed new life into the culture of racial and gendered violence that has defined America since its inception, our political culture is in desperate need of a guide. The open, unshielded traumas of this era—from the efforts to marginalize and minimize the electoral power of ethnic and religious minorities to the unrepentant sexual violations of girls and women to the denial of citizenship to women of color as elected representatives of the United States of America—have delivered hard lessons about the nature of our national identity and the value of representative democracy. Every day, Trump demands a reckoning with the forces that heretofore had been invisible to our mainstream politics—to everyone except Black women.

In the 2016 election cycle, the greatest modern test of the American republic, Black women were the only major demographic to get an A. It was our understanding of the threat, our knowledge of existing systems, and our weathered optimism about a country that has given nothing and taken all from us that allowed us to navigate one of the most fraught and compromised elections in American history. It was the canary in the coal mine, the warning that America needed. With confusion and chaos in the aftermath of the election, the visibility of our excellence brought an unprecedented opportunity to engage with Black women as visionaries, citizens, and human beings. It was the rare moment in our politics where the problem and the remedy were in almost perfect alignment.

Yet America whiffed.

Whether it is co-opting our identities to sell the status quo, minimizing our importance to and understanding of American politics, or merely pretending that we don’t exist, Black women receive disrespect from across the political spectrum. Now we watch as Trump dismantles the country, and opposite him, there is only a new presidential election field dotted with overzealous white male mediocrity, a slew of specious electability arguments and, apparently, an iron-willed determination not to learn from our mistakes.

Rather than pursue true engagement with the power and insight of Black women, both the left and right are both eager to tokenize us. The radical left talks frequently about dramatic changes to the system but rarely engages with the critiques they receive as a movement dominated by the white and well-off. Instead, Black women who criticize their vision and policy for its lack of intersectionality will be told that we are erasing the many women of color who agree with them, the same names hurled in our direction over and over again. On the right, Black women are merely shields to neutralize accusations of racism. No matter how extreme the numbers (94 percent would be treated as a virtually unanimous consensus in any other context), any individual Black woman can absolve a white person of their racist behavior. This and only this can be the reasoning for why Lynne Patton was dragged into the Michael Cohen hearings by Republican Representative Mark Meadows, her body used as a prop to disturb the accusations of racism that Cohen had made against the President of the United States. To be a politically engaged Black woman is to hear that white men’s words become intersectional in a Black woman’s mouth, or to face brash incredulity at our “racist” rejection of solidarity with the likes of Stacey Dash.

This is to say nothing of the constant rejection and condescension whenever the desires and needs of Black women enter the conversation. Rather than pretend to empower our identity-fueled expertise, this tactic strips us of it. Despite being disproportionately affected by nearly every social ill from the pay gap to the murder rate, Black women’s conclusions about the sources and products of those problems are met with distrust and dismissal. Republicans insist that our complaints are little more than “identity politics,” while the “socialist” left will ignore a rationale that we continuously express: that universal solutions do not take into account that we were meant to be deliberately harmed. And in the middle of the extremes, among our supposed allies, we are told that it is rude, harmful, and invalid to talk about the suffering we have been subjected to, despite our nominal citizenship. Rarely has there been a more textbook representation of the phenomenon than the post-debate sniping from Joe Biden to Kamala Harris for having the unmitigated gall to share her lived experience as evidence of the human toll in building working relationships with segregationists. Quickly, Biden’s camp questioned Harris’s politeness, dignity, and comprehension for even engaging in the exchange, as if the little girl she was and the woman she has become didn’t deserve an answer.

The invisibility of Black women is not just represented in the rejection of our lived experience but by our erasure from the common narrative of citizenship. To be a citizen in the United States is to be worthy, to be engaged, to wield power. It is to be recognized as human—by society and the government that sustains it. Black women have never received this fundamental respect. When stories use the word “voters,” when they take the political temperature of the country, when they imagine who is served and empowered, writers are not imagining Black women. After the election, there were few, if any, stories about politically engaged Black women and their dashed and diminished aspirations in a Trump-run world, or the lives of Black women under siege by a white-supremacist federal government, or the false promises to a working-class America disproportionately run and populated by Black women. Even though the idea to listen to Black women was so simple it could proliferate via hashtag, the focus stubbornly remained where it always has: on middle- and upper-income white men.

It is in spite of this relentless appropriation, denigration, and erasure that Black women have become one of the best informed and most engaged political demographics in an age of declining participation. Black women recognize that it is a luxury to ignore a government when that government is trying to harm you. We have galvanized our communities in the face of violence that targets us and our daughters as thoroughly as it decimates the men and boys that we birth and love. We have built solidarity with one another, not only as a political tactic, but as a matter of survival and a supreme act of love. We are well aware that in these United States no one will care about our wants and needs except each other, and having done so for centuries, we are best able to see the variance and beauty of our talents.

It is in this context that Black women have developed an arsenal of citizenship skills largely unrivaled in American politics. With a tradition of activism as old as the country itself and a time scale nearly as long, Black women are acutely aware of the depth of harm and extraordinary progress this government is capable of creating. Against all odds, we have done the labor of liberty; we have maintained the glory and the gilding with our bones and blood, and in a country that has never given us a fraction of what we have provided, Black women have taken our place as the coveted demographic and driving force behind a major party.

With the world so chaotic and the system so fragile, this is the perfect moment for Black women to wield those tools. To create the space for us to do so would be to trust our judgment and understanding, to give heft to our voices and our problems, and to see the fullness of our American story—the triumph and the tragedy both. For more than 240 years, this nation has listened to white men, and, in so doing, answered their pleas, uplifted their dreams, and forgiven their weaknesses—all in the conceit that they alone represented the will of the people. This lie of “representative” democracy is built upon the silencing of Black women: a government of, by and for white men. Yet it is possible that in listening to Black women as we have their oppressors, we might have a true government of the people, by the people, for the people—unbought and unbossed.

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