This piece is part of Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series covering the 2018 elections season. Every year we’re moving towards a possibility of a more diverse legislature. And with it, we hope comes increased opportunities for communities historically shut out of political processes and power to imagine and enact policies to create a Minnesota that benefits all its constituents.
Earlier this year, Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL, released a Black History Month statement acknowledging that Black women are essential to the party. In his statement, which was released shortly after several women from local organization Black Women Rising called for a meeting with the Chair, Martin wrote “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Of all the dedicated constituencies that make up our party, Black women have consistently supported our party at the highest rates. They show up. They volunteer. They empower our candidates, and they have been with us through thick and thin.”
Two months prior to Martin’s statement, Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee invoked similar language after Democrat Doug Jones won the U.S senate race against Roy Moore. Perez tweeted the following:
Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) December 13, 2017
Speaking through Janie Crawford, the heroine in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston explained, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” America was built off the backs of Black women while their tears and pain continue to go long unnoticed. From the Civil Rights movement to the LGBT movement, Black women have always been the “backbone” but never the remembered leaders.
In 1964, civil rights activist and leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a coalition of self-appointed delegates set up by SNCC, Fannie Lou Hamer was shut out of the Democratic convention by Minnesota DFL heroes Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey.
That year, Hamer traveled with the MFDP to challenge the all-white and largely pro-segregationist Democratic Party of Mississippi. She had been shot at, beaten by policemen and arrested in her line of registering Black voters. Her televised heart-rending 8-minute testimony recounting the brutalizing incidents she had survived by state-sanctioned violence, however, was ignored at the convention.
As a leader in the coalition of self-appointed delegates in the MFDP, Hamer had been fighting for the right to vote for over two years before she delivered her powerful testimony in front of the Democratic National Convention credentials committee. She testified to a panel of five men including Walter Mondale, imploring them to allow her delegation a seat.
But President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted the backing of southern Democrats to win reelection and would not allow members of the MFDP to be seated as delegates. The command to bar Fannie Lou Hamer and her party was secured by the deciding vote of Walter Mondale – a compromise that appeased the angry, white southern voters. MFDP was offered to seat two non-voting members at the convention as long as Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t one of them. “The president has said he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic convention,” said Humphrey. Hamer and MFDP rejected the compromise.
Over fifty years since Hamer’s 1964 incident, Black women still struggle to hold a seat at the table in the world of political campaigns – even as they continue to be the most loyal voting bloc of the Democratic party.
In literature, Black women and women of color have used the words “bones” and “back” to describe how their bodies and labor are exploited to build systems that benefit others. In “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” an anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa and Toni Cade Bambara (1981), Moraga describes how “At home, amongst ourselves, women of color ask the political question: what about us? Which really means: what about all of us? Combahee River Collective writes: If Black [Indigenous] women were free…everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
What if Black women were repaid for their labor with real support for their politics, including their leadership?
The GOP, understanding that Black voters are the Democratic Party’s loyal base, continues to push forward their racist attempts to block Black voting power with voter ID bills, voter suppression and gerrymandering. Instead of shifting power towards Black voters, the Democratic party persists on taking Black votes for granted.
A threat to (white) politics as usual
The Democratic Party’s process of endorsement is set up so that it’s out of the hands of party leaders and in the hands of chosen delegates. Ultimately, the actions of the party determine who is endorsed. Legacies of institutional racism mean that those endorsed are more than often heteronormative cisgender white men.
“They say that the door is open but it’s not, and they say you’re welcome at the table but you’re not,” shared Alberder Gillespie, who is a core leader in Black Women Rising – a non-partisan collective of Black women across the Twin Cities metro. “What does it really mean to say I welcome you at the table? I come with my voice and my ideas, but you’re not receptive because you want to do it the way that you’ve always done it. [Now], I’m a threat to how you’ve always done it, so I’m treated as a threat.”
Gillespie comes from a politically engaged family in Mississippi where the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism lives on. She’s held several political seats including chair of her Senate district and has also done training with and for the DFL. Black Women Rising offers politically active Black women a space to strategize solutions to the issues that affect them. In this space, it is evident that the biggest supporters of Black women will always remain Black women.
In recent years there has been a surge of Black women running for political seats from city council and legislature to county commissioner and school board across the nation and in Minnesota. Even so, Black women who are in these races are often ignored in favor of white women. In a recent Star Tribune article published this March highlighting the increase of women candidates, however, the focus remained on the white women running for political seats.
Minnesota has an underplayed history of Black women leaders defying the odds set against them. Labor activist and Minnesota native, Nellie Stone Johnson, played a key role in the creation of the DFL by merging the Farmer-Labor party with the Democratic wing in the 1940s, envisioning a multi-racial, workers rights centered party.
Despite Johnson’s hopes for the party, the DFL has remained too often obsessed with reluctant white working class and suburban voters, which it identifies as their key to power. “We have to figure out how to speak to white, working class voters in a better way,” said Martin in the aftermath of November 2016 elections where the GOP took control of Minnesota Senate by flipping seven of those seats. “Clearly there were a lot of white, non-college-educated, working class voters who were frustrated and anxious about their future and they wanted change.”
Minneapolis resident and long-time party volunteer, Nicque Mabrey said, “What I’ve experienced and what many others have experienced is that the bridge to power was built across [Black women’s] backs.” Mabrey shared, “A lot of our labor, love, energy and time is spent building power in a party system that I think is out of touch with our priorities and isn’t as invested in building power with women of color as they say they are.”
As Black women in Minnesota run for office in increasing numbers, some are making deliberate choices to work without the DFL. Samantha Lee Pree-Stinson had served as Senate District Vice-Chair for three years and despite her robust party experience, she ran on the Green Party platform. “They have four pillars and of them is social justice and within that there’s language on reparations. No other party has done that and this is how I chose to build political power,” said Pree-Stinson.
Minneapolis’ Ward 3, which includes parts of downtown Minneapolis, is considered a major economic driver for the city and has never had a Black council member. This was one of many deciding factors that pushed Pree-Stinson to run for that seat in 2016. “Well-intentioned white people can’t solve these problems [of structural racism] when they’ve never faced it… [political seats] should be reflective of the people.”
In 2017, Ward 11 City Council candidate Erica Mauter who now serves as Chair of Stonewall DFL, ran as a Democrat. “I have never not been a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat my entire life,” she shared. But Mauter had to look to national organizations such as The Collective PAC, a group that tackles the underrepresentation of Black Americans in elected seats, to get the training and resources she needed to run a successful campaign.
Mauter found it a challenge to get the predominantly white ward to get behind her campaign. “People throw out ‘identity politics’ and levy that as an insult or a concern about candidates of color, but don’t recognize that as the same dynamic that’s in play when a white person who’s grown up in the district they live in talks about how they’re going to relate to their neighbors, that they’re just like them, which is also identity politics,” explained Mauter. “So I’m not surprised, actually, when Black women run in places outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul and have a harder time being successful in that environment. Those Democrats who are party diehards, the ones that supposedly care the most and have the strongest opinions about what the party should be doing, are the ones deciding that these Black women and candidates of color…don’t fit in well.”
Mabrey shared, “The reality is, so long as the party structure and party positions are largely held by white men and women, we don’t get to the fullness and the depth and the breadth of leadership that we know is possible in this state. And I know the DFL knows better. So, take seats. Step back. Listen deeply. And let go of some of that power.”
Bypassing the gatekeepers and shifting the priorities
There are solutions well within reach if the Democratic Party wants to serve Black women. One approach could be actively encouraging higher turnout among marginalized communities by putting resources behind efforts. Voter turnout should be a task that the party should share evenly, yet Black women continue to carry out the unpaid hard labor of the party by making sure Black people turn out to caucus, and to the delegate conventions and voting polls.
“Invite me to the table, but help me understand how to navigate the table that I’m sitting at in an effective way. And then help the people at that table learn how to be receptive to me when I’m sitting there,” explained Gillespie. “A lot of times when we have communities who don’t understand this caucus system and how it works, there’s no one taking the time to make sure they understand how this system works and how to navigate that system. So that’s one of the things we’re hoping to work with the DFL on.”
For Mabrey, educating communities of color in the political process is what she does to ensure that Black women along with other historically marginalized groups such as trans POCI and Indigenous people are taking power from what she calls the gatekeepers who are regulars of party politics. “We know that’s scary and we know that [change] takes time. Well, guess what? We don’t have time. Unemployment in the Afro diaspora in Minnesota is dismal. The wealth gap in our state is dismal. And we have incredible, incredible electeds. I’m so proud of some of my sisters holding it down, and they can’t do it all,” said Mabrey.
When asked what are some ways that the DFL can better serve Black women and Black communities, Mauter suggested that the party first needs to have an honest conversation on how to prioritize its resources. Reducing cost barriers to voter data, trainings for Black women and other candidates of color and investing in translators and venue spacing for high turnout caucus and conventions were some of the suggestions she shared.
For neighborhoods of color, there is a high demand for the DFL to prioritize policy platforms such as resolutions. “It feels like a box that needs to be checked in a convention where a bazillion other things are happening. And that cuts off your chance to reckon with issues that I think of as particularly important to Black communities and other marginalized communities. We’re not, within the DFL structure, having robust discussion about [issues that disproportionately affect Black communities such as] decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. We’re not, within the DFL party structure itself, necessarily having deep conversation about criminal justice reform,” said Mauter. Pushing resolutions becomes the responsibility of the candidate and Mauter believes, amidst campaign shuffling, those messages get lost.
Black female power or placebo?
Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms” explore a theoretical concept called “repressive tolerance.” Repressive tolerance allows for systems of structural inequality to stay in place while, in this case, Black women are given just enough placebo-like positions of power to convince others in society that we live in a truly open and transformative society.
The call to lift up Black women in their pursuit for elected office isn’t to erect Black faces in higher places – it’s a call for structural change. Playing “identity politics” isn’t what will relieve Black communities of the systemic oppression they face. But making sure the voices of Black women are heard and giving them the tools to transform their neighborhoods is key.
Martin’s call for the empowerment of Black women running for political positions was indirect, “We have a responsibility to lift up the voices of the marginalized and underrepresented in our party. We must support people as they build power and run for various leadership positions, including elected office.” It’s unclear how the DFL actually seeks to “empower black women as they take action, organize and run for elected office empower Black women” as Martin has said. Despite multiple efforts to reach him, Chairman Ken Martin declined to respond to requests for an interview.
There are some who believe the statement is a step in the right direction. For Gillespie, “The public statement was just the beginning. The chair is committed to trying to figure out with us what other things should be happening. We will take that and build on it. We know it takes more than a statement, we need action, but it was an action he took.”
The experiences of Black women in and adjacent to the Minnesota DFL make it clear that with the looming future of a political world where different racial identities are properly represented, it can’t be forgotten that identity alone will not save us. The people are demanding that elected officials of all identities show up for the communities on the margins by protecting them from the policies that harm them, and by advocating for the policies that will allow for such communities to move beyond mere survival.
In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “People are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and Black women are sick and tired of being the mule that carries the Democratic Party. As nation-wide calls for action rise, the DFL must reconcile with their practices to better embrace the radical imaginings of its most loyal base.