On Elections, Black Women, and Being an Ally

Submitted by CSRD on December 13, 2017 - 4:15pm

Blog written by James Wermers (with suggestions and revisions by Christopher Burrell, Sarah Herrera, Kyra Trent, and Anne Mickey)

In what is being heralded by many as a pivotal moment in the history of American politics, now Senator-Elect Doug Jones won a statewide election in a part of the country that was so deeply red that such a win was long thought to be impossible. As I write this the morning after the special election in Alabama, there is no shortage of commentary on just how Jones won the election and on what we have to learn from his victory. While there is undoubtedly much to learn in the post-mortem that will be conducting in the coming days and weeks, perhaps the most important point has already been made by a growing chorus of voices: it’s time to listen to black women.

Exit polling data from last night revealed a stark disparity in voting patterns. While Roy Moore won the support of the vast majority of white voters, Mr. Jones saw even stronger support from black voters. Most striking, 98% of black women voted for Mr. Jones. The significance of Mr. Jones’s support among black women was not lost on commentators. As Lydia Polgreen noted last night:

That black voters, and particularly black women, played such an important role in the election of Doug Jones is at once poetic and perplexing. Perhaps it should not be shocking that in the same state where women like Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, and Rosa Parks spurred on change through bravery beyond the bounds of understanding, voting black women once again rose to the occasion. But while the courage and resolve of black women in Alabama is becoming a recurring theme, it would be shamefully and willfully naïve to ignore the fact that they have done so in the face of systemic racism and disenfranchisement. As Theodore R. Johnson put it: 

Despite little hope that any real change is on the horizon, black women once again carried the load at a pivotal moment and helped to reshape the future of a nation that badly needed their help. Recognizing this, and perhaps emboldened by a change in the national conversation about the ills of a patriarchal society that has long preyed upon women, the turnout of black women voters during last night’s special election has led to a call for more than mere lip-service. In the words of ReBecca Theodore-Vachon:

This sentiment was echoed today by Senator Kamala Harris.

Ms. Theodore-Vachon’s and Senator Harris’ comments are profound to me on at least two fronts, as they not only call for needed change in the national narrative about black women but also provide a concise lesson on what it means to be an ally.

It is in no way lost on me that I am writing this blog post from a position of absolute privilege. As a white, heterosexual, Catholic, college-educated, upper-middle class, cisgendered, male, I have enjoyed every unearned and unmerited advantage that can be afforded a human being in our society. I am also writing as someone working to be an ally--someone who has had the unparalleled privilege of working with the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy to develop and implement programming aimed at thinking through and addressing the systemic inequalities that have shaped our nation.  Recognizing this, I want to both pick up on the call of Ms. Theodore-Vachon and echo others like Aura Bogado and argue that it’s time for people like me to understand that being an ally often means stepping aside. 

It’s no secret that much of modern American culture is rooted in the too-long-unchallenged logic of white supremacy—in the logic of a system that works to, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.” While the pernicious influence of white supremacy must be acknowledged, so too we must acknowledge the reality that American culture is also rooted in patriarchy. We are a nation founded on ways of thinking that have continuously allowed men to be subjects while simultaneously working to make women objects. I, and countless others like me, have been the beneficiary of these imbricated systems.

Why exactly this is important will become clear if we return to the polling data from last night. There is an unmistakable correlation in the data between the privileges accorded by white supremacy and patriarchy on the one hand and voting behaviors on the other. While 98% of black women and 93% of black men voted for Mr. Jones, 72% of white men and 63% of white women voted for Mr. Moore. Despite some suggestions that a shift in white voting patterns in this special election is a cause for hope, what should be evident from these numbers is the need for a major shift in American culture. Slight gains in the number of white voters voting against candidates with a history of racist and sexist rhetoric and behavior are not nearly enough and should not be a cause for any celebration. While such a shift does need to be addressed and courted as we move forward, this is not the moment for that conversation.

Today the onus needs to be where Ms. Theodore-Vichon, Senator Harris, and others have put it. If we are going to see real change in a society rooted in inequity, then the voices of privilege need to be redirected and rethought.

I say this fully cognizant that writing a piece like this while essentially embodying the systems of privilege that have shaped our modern world is difficult, if not impossible, to do well. Even the most earnest efforts in the name of allyship too often fail to fully comprehend how much they are born of unrecognized privilege and mutate into something patronizing and end up supporting the systems we want to see razed. We saw how terribly wrong allyship can go with the recent #metoo phenomenon (which, incidentally, was popularized by a white woman but initiated by a black woman ten years before), when too many men failed to realize that it was not their time to speak and certainly not their time to confess in the name of working through their own guilt for being complicit in systems of domination. Having said this and knowing just how fraught the terrain is, I feel compelled to add my own voice in support the growing chorus calling for change--in support of the black and brown women and men whose voices have too long been silenced by institutionalized discrimination.

This is not the time for me to fall silent. This is not the time for anyone to fall silent. Silence in the face of inequality is an act of evil and cowardice. Nor is anything I have said here an attempt at  “giving permission” for those who have been disenfranchised by the same mechanisms that prop white men up to speak. Such a claim would be ludicrous and such a goal grotesquely insulting.

What it is time for is for white men to stop trying to play the role of the savior and telling others how to fix problems in society we created and benefit from. It’s time for voices bathed in privilege to set aside the advantages we never earned and to listen, learn, and serve. There is no simple path or plan for doing these things, and allyship is always fraught with the potential that good intentions will mutate into bad actions. Having said this, listening to black women--following their lead and not simply hoping they are there to save us all in our moment of need, would be a good start. It’s time to aid the candidacy of, and vote for, black women who have been so often and so long on the forefront of change.


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