During and after the 2020 election Black women were heralded as the, “backbone of democracy” by many Democrats. Their organizing efforts and the support they galvanized were crucial to President Joe Biden’s victory and Democrats regaining power in the U.S. Senate.
Early on, the Biden Harris campaign zeroed in on the city of Detroit. Many believed President Trump’s narrowest nationwide margin of victory in 2016, was partially attributable to a depressed turnout in Wayne County—the state’s most populous and bluest county. In her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, former First Lady Michelle Obama alluded to Michigan:
“In one of the states that determined the outcome, the winning margin averaged out to just two votes per precinct — two votes. And we’ve all been living with the consequences,” said Obama.
Shortly after her historic candidacy was announced, Vice President Kamala Harris’ first virtual event was a “Sister to Sister” roundtable with Black women in Detroit. Ahead of the election she’d visit Flint, Detroit, and its exurbs multiple times.
At a September event in the shadow of the Detroit Pistons training center Harris laughed when she said she was in Michigan, “again.”She made a pitch to voters—notably Black voters in Detroit—to make sure their networks voted too.
“We will tell them that we were committed over these 42 days to doing everything we possibly can to making sure we vote and making sure everyone we vote and everyone we know votes and in that way fights for this country we love.”
Months later when Harris gave her victory speech as the first woman, and first Black and South Asian woman to hold the office of Vice President, she gave a special shoutout to the women who paved her way.
“Including the Black women who are too often overlooked but so often prove that they are the backbone of our Democracy,” Harris said.
‘What Is New Is The Attention’
Lavora Barnes was recently elected to her second term as chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. She says the power of Black women as an organizing force in Democratic politics is nothing new.
“We’ve been taking our babies with us to vote since… I mean, my mother and my grandmother both did it. And I do it. It’s just part of part of who we are—we raise voters.”
Barnes is the first Black woman to serve as party chair in the state. Under her leadership Michigan rejoined the so-called “Blue Wall” states, and President Joe Biden won the state by a margin more than 14 times larger than former President Donald Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.
“What is new is the attention on Black women. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we had a Black woman running for president and then vice president of the United States, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Black women have stepped up to lead in the party. You know, you’ve got a Black woman now chairing the Michigan Democratic Party, there are Black women chairing parties across the country.”
Barnes noted women like Representative Brenda Lawrence who represents Michigan’s 14th Congressional District and State Senator Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), “and this is another change that we’re seeing across the state where Black folks, particularly Black women are running all over not just in traditionally Black communities,” said Barnes.
I think there has just been more sound and fury, frankly, from Black women than there had been before. — Lavora Barnes, Michigan Democratic Party chair
She added, “I think there’s just been more sound and fury, frankly, from Black women than there had been before.”
Ronald Brown is an Associate Professor of political science at Wayne State University and a member of Citizen Detroit, a voter education group based in Detroit. He says the role of Black women in Detroit politics blooms out of places like Black churches and other centers of religious and civiclife where women often outnumber men.
“They are the foundation in terms of mobilizing the vote and they’re the ones also…who turn out the meetings that we attend.This is a not random sample, but the meeting that I attend, it’s the same thing is like 66% women, 44% men,” said Brown.
But in 2020, organizing during the coronavirus pandemic posed a challenge. Door knocking and community meetings weren’t common for Democrats, so a lot of voter outreach happened on social media and in virtual conversations.
In a matter of like 24 hours, there were thousands of women that signed up and said, ‘I am ready to go. What do we do? What are we wearing’ You know, ‘put me on a phone bank, I will host something, I will donate.’ And that level of political organization was just never truly captured I don’t think.” —State Representative Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)
State Representative Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), the first Black woman to represent Lansing in the state legislature—said she created a Facebook group for fellow sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha who supported Kamala Harris.
“In a matter of like 24 hours, there were thousands of women that signed up and said, ‘I’m ready to go. What do we do? What are we wearing?’ You know, ‘put me on a phone bank, I’ll host something, I’ll donate.’ And that level of political organization was just never truly captured I don’t think.”
A significant amount of organizing happened via Facebook and Instagram Live videos. In a September Zoom event called “Power and Politics,” Dashuna Robinson addressed the virtual audience watching her interview local candidates, lawmakers, and Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist.
Robinson is a Black woman, a social worker, and President of the Benton Harbor Area School Board. She said she stepped up beyond voting in the 2020 election to campaign and donate after she realized she could play a more active role in recruiting voters.
“A lot of the individuals within our community are starting to disconnect from their civil responsibility and connection to politics and kind of questioning ‘How does it benefit us? And why should we get involved?’ So, I thought it would be best that I kind of step in and see what there was that I could do to kind of answer those questions and get that conversation started, so that we each are aware that we do need to be involved and connected to the establishment of politics.”
The power of the 2020 election, part referendum on President Trump and also the first opportunity to elect a Black woman to the second highest office, was fueled by a network of Black women like Robinson mobilizing other voters.
By February 2021, Robinson said even the people who she wasn’t able to convince to vote in 2020 were interested in following the Georgia Senate races and elections of Black women like Congresswoman Cori Bush and Vice President Harris.
In addition to serving on the school board, Robinson now also serves as a Democratic trustee in Michigan’s sixth Congressional District. She says she’s mulling what’s next for her in politics.
“I am very hopeful that we’re headed in the right direction in that representation for ourselves and seeing the power that Stacey Abrams had in Georgia, seeing the VP in her seat rocking it out in her chucks. I think all of those are things that will get individuals like myself and others motivated to see themselves as a part of that change,” said Robinson.