Minding the (racial) gap: Complicating the narrative about the “women’s vote”

By Zakiya Luna

No matter what happens at the polls, scholars and activists and those in between will be telling a story about the significance of the results. With the nail biting and revelry, it will be imperative we not succumb to historical amnesia and instead to face the role of race and racism in social movement organizing and in electoral politics. Further, narratives in which a woman winning means all women win is historically inaccurate.  Women in formal politics differ: Senator Hillary Clinton is a woman. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is a woman. Stacey Abrams, the Georgian gubernatorial candidate, is a woman.  But they clearly have different life experiences and political commitments. The long-studied gender gap in voting is not a story about all women, but rather it is, like many other unmarked stories, a submerged story of White people. To understand the relationship between movement organizing and formal politics we need to expand intersectional analyses of identity and power in our research and how we tell the stories of movements.

Since the US presidential election of 2016 and leading up to the 2018 midterm election, various scholars and the public have continued to tell the story about the gender gap in voting. They have also repeated the story about women “taking back” politics from men, demanding their voice be heard and generally disrupting politics as usual whether through protesting at legislative hearings or organizing hundreds Women’s Marches, a global phenomenon my research team continues to study through the Mobilizing Millions project.

However, gender is just one part of the story about women and electoral politics. More specifically, the gender gap is in large part a story of a racial gap.

As political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry point out after the 2016 election, women have been voting. For decades, Black and Latina women have consistently  voted for Democrats, while White women have been split in their votes. Thus, the 2016 election did not show a new trend, but rather followed the trend. When we look at voting patters of Asian, Black, Latina women—and their male counterparts –the “gender gap” is not so pronounced.

The difference was that to some onlookers the Republican candidate seemed so absolutely abhorrent due to his explicit racism and sexism, they did not believe it was possible he could win. Yet he did and he did so with the support of White women. Harris-Perry’s post-2016 election syllabus continues to offer a useful resource to understand how “women” in politics are more complex than pundits and some researchers keep insisting is the case.

This complexity was evidenced in Alabama in 2017. In the middle of national conversations about the widespread sexual violence that women experience and millions of people worldwide were talking about sexual violence–not just the US—affirming #metoo. Roy Moore came close to winning the special election for the open Senate seat amidst allegations that  decades ago in his 30s he engaged in predatory behavior with teenage girls.  People nationally watched that race closely, as along with the grassroots organizing in which Black women of Alabama engaged to oppose him. They turned their efforts to supporting the Democratic challenger Doug Jones whose victory would signal a monumental shift in that historically Republican-leaning Southern state.  As the nation watched, Black women strategized, organized, and used skills that help win elections. Ninety-eight percent of Black women voted for Jones, while over 60 % of White women voted for Moore.  That is not a gender gap that is a racial gap.

When the Democratic challenger won, hashtags went viral thanking black women in Alabama and generally insist for our hard work in politics and for continuing to provide a shining example of “sisterhood” in action.  But, Brittney Cooper, Black feminist theorist and Crunch Feminist Collective co-founder points out, this hashtag support is misguided at best as it places the responsibility of saving America on Black women.   Instead, White people who are concerned about Roy Moore’s misogyny not being a disqualifying characteristic for office, should ask why White women supported him in such large numbers and what that means for women in electoral politics.

That women have different experiences and that this results in different organizing commitments has been a reality for women for centuries no matter how much people want to claim that there was “a” women’s movement.  As sociologist Benita Roth detailed years ago in her study of parallel feminist movements of the “second wave” of feminist that Black, Chicana and White women created, the ethos of “organizing one’s own” has value. It does not mean people cannot eventually come together in coalition, but there is much work to do within communities to understand the varying perspective and needs. Everyone needs to do their own work.

This midterm election, there are a record number of women running for public office this midterm election, representing a shift in politics in and of itself. However, a win for candidate like Stacey Abrams in Georgia would be momentous—if she won the Governor’s race she would be the first Black woman to lead a state. Ever. Her opponent is a White man who undoubtedly received support from White women. As he runs, he remained in his position as Secretary of State, using his power to attempt to make voting harder for thousands of voters, primarily Black.

A win for Abrams or other women will not mean that the centuries of voter disenfranchisement in Georgia and other states will have been overcome.  Or that other attempts will not be made.  Thus, after the election, what happens in social movements and organizational spaces still matters. Political scientist Dara Strolovitch’s analysis of hundreds of organizations representing disadvantaged groups highlighted the subtle ways organization leaders justified their limited advocacy.  They saw themselves as representing women and yet when it came down to it , they focus on the niche set of issues faced by more privileged members (wealthier, often White) rather than the niche set of issues faced by their less privileged members.

Scholars tell partial stories about other groups mobilizing in movements and politics, too. Millennials are touted as the most liberal generation, but this actually due to a demographic shift that makes their generation more racially diverse. A recent survey out of University of Chicago confirms this.  GenForwardSurvey by political scientist Cathy Cohen’s research group reminds us that the racial gap matters among young voters too.  Again, there are racial differences. Their study finds “The gender gap among likely voters of color is within the margin of error, with only 5 percent more men than women saying they’ll vote for a Democrat for Congress.”  Once again, the “gender gap” is about White women and White men.

As the US demographics continue to shift, we need to question the value in continuing to repeat the story of an undifferentiated “pink wave.”  If we believe the gender gap is a problem, then we need to be talking about race. Then asking why White women continue to vote for White men who seek to restrict their reproductive futures, slash the social welfare benefits on which women of all races are disproportionately more likely to rely, and generally engage in behavior that demonstrates their misogyny.

When we talk about the role of gender social movements and electoral politics, we need to talk about intersections with race, gender, immigration, ability, sexuality, and religion. Otherwise, we only understand—and telling— part of the story.

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