The Slatest

The South Runs the Country

Black Voters Matter founder LaTosha Brown on America’s true political center and its most influential demographic.

A demonstrator raises a fist in front of a sign that says "Vote Out Racism" with a picture of President Donald Trump.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Slate is hosting a weekly election live show, In the Know, every Monday at 1 p.m. on YouTube and Facebook. On Sept. 28, Slate staff writer Julia Craven talked to LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter. The two discussed BVM’s voter outreach efforts, the importance of animating Black voters, and why the South has the most impact on American policy.

Part of their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, can be read below.

Next Tuesday, Mark Joseph Stern will interview Leah Litman, assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan and co-host of the podcast Strict Scrutiny. We hope to see you there! In the meantime, you can watch the most recent episode where Noreen Malone chats with Cecile Richards, women’s rights activist and former president of Planned Parenthood.

Julia Craven: What is the importance of the South? Because I think the South is fascinating for a number of reasons as far as voting goes, but why is it important to focus on the South, outside of the fact that that is where most Black people in the country live?

LaTosha Brown: I’m telling everybody who’s watching this right now, welcome to the South, because guess who’s setting policy for this country right now? It is the South. Who runs the Senate right now? Let’s talk about who is the majority leader in the Senate right now. Let’s talk about Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, who are both from the South.

You can be as blue as you want to be in California, you can be as blue as you want to be and progressive as you want to be in New York, but right now the policy priorities for this nation are being led by senators of the South, who set up a system where they have an enormous amount of power. They’ve taken on the Southern Strategy, which was to create this whole notion of agitating white fear, also to marginalize, to racialize the elections, and to marginalize the power of the Black vote. That is a quintessential blueprint from the Southern Strategy. It’s been expanded to America.

The South is literally directing, running, making the priorities for this entire nation. And so, when we think about what is a financial center in America, we think about Wall Street, right? If I say, “Well, where is the policy center?” people will say D.C. When I say, “Where is the entertainment center?” people will say Hollywood. “When I say white patriarchal racism,” structurally the capital of that has been in the South. So, if this country is to be progressive to move forward? As goes the South, goes the nation. If we have not learned that in any critical moment in time, we should know it now. It was not by accident that Trump’s very first rally, when he decided to run for office, was in Mobile, Alabama. I’m raising that because we have to also see how there have been bad actors and there have been racist Republicans who are rooted in the South who are now actually running the policy in this entire country. So the reason why you should care about the South is because the South is making decisions for each of you.

How would you advise people who hear that? Because we know that people have the misconception that racism only exists down South. How would you advise people to take the South more seriously in terms of politics and that they consider the Southern Strategy whenever they’re thinking about these things, but don’t brush off the racism that occurs in the rest of the country?

Racism is equally distributed in this country. So while there are [Southerners] in political power that use race as a vehicle, fundamentally we’ve got to be honest about structural racism, from the very foundations of this country, has existed and continues to exist. Which is why we saw uprisings and we saw protests not just in Southern states. We saw it in all 50 states because racism exists in all 50 states.

When we’re having a conversation around the South, there’s a couple of things we can look at. One, the South is usually very instructive. My partner, Cliff Albright, always talks about the “Petri dish” and always talks about how a lot of what we see happen all around the country sometimes is first tested in the South. And then you start seeing those same kinds of laws pop up all over the country—from voter ID to the closing of polling sites, all those things. And it’s important because I think that that strategy that was a part of the Southern Strategy has now been adopted as a national strategy for the Republican Party, and that impacts all of us.

Also, if we can look at the South in terms of being instructive around voter suppression, we can also look at the South as being instructive around how do you resist and how do people organize. I remember in 2017 in Alabama, in the Doug Jones race, that Senate seat was held by the Republican Party, which had been deeply disconnected and actually, quite frankly, had been aggressively working against the Black community, particularly to suppress our vote, for over 20 years. Here it is in this race where Black women and the organizing of Black women came in and made a difference. I’m raising that because I think that it’s important that we don’t just keep saying this state is blue or this state is red. The South is only red until it ain’t.

There are organizations and groups that are doing work in the South that, if they are supported, if they’re invested in—we also have to tell the story of resistance, not just the story of suppression.

I’m glad you mentioned 2017 in Alabama, because I was certainly going to ask you about that. And I’m also glad that you brought up Black women. I interviewed Errin Haines a couple months ago, and one thing she said was that when a Black woman votes, it’s not just her going to the polls, she’s bringing her church with her, she’s bringing her cousins, she’s bringing her kids. She’s bringing her community with her. And so I also just wanted to get your thoughts on that because I thought it was a very well-put way to describe how I’ve always seen Black women interact with voting.

Absolutely. The other piece, too, is I think that Black women have a unique experience in this country, that we literally stand at the intersection of what I think are the biggest sins of this country, racism and sexism. We literally sit squarely at the intersection of racism and sexism. And even in the midst of that, we’ve been able to be on the vanguard of change and pushing for change and democracy in this territory, even when others didn’t stand with us.

I can go back to the women’s suffrage movement. It grew out of the abolitionist movement, which folks don’t know. A lot of the abolitionists were the ones that were the founders of this conversation around suffrage. And so, from the women’s suffrage movement, you had our white women counterparts who we stood with, and we fought for suffrage because we knew that to extend the right to vote for any of us actually advances democracy for all of us. However, even though we stood on the vanguard, we did not receive our right to vote until 50 years later.

We showed up consistently, but it has been around how we strengthen democracy. And we continue to show up. Not only do we bring our families and our communities to the table, and consistently engage in the process—we also have been thought leaders around this. We’ve got a 100-year track history of speaking against sexism, of speaking against racism, of literally working to push democracy.

Part of it is a culture with Black women in the Black community. We understand what is critical and what is at stake, which is why we show up more than any other constituency in this country. Black women have been on the vanguard, and I do believe that is because there’s a unique space we occupy. And we’ve had to learn how to navigate against those who wouldn’t even recognize our humanity, against those who sought to marginalize us.

We had the courage and demonstrated the courage to step into the space of power because that’s all we had. We had each other, and we had to organize and stand into that power. So that’s why I think Black women are critical in this.

We have been consistent.