As returns for Georgia’s Senate runoff came in on Tuesday night, it was clear what was happening. After considerable back-and-forth in November and December about just how much President-elect Joe Biden owed his electoral victory in the state to white suburban voters, control of the Senate was being unequivocally driven by Black turnout. The Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, were outperforming Biden. And, once again, voters of color were in the process of flipping a red state.
Much of the public praise has been delivered to Stacey Abrams, who has done groundbreaking work mobilizing voters via the New Georgia Project. But singling out one name misses the comprehensiveness of the effort and goes against Abrams own ethos when speaking of the initiatives. In a state where political power has been rooted in systematic voter suppression, only systematic voter activation could reverse two Senate seats and hand control of the entire nation’s legislative agenda over to the Democrats.
It’s an exciting opportunity for an exercise of progressive political power to take place in Washington. Organizers, many of them Black women, who have spent months, even years, rallying voters, made this possible. Text and phone banking bolstered extensive ground campaigns, which included canvassing, personal conversations with voters, voter education events, relational organizing, and more. Such efforts, and political gains, cause literal shifts in policy discussions.
“If we get out to the polls, vote for the people who will represent us, and take our issues to whatever legislative body that they will occupy—that opens the door for us to then have the right conversations,” said Britney Whaley, a senior political strategist for the Georgia Working Families Party. “We won’t have a conversation about whether our schools need to be funded. We’ll have a conversation about how to fully fund them.”
The power behind the flip made sense for those who understand that the South is the birthplace of a number of radical traditions, as well as the nation’s most pertinent political region. For generations—from the Dixiecrat era through the Republican Southern Strategy—the South’s main role in national politics appeared to be as an obstacle against progress in general and racial justice in particular. This was the region of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a patch of solid red on the map that Democrats could at most hope to turn blue around the edges.
But the South was a right-wing bulwark because it was always, internally, a battleground. It was where freed Black people first claimed real political power during Reconstruction, and where, after white Southerners overthrew that power through terror and violence, the Civil Rights Movement painstakingly set about reclaiming it—through victories including the Voting Rights Act. When the Voting Rights Act was dismantled in turn, by a right-wing movement bent on keeping Black folks from the ballot box, the organizers set their eyes on undoing that harm once again.
When America’s moral arc bends, it’s bent by people’s hands. The New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, Georgia’s Working Families Party, Southerners on New Ground, Georgia Stand Up, and countless others made Warnock, Ossoff, and Biden’s win possible. And they’ve done more than flip the top portion of a state’s ballot. They’ve handed Democrats control of the White House and Congress. It’s a tremendous victory deserving of glorious praise and commitment to rectifying the issues that drove people to the ballot in the first place.
“There’s the story about how we showed up for Joe Biden. We showed up last night and delivered the Senate. So that’s the presidency, that’s the Senate,” said Whaley. “There’s a long history of us showing up. And I would love to see the thank yous come in the form of policy.”
It remains to be seen if the Democratic Party will couple their platitudes with robust policies that work to correct the harm long inflicted upon Black communities. But it is in the party’s best interest to do so.
“We love to thank Black women the day after the election, which is great. The gratitude is much appreciated,” continued Whaley. “But I think it’s a mandate for us to be seen in the policy agenda. It’s a mandate for us to be seen as thought leaders who are helping to inform policy. And it really is a mandate for our elected officials to think about how they will work to … change the material conditions of people who are struggling right now.”
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