There’s more to it than meets the eye.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala D. Harris are now the President and Vice President-elect of the US, after a highly anticipated presidential race. For many, a changing of the guard in the White House comes as a great comfort considering President Donald Trump’s knack for endorsing hateful rhetoric and failure to adequately address the coronavirus pandemic. Others believe this victory for the Democratic Party gives Americans a chance at a better future. Sharing this sentiment are several Black voters, who as a collective voted for the Biden-Harris ticket at a rate higher than any other group. Notably, early exit polls showed that 87 percent of Blacks voted for a Biden presidency, with Black women voting at 90 percent. On November 9th, Harris posted a tweet showing her gratitude for the latter group. In it she wrote the following:
“I want to speak directly to the Black women in our country. Thank you. You are too often overlooked, and yet are asked time and again to step up and be the backbone of our democracy. We could not have done this without you.”
At first glance, Harris’ tweet seems harmless. However, when looking deeper her words add to a sea of troublesome ideologies that have been circulating within the American social and political landscape for some time.
First, referring to Black women as “the backbone of our democracy” unjustly burdens this group. In a sense, the phrase calls upon Black women to support and save others while sacrificing their needs. To date, this group is two to three times likelier to die from pregnancy-related complications than White women. Black women also suffer from sexual violence at disproportionate rates, are often criticized for their looks and attitudes, and despite a significant increase in four-year college completion rates are less likely to have economic stability or build generational wealth, due in part to the racial wealth gap. Adding to this is the overarching burden of systemic racism and sexism, which members of this group often endure due to being both Black and a woman. Despite these issues, however, Black women are still heavily looked to for their help in election races, most specifically by the Democratic Party.
Harris is not the first to praise Black women for their work in politics. In 2017, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez referred to this group as the “backbone” of the Democratic Party. This comment came after controversial Republican Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special Senate election. An exit poll from The Washington Post showed that 98 percent of Black female voters supported Jones.
Some may feel calling a group “the backbone of our democracy” despite their hardships is admirable, or a testament to that group’s collective strength. When referring to Black women, however, this too is damaging. Arguably, the phrase is comparable to the Strong Black Woman (SBW) construct or schema. According to Abrams, Hill, and Maxwell (2018), “the SBW Schema is an amalgamation of beliefs and cultural expectations of incessant resilience, independence, and strength that guide meaning making, cognition and behavior related to Black womanhood” (Abrams et al., 2018, pp. 517–518). Essentially, Black women have been made to believe that persevering through hardship and being stoic in the face of adversity is normal for them. Therefore, complaining about one’s trauma or admitting defeat might cause shame or embarrassment.
When highlighting the SBW schema, one must also acknowledge the mental toll it has on Black women. Their desire to remain strong and resilient has been linked to negative physical health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders (Liao, Wei, & Yin, 2020). The same can be said of calling Black women “the backbone of our democracy,” which puts pressure on this group to support and uplift a nation that has historically neglected the health and wellbeing of Black women.
The back end
Another problem with Harris’ tweet is that it seemingly adds to a gender divide seen among Blacks in the US today. Harris thanked Black women for their role in helping the Democratic Party regain the White House. According to exit polls from The New York Times, 90 percent of Black women voted for Biden and Harris, making them the Democrat’s largest supporters. Thus, one might say Harris’ acknowledgement of this group was based merely off percentages. Nevertheless, 79 percent of Black men reportedly voted for Biden and Harris, representing the second highest turnout for the Democratic Party among all groups when factoring in both gender and racial or ethnic heritage. Therefore, Harris’ praise should have been for the Black community as a collective.
One might argue Black women should be allowed a moment of gratitude, especially given their history of being overlooked and mistreated. However, a counterpoint might be that Black men, despite heavily supporting Democrats during the 2020 election, are also neglected and oppressed. As a group Black people in America are negatively impacted by White supremacy. Issues of colorism and self-hatred based on Afrocentric phenotypical features, as well as systemic racism are all products of this belief. Its occurrence has also led to internal conflict among Black people. For example, harmful patriarchal systems created by White men to oppress women were adopted by several Black men, thus leading to their mistreatment of many Black women. According to Pelzer (2016), “heterosexual Black men often experience duality in their masculinity” and are sometimes viewed as assimilationists who have disowned their African heritage, culture, and sensibilities to adopt “the messages and ideologies of White mainstream culture” (p. 16).
Many Black men also feel the brunt of racism and White supremacy in the form of job discrimination, educational inequalities, likelihood of living in poverty, and more. Furthermore, there are times that Black men are negatively impacted due to their gender. This is most seen in their interactions with law enforcement. Compared to White men, Black men are almost three times as likely to be killed during an interaction with the authorities, in part due to them being perceived as bigger and more threatening. This is evidenced by the unjust murders of Walter Wallace Jr., Jonathan Price, George Floyd, and the attempted murder of Jacob Blake, just to name a few.
As stated earlier, Perez praised Black women for their political involvement in 2017, helping Jones win the Alabama special Senate election. It should be noted, however, that while 98 percent of Black women voted for Jones 93 percent of Black men also supported him. Regarding other races listed in exit polls, only 26 percent of White men and 34 percent of White women voted for Jones during that time. Given this, one must ask why Perez and the Democratic Party chose to elevate Black women over Black men, especially given a five percent difference in voting rates?
Another reason why Harris and others should show more gratitude toward Black men is because this group is often looked down upon and highly criticized by American society, including some members of the Black community. In several cases this condemnation is unfair. Prior to the 2020 election, multiple Black public figures condemned Black men as a collective. For example, author Brittney Cooper tweeted:
“Black men are breaking my heart with this caping for Cube-cum-Trump. Apparently y’all want to be to 2020 what white women were to 2016. And this is why to be Black+Woman is to have to serious consider DAILY, what it means to get too close to either group. Traitorous MFs.”
Moreover, journalist Jemele Hill tweeted:
“I have increasingly found that many black men just want better access to patriarchy. They don’t actually want it dismantled.”
The latter tweet was made following rapper 50 Cent’s endorsement of President Trump, which one could assume influenced Hill’s actions. Lil Wayne, another popular rap artist, would also show his support for the president more than a week later. Wayne’s decision was poorly received and prompted a think piece by Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young claiming many Black men wish to be White. Despite these happenings, Black men collectively supported Biden and Harris at a rate higher than all other groups except for Black women. Furthermore, AP VoteCast showed Black male Democratic support might have been even higher at 87 percent (Black women rose to 93 percent as well). Still, this feat seems largely ignored.
In a now deleted Twitter post, singer-songwriter and actress Janelle Monáe wrote:
“Fuck Donald Tromp and every American citizen, celebrity, white woman, black man, ETC who supported him burnnnnnnnnnn”
Considering the exit polls, one must ask why Monáe singled out Black men? Of note, 55 percent of White women supported President Trump. One might argue that her stating “ETC” encompassed others who supported the president. However, highlighting Black men specifically does nothing more than reinforce negative narratives about this group regarding their voting patterns and ideologies.
Adding to Monáe’s tweet was talk of the Black men who voted for President Trump. This could be seen in several news articles and on social media. Regarding the latter, VICE TV tweeted an excerpt from their YouTube series Stick to Sports containing text which read:
“19% of African-American men voted for Donald Trump. @cthagod explains to @carichampion & @jemelehill why this probably happened. #WontStickToSports up next!”
Of note, more Black women supported President Trump during the 2020 election compared to 2016 despite their high turnout for Biden and Harris.
Harris’ praise for Black women is warranted considering their role in getting both her and Biden elected. However, the now Vice President-elect must not take their work for granted. Oftentimes, the Democratic Party offers Black women lip service without any tangible actions to help this group. For example, many were disappointed with how Jones treated Black women despite their high turnout for him during the Alabama special Senate election. Moreover, there is a growing sentiment that the Democratic Party does not adequately support the Black community.
A true show of gratitude would be for Harris, Biden, and other Democrats to enact policies that specifically help Black women, and by extension the Black community. As stated earlier, Black women experience complications with pregnancies, safety, and job acquisition due to their race. Moreover, another method of supporting Black women involves supporting and protecting Black men. Black women are mothers to Black sons, wives to Black husbands, daughters to Black fathers, and belong to families with Black male cousins, uncles, grandfathers, nephews, and stepchildren. Ensuring the well-being of Black men means ensuring the well-being of Black women.
Lastly, Black male slander must be put to an end. There is a way to adequately address issues among Black men without castigating the group, especially when considering the role of racism and White supremacy in causing these issues. Harris may have meant well by her tweet, but the Vice President-elect has a lot of learning to do if she is to break long-lasting negative trends.
Abrams, J. A., Hill, A., & Maxwell, M. (2019). Underneath the mask of the strong black woman schema: Disentangling influences of strength and self-silencing on depressive symptoms among us black women. Sex roles, 80(9–10), 517–526.
Liao, K. Y. H., Wei, M., & Yin, M. (2020). The misunderstood schema of the strong black woman: Exploring its mental health consequences and coping responses among african american women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 44(1), 84–104.
Pelzer, D. L. (2016). Creating a new narrative: Reframing black masculinity for college men. The Journal of Negro Education, 85(1), 16–27.