Believing Black women

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was marred by past sexual assault allegations against her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Hillary defended her husband, making it hard for her to fully assert that she, as the nomenclature goes, “believes women.” In 2020, there is a renewed call to believe women. This time it is less about assault accusations against the nominees. Rather, part of this call dates back to a moment in 1991 and how that moment reverberates today and affects voters, especially Black women.

In 1991, Clarence Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Anita Hill accused Thomas of workplace sexual harassment. A three-day, televised hearing included Hill testifying in graphic detail in front of an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee. After Thomas’s confirmation, women’s anger contributed to a record-breaking number of women winning elections, making 1992 the “Year of the Woman.” The chairperson of that 1991 committee was Joe Biden. Biden was criticized for his handling of the hearing and mistreatment of Hill. Biden expressed “regret,” though Hill largely rejected this as an apology because “an apology, to be real and sincere, has to take responsibility for harm.” Biden didn’t publicly take responsibility until a 2019 interview. After this interview, as well as a phone call with Biden before his campaign announcement, Hill said she thinks Biden has evolved. In September 2020 she announced she would vote for Biden.

Anger and rage can be powerful motivators. Rebecca Traister wrote about the “revolutionary power of women’s anger,” and spoke about the relevance of Hill’s experiences in contemporary politics. Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote about the power of Black women’s eloquent and righteous rage. Modern parallels echo the 1992 wave of female engagement after female marginalization: fallout from sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh resulted in events like the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and a record-breaking number of women elected to Congress in 2018.

Anger and rage can fuel revolutions, but change also requires demonstrable outcomes. Believing Black women means meeting them where they stand. Dr. Cooper stresses the need to know what wrong was done to Black women and get “a clear sense of how the harm can be repaired…[and focus on] what Black women actually need.”

Hill made her desired repair work clear when voicing support for Biden. She said the issue is bigger than her: it’s “about the survivors of gender violence.” She wants to work with the next president on issues of sexual harassment, gender violence, and gender discrimination, and believes Biden, not Trump, will hear her. In response to Hill’s announcement, Dr. Cooper tweeted, “Pretty clear drawing of lines here by Anita Hill about why it needs to be Biden over Trump. And if y’all say you trust Black women then you should read this article and listen to her.” In response, another user tweeted, “She’s skipping over black issues and going over to women’s issues.” To which Dr. Cooper responded, “Black women’s issues are Black issues.”

As a disenfranchised group based on their gender and race, Black women’s intersectional identities face challenges and oppression that are distinct from White women or Black men. Black women were cut off from the suffragist movement, and gender equity issues were sidelined during the Civil Rights Movement—prompting Malcom X to unequivocally state, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” Therefore Black women need different repair work.

Hill’s endorsement of Biden probably did not cause a wave of new Biden support. According to CNN exit polls, 94% of Black women in 2016 and 91% in 2020 voted for the Democratic nominee—more than any other race-gender group in either election. Even Kamala Harris’s VP nomination did not spur a large uptick in Biden support. Rather, Harris’s nomination helped recognize Black women as the long-standing bedrock of Democratic support, and prompted Black women to use their influence in the community to “overperform in getting out the vote.” Hill’s endorsement also had the power to energize Black women’s mobilization efforts, which was crucial in 2020 when COVID-19 heavily restricted retail politics and forced Black people, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, to assume “personal risks to line up and vote in many states, especially where Republican efforts to suppress mail-in voting are successful.”

Polarization and negative partisanship are likely to endure, making mobilization all that more important. Black women are vital to the Democratic Party’s mobilization efforts. Therefore, it is crucial that the party meet Black women where they stand with more than platitudes every election year. The party needs to hear Black women, believe Black women, and invest in Black women’s repair work.