Stacey Abrams balances pragmatism and hope, amid Georgia's midterm elections
Stacey Abrams balances pragmatism and hope, amid Georgia's midterm elections
It's been a long road of firsts for Stacey Abrams.
She was the first female minority leader in the Georgia General Assembly. The first Black person in the state House of Representatives to take her party's top spot. And then, four years ago, the first Black woman to be a major party's candidate for governor.
Most of us hadn't heard of Abrams until that landmark 2018 campaign, which drew both support and scrutiny from far beyond Georgia. In a year marked by record numbers of women running for office, Abrams became a leading Democratic figure and a symbol of the fight against voter suppression.
Her razor-thin loss to now-Gov. Brian Kemp devastated party hopefuls. But it barely slowed her down. Abrams went on to found Fair Fight Action, a voting rights policy organization that later filed a lawsuit challenging Georgia's voting system. (Last week a federal judge ruled in favor of the state, saying that Georgia's election practices did not violate voters' constitutional rights.) She produced an Oscar-nominated documentary on the nation's history of denying Black people the right to vote. In 2020, she was floated as a possible running mate to President Joe Biden.
Now Abrams is reaching for history again, in a second bid for the governorship. This time, she's armed with the experience of running for statewide office and four years' worth of coalition building. Will it be enough to make her the country's first Black woman governor?
In her debut as the new host of It's Been a Minute, Brittany Luse talks to Stacey Abrams — about the power and pitfalls of being an icon; how her win would shift the politics of the Deep South; and how she balances pragmatism and hope.
Then Brittany asks political scientist Christina Greer of Fordham University to discuss Abrams' strategy, and how the former minority leader mirrors other Black women politicians who made history.
Y0u can listen to the full episode at the top of the page, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
On being an avatar for people's hopes
Brittany Luse: You are again so close to making history as the first Black woman governor ever in the United States. But in 2018, you were fresh on the national stage, and now you are — I think it's an understatement to say — very well-known and something of an icon for many people. This aspect of savior-hood that I have noticed people projecting onto you, that would be a lot for me. Is that a lot for you?
Stacey Abrams: So there is a recent story that said that, you know, have I lost my magic? I've always chafed at the "Black girl magic" narrative because it presumes a lack of agency on the part of the people voting. And it imbues me with almost messianic responsibility that I didn't ask for, don't accept and will not do. There's no way to go back and be who I was in '18 before people had heard my name, before they cared about it. And I don't want to, because that would also erase all of the progress we've made.
My responsibility is not to solve everyone's problems. It's to help remove barriers and leverage the capacity of the state to solve the foundational, fundamental challenges that preclude people from getting access to opportunity, education, health care, housing, the ability to make a good living. Those are the things I can promise I will help with, but I will never be so arrogant as to believe that I alone have delivered or I alone am responsible.
I am an avatar. And people pour into avatars both their loves and their hates.
On how the political landscape has changed for women since 2018
Luse:  was a really unique moment. We were a year out from the #MeToo campaign. And not only were there more women running for office, there were also more women registering to vote. In 2022, we're seeing some of the same trends, but this time we're having conversations about abortion and women's rights that we haven't really been having since 1973. And so I wonder, was "the year of the woman" bad branding?
Abrams: When you see branded years, it is aspirational. It's opportunistic. And sometimes it is designed to cover the gamut of issues with a very simplistic notion. What we're facing in this election year is one not of a lack of enthusiasm or lack of energy, [but] a lack of trust. We have trusted our institutions for 50 years, almost, to protect us. And yet those protections have been eviscerated. We trusted our institutions to reflect our needs and our values. And yet we've been told that the quality of your citizenship depends on your geography. That based on the state that you live in, you may or may not have the protection to take care of your own body. Access to an abortion, if you're below the Mason-Dixon Line, is nearly impossible.
And the idea that we call a year, a "year of the woman" because of either the policy issues that are galvanized or the people who run suggests that every year is not the year of the woman. That every year we shouldn't have women engaged. That every year women aren't facing an existential attack on our ability to navigate our spaces. It is facile and it is reductive, but it's sometimes necessary to focus the mind and focus the attention. But when it distracts us from the underlying fundamental problems, which are that women's rights are often completely subject to who gets elected, that should be what is galvanizing most often in our society.
Luse: If you had to name the moment that we're in now, what would you choose?
Abrams: "Unfinished business." We have unfinished business on a range of issues. We have unfinished business with how women's rights, at least women's bodily autonomy, should be addressed. Racial justice remains an issue. When voter suppression continues to flare up, when it continues to have a dogged effect on our elections, then it's unfinished business here. When we are grappling with how we talk about the twin responsibilities of accountability and safety — I want law enforcement to help keep my community safe. I want my mom and my dad to be able to call for help and have someone answer. But I also want my brothers not to be worried about driving while Black.
And so across the board, we have unfinished business in this country. But we get distracted by the shiny object. Or worse, we get defeated by the longitudinal failure to solve these problems in a permanent way. And I'm not saying we'll finish it in 2022. But we've at least got to return to the narrative thread and say we've got work to do and it is possible to do that work if we don't lose hope in the fact that the system we are a part of still has to answer to us.
On changing the politics of the South
Luse: How would a Stacey Abrams win in 2022 as governor of Georgia shift the political climate of the Deep South?
Abrams: What that means in the Deep South is seismic. In Georgia, the governor is an extraordinarily powerful job. The way I frame it for people, you know, Stand Your Ground was signed by a governor, not by a president. The evisceration of the social safety net started with a governor, not the White House, not with Congress. Jim Crow started and was the product of Southern governors. And so having a governor from the South whose grandfather — my mother's father — was born 25 years after the end of slavery? I carry with me a legacy and a vantage point that says I'm going to work harder than anyone ever has to live up to the legacy and the opportunities I have been granted.
On Black ethnicity and Abrams' heritage
Christina Greer: I think it's really important to remember [former U.S. Rep.] Barbara Jordan as Black American, as is Stacey Abrams, as was [civil rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer. As someone who wrote a book called Black Ethnics, I do actually think about the power of ethnicity. So Shirley Chisholm — Guyanese. Kamala Harris — Indian and Jamaican. Barack Obama — Kenyan and Kansan. When we think about people who are able to be on this kind of national stage, it isn't lost on me that they're not Black American. And this is not a divisive statement. I do think that there is still something about the dichotomous relationship between white people and Black people who are descendants of U.S. chattel slavery that is still unresolved.
Luse: Tell me more.
Greer: Like when people are like, "Oh, where are you from?" It's like, "Oh, I'm from Detroit." "No, where are you from?" It's like, "Louisiana, then Detroit." And there's like nowhere. "Oh, I'm just Black." So, you know, in college we were just like, "We're the JB's. We're the 'just Blacks,'" right? Because everyone else is like Guyana, you know, Bermuda, whatever.
Luse: How does Stacey Abrams being a "JB" translate to how people read and understand her?
Greer: I think being a descendant of U.S. chattel slavery does give you a perspective on what this country is and what she can be. On the research for my book, Black Ethnics, I asked a question about the pursuit of the American dream and how feasible it was. What I found in the data was that Black Americans — we know who this country is. You win some, you lose some. That is literally the phrase that people kept saying.
So it's like, hey, you might end up going to a top college and getting a great job at NPR. You might get caught with some weed and end up in jail and the rest of your life is history. That's just what this country does. We've seen it. You can have all the success or none.
A lot of Black Americans, Stacey Abrams included, fundamentally understand who this country is, but they also understand the possibility of this country. That there are some really great things that can come out of this country. And it's hard work. We're loyal to a country that's not always loyal to us, just as James Baldwin pointed out. When I think about Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan and Stacey Abrams, I think of them as the quintessential patriots and not, you know, flag-waving on a horse the way we're sort of taught in elementary school. When I think about what these three women have done and continue to do to save this country from herself, to make her a better version of herself, to make her live up to all the documents that are so beautifully, crisply written from years and years prior, I think of them as the patriots that I aspire to be.
That's why I call Stacey Abrams a pragmatic progressive. I don't think that she's like, "I'm building a utopia." She's taking the facts that we have and understands the limitations and capacities of various people within the state of Georgia to move forward. And she's pushing them to think about a different vision. And it's not just whites, it's not just Blacks. It's a holistic vision of what Georgians could look for.
On the odds of victory and the costs of defeat
Luse: In addition to Stacey Abrams, there are two other Black women who are also running gubernatorial races, one in Alabama and one in Iowa. Do you believe that a Black woman will win a governorship in 2022?
Greer: I would love to see it, but so much of what I teach my students is differentiating between what you want to happen and what you think will happen. I can't really speak to Alabama and Iowa because I don't really know their ground game. I think if we are going to see a Black female governor, the best chance that I've sort of seen is encapsulated in Stacey and her team. They're not putting all their eggs in the Atlanta basket. They fully understand this is a statewide strategy.
But let's be clear. Brian Kemp, when he was secretary of state and ran for governor, is literally like having the referees as members of the team, right? So the fact that he still has a certain level of control over the voting mechanisms and the process of a free and fair election does not make me feel great.
Luse: There was that measure that passed last year in Georgia, specifically with regard to voting, that I think some people would say rolled back a lot of the progress that was that was gained in 2020.
Greer: I think it's incumbent upon the press also to frame the stories as they are. You know, I remember there was a story out of Georgia in 2008 where it was heralded as like, "90-year-old Black woman stands in line 10 hours to vote for Obama." Isn't it beautiful?
No, it's not beautiful. It's voter disenfranchisement. It's a shame that anybody has to stand in line for 10 hours, let alone a 90-year-old Black woman. This is a story of voter disenfranchisement. This is a story of the egregious misconduct in the voting electoral process. There's certain communities where they are not waiting more than 10 minutes, let alone 10 hours — and if so, heads are rolling. So I think that we need to just be aware of the class and racial components in the narratives that we're telling about, "Oh, isn't this exciting? People are lined up forever to vote for Stacey." But no, it actually shouldn't be that people have to wait in line forever to vote for Stacey.
Luse: What are the costs if Stacey Abrams loses again?
Greer: Yeah, I hope that it doesn't dissuade people who were really galvanized into feeling like this system is rigged and, you know, there's no need in participating. I really hope that that's not the case. Stacey Abrams has talked to voters about like, hey, sometimes your candidate doesn't win. That doesn't mean that you pack up your marbles and you leave democracy forever. That's not how it works. But especially for first time voters, if their candidate doesn't win that first time and that sense of disappointment is so severe, it is really imperative that you capture them to make sure that they don't feel like this has been it. Because that's a surefire way for nothing to change in the future. And so I think that there will need to be some healing.
But also, as we saw after 2018, Stacey Abrams is like, "OK, dust yourselves off. Let's get back to work." Let's just say she she isn't successful in November, I have no idea if she would run again. But I'd bet a year's salary that she wouldn't just be like, "Woe is me," and disappear from [the] public sphere. I mean, the work that she's done in the state has made me fundamentally believe that that's not a strategy that she would even know how to employ. I think it would just be like, "OK, well, we figure out a different strategy on how to do the work."
This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Barton Girdwood, Liam McBain, Jessica Mendoza, Janet Woojeong Lee and Jamila Huxtable. Engineering support came from Jay Czys and Maggie Luthar. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. Our executive producer is Veralyn Williams, our VP of Programming is Yolanda Sangweni and our Senior VP of Programming is Anya Grundmann. You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at email@example.com.