ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Black women vote in large numbers, and they overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Doug Jones is now Senator Doug Jones because of black women. They turned out and helped eke out a win for the Democrats during the Alabama special election late last year. So if black women don't vote - if they decide to just stay home next Tuesday, that's a real problem for the Democratic Party. Our co-host Audie Cornish has more on the effort to get and keep Black women energized.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...In a chair.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: We recently visited a voter meeting organized by Higher Heights. That's a political action group focused on black women voters and candidates. And more than a hundred of these living room meetings were happening that night across the country.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How about we do this - we go around, give introductions and we give what we think?
CORNISH: The women around this circle here in Washington, D.C., included schoolteachers, political organizers and a health care analyst. They were sipping wine, munching on tacos and commiserating about politics. They actually didn't all know each other very well. But once they got settled in, they found they had a lot in common. First, they shared a sense of exhaustion with the marches and pussy hats that followed the presidential election.
MICHELLE NEELY: I think, like, the trust was gone by the Women's March. I'm like, I ain't petting the hat. I'm not showing up. It's cold.
NEELY: I'm not - the trust...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was already...
NEELY: ...Is gone.
CORNISH: This is Michelle Neely. She works in communications. White women were divided in 2016, although they did tip in favor of Donald Trump. So white women activism post-2016? Too little, too late in Neely's opinion. Now, in 2018, it's time for the midterms. Kesha Willis believes that, once again, black women voters will be expected to turn out in numbers that will prop up Democratic candidates.
KESHA WILLIS: I think our vote has been taken for granted. And I think people are paying attention more now than they have in the past, especially with everything that happened with Doug Jones down in Alabama. It was black women who delivered that W that day. And I think a lot of people are now realizing what we've known all along is that we do have that power.
CORNISH: This idea of being taken for granted as a voting bloc, it's not new. What's different this year is the ongoing debate in the Democratic Party about whether its focus on people of color in 2016 came at the expense of the white, working-class vote and what it will take to bring back those white voters in 2020. To Michelle Neely, it's underscored by the new progressive activism she says hasn't always been there for black voters.
NEELY: When it's time - when there's LGBTQ folks, when there's immigrants, when there's kids being torn away from family - we show up. When it's us - criminal justice - people are like ah, well.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.
NEELY: When it's black-specific, white folks...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, you know, I got this thing this weekend.
NEELY: ...Stop showing up.
CORNISH: And that list of issues important to black women voters isn't that long or unfamiliar. Several women, including Rabiah Burks, brought up mass incarceration and criminal justice.
RABIAH BURKS: Every election cycle, no one wants to touch criminal justice because they don't want to affect their chances of being re-elected. If black women had a choice - if we had a stronger voice, this would actually be an urgent issue. And that's what it's actually missing is urgency. There's nothing else to it.
CORNISH: Ayesha Williams added racial profiling by law enforcement as well.
AYESHA WILLIAMS: Like, I've broken up relationships in the middle of a dinner party because - I was dating a police officer - and the other police officers say something like - well, he fit the profile. And I'm like - my daddy is 6-2. My brother is 6-3. They are both dark-skinned with beards, slim build. I was just like, every man in my family fits the profile.
CORNISH: But these women also talked about education and, like many other voters, the cost of health. More than anything, Rabiah Burks resented the implication that it's a zero-sum game, that anyone has to lose out when it comes to a candidate reaching out and asking for a vote.
BURKS: You have to show up to the community every now and then and say, hey, I'm with you or something. Like, if all of your resources and all of your dollars are going to convince people who are not necessarily with you, then you make the other group feel like they're not even worth being heard.
CORNISH: This is all part of a wider debate in the Democratic Party about the idea of identity politics, so I reached out to California Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Right now, she's making her own bid to be part of the leadership of the Democratic caucus in Congress. I asked her what excuses she's heard over the years for the party taking black women voters for granted.
BARBARA LEE: It's interesting because they don't give an excuse because they don't even think about it. And I think that's part of the problem. They take us for granted. And over the years, it's been up and down, up and down. But for the most part, I don't believe that - until now at least - there's been a recognition of the value of African-American women, not only to the Democratic Party but to the country.
CORNISH: Is there something specific to this moment that you think is forcing the party to take this voter bloc more seriously?
LEE: I think, in this moment, we saw major wins in Alabama and in Virginia. African-American women led the effort to, you know, make sure that we won both of those races. And so black women have decided that, you know, no longer are we going to be behind the scenes helping others. In this instance this year, we see brilliant black women running for Congress around the country and for a variety of state and local offices. And that's a major breakthrough. And I think we have just said, enough is enough.
CORNISH: What are black women getting out of voting for Democrats? We definitely have heard from you what Democrats are getting out of it.
LEE: Well, black women - I tell you, voting for Democrats - first of all, look at the alternative in terms of what they're getting out of the Republicans. But when you look at the policies that the Democrats champion - right now especially, as it relates to education, health care, housing, reducing the cost of prescription drugs, it was Democrats who have fought to make sure that insurance companies don't deny coverage to anyone, especially African-American women, as it relates to pre-existing conditions. Who has these pre-existing conditions disproportionately? It's African-American men and women.
And so I think when you look at the agenda of the Democratic Party, why we haven't gotten there yet where we should in terms of equality and justice for all, that's our agenda. And that's our platform. When you look at the Republicans, they're just the opposite. And so you know, as a Democrat and as a progressive Democrat, I'm trying to make our party more responsive, more inclusive and more progressive. And that will help African-American women achieve parity, equity and justice in this country, as it will for everyone.
CORNISH: Can you talk to the criticism that people feel like the Democratic establishment isn't always very good at backing black women candidates? The most famous example this cycle was Ayanna Pressley in Boston, who did not get the support of the Congressional Black Caucus' own PAC.
LEE: Well, the CBC is a separate entity from the CBC PAC. So when you look at the firewalls, there are several organizations that are not CBC directed. And so the political action committee of the CBC, the board makes decisions on who to back and who not to back. But Ayanna is a very smart, brilliant black woman politician with a lot of experience. And she showed that she could take on the establishment and win. And that's what black women are doing all around the country. This is a new day. The old way doesn't work anymore. And we're going to see more and more of that.
CORNISH: California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you for speaking with us.
LEE: Thank you.
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