‘If not now, when?’: Black women seize political spotlight

America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_99926 Charisse Davis poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Davis was recently elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board. "We've been watching from the sidelines and allowing other people to take their turns, and take these positions of power," Davis said. "Now here we are to essentially fix it."
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_32289 Charisse Davis poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Davis was recently elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board. "We've been watching from the sidelines and allowing other people to take their turns, and take these positions of power," Davis said. "Now here we are to essentially fix it."
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_79390 Gabby Bashizi, 17, poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Bashizi was one of thousands of teenagers who plotted on the social media site TikTok to reserve tickets to Trump's rally in Tulsa in June, then not show up.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_29313 FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams leaves the stage after addressing supporters during an election night watch party in Atlanta. She centered her campaign on women of color. In the election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots, a number typical for presidential election years but spectacular for midterms, eclipsing the turnout of the 2014 midterm by nearly 20,000 votes.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_85680 Bev Jackson, chair of the Democratic Party's Cobb County African American caucus, poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Jackson's family has been roots in Cobb County go back more than 100 years. "You have taken our votes for granted for years. But guess what?" she said. "It's payback time: What are you going to do for us?"
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_28246 Bev Jackson, chair of the Democratic Party's Cobb County African American caucus, poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Jackson's family has been roots in Cobb County go back more than 100 years. "You have taken our votes for granted for years. But guess what?" she said. "It's payback time: What are you going to do for us?"
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_53547 Chinita Allen, talks to a room full of people on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. Allen used to avoid talking about race. A soccer mom and former teacher, she had spent most of her life avoiding rocking the boat. Until Trump won. Now she's the president of Cobb Democratic Women and leading the charge to try to turn the county totally blue.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_84925 Chinita Allen poses for a portrait on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. "It's all about knowing your worth," she said of her political evolution. "We've always been here, like the Underground Railroad. But it's surfaced now. In a big way. It's a rail train," said Allen.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_62505 FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 file photo, Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., center, smiles with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., second from right, following a group portrait of the House Democratic women members of the 116th Congress on the East Front Capitol Plaza Capitol Hill in Washington as the 116th Congress begins. McBath, a Black mother whose 17-year-old son was killed by a white man for playing loud music, won the congressional seat that conservative Newt Gingrich once held.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_69964 DeAnna Harris, first Black person to be elected to chair for the Cobb County Young Republicans poses for a portrait on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Mableton, Ga. Harris is not what people imagine when they think of a stereotypical suburban Republican woman, she said. Her arms are covered in tattoos and she spent a year in jail for violating her probation on theft charges. She saw up close how broken the criminal justice system is, with jails filled with women who ought to be in treatment instead. She got into politics to fix it.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_91866 DeAnna Harris, first Black person to be elected to chair for the Cobb County Young Republicans poses for a portrait on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Mableton, Ga. When Harris was recently elected chair of the Cobb County Young Republicans, the first Black person in the post, she held her inaugural event at the historic African American church she attends to highlight the community's Black Republicans: the district attorney, deputy sheriff, a former state representative. The crowd was diverse, she said, and she was proud of that.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_36433 FILE - In this Saturday, June 1, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at an SEIU event before the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco. Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate, and in 2020, a prominent contender for the vice-presidential ticket.
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_62926 FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 file photo, Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, is detained by capitol police during a protest over election ballot counts in the rotunda of the state capitol building, in Atlanta. "The 2020 election cycle is going to be key to changing the course of history in this country," says Williams, chair of the Democratic party of Georgia, who was selected to replace the late Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died in July, on the November ballot. "We're a battleground in Georgia now, and Black women are leading the way."
America_Disrupted_Black_Women_Rising_Power_51097 Audrey McNeal on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. McNeal has aspirations to become secretary of state one day. Then, maybe, president. "It's about time we represent ourselves," McNeal said.
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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — The little girl ran up to her, wide-eyed and giddy.

“Are you Charisse Davis?” the fourth grader asked.

Davis was stunned. A former kindergarten teacher and librarian, she was more accustomed to shuttling her two sons to basketball practice than being seen as a local celebrity. But she had been elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board, gaining office in a once conservative suburban community where people who look like her rarely held positions of power.

Something had changed in this place, and something had changed in her.

“I love your hair — your hair looks like my hair,” the girl squealed, calling friends over.

It was a moment both innocent and revealing: Not just a child seeing herself in an elected leader, but also a reflection of the rapidly building power of Black women. It’s a momentous change that could make history on a national ticket and determine the outcome of the presidential race.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of extraordinary division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”

___

Black women have long been the heart of the Democratic Party — among the party’s most reliable and loyal voters — but for decades that allegiance didn’t translate to their own political rise. There have been zero Black female governors, just two senators, several dozen congresswomen. And the people representing them instead have not met their needs: Disparities, sometimes deadly ones, persist in health care, policing, education and economics.

Now Black women are mobilized and demanding an overdue return on their investment. Over the last several years and across America, Black women ran and won elections in historic numbers, from Congress to county school boards.

Just two years ago, five Black women were elected to Congress, four of them in majority-white districts, according to the Higher Heights Black Women in American Politics 2019 survey.

Now Joe Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and at least six of the contenders are Black — including California Rep. Karen Bass, who said, “I think what we’re looking for is representation, acknowledgement, inclusion.”

This transformation is taking place in once unlikely places, suburban counties in the South. Places like Cobb, a rambling expanse of strip malls and subdivisions just north of Atlanta that doubled in population midway through the last century as white people fled the city. Then, slowly, families of color followed, also seeking bigger yards and better schools.

The year Charisse Davis was born, 1980, Cobb County was 4.5% African American. Now it’s more than 27% Black and 13% Hispanic. Its politics caught up with its demographics: In 2016 Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to eke out a win in Cobb County since Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, in 1976.

President Donald Trump’s presidency, which has fueled racial divisions and appealed to white grievance, unleashed for some here an overwhelming urgency. Black women added their names to down-ticket ballots; they are canvassing, knocking on doors.

These advocates emphasize that Trump’s administration has failed to contain the coronavirus that has killed more than 154,000 Americans, a disproportionate share of them African Americans. He has responded to mass demonstrations over police violence by calling protesters thugs and encouraging law enforcement to beat them back with force.

When Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive Democrat, ran for governor in 2018, she focused her campaign on women of color. In that election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots — 20,000 more than voted in midterm elections four year earlier.

Although Abrams lost narrowly statewide, she won Cobb County handily.

“Given how directly Black women have been impacted by the incompetence and the malfeasance of the Trump administration, Black women are going to be at the forefront, not only giving rise to voter turnout, but also shaping the conversations that we will be having in this election season,” said Abrams, whose name has also been widely circulated as a possible Biden running mate. “It has been a sea change in how vital our voices have been.”

In Cobb County, Charisse Davis looked at the school board members, saw no Black women, so she ran and won. Meanwhile, for the first time a Black woman became the chair of the county’s young Republicans. Two joined the Superior Court bench. A teenager ran for class president, and she won, too.

Black women can meet this moment in a way no one else can, they say: The world watched the video of George Floyd begging for his mother as he was dying under a police officer’s knee.

Charisse Davis’ sons, 10 and 14 years old, asked her: Why won’t the officer just let him get up?

When she looks at her own sons, she sees her babies. But the older boy is now taller than she is. He likes hoodies. She worries a stranger might see him as a menace, not a boy whose mother still has to remind him to floss his teeth.

“That is the reality of being a Black mother in this country,” she said.

But despite progress, Black women remain underrepresented.

Although they make up about 7.5% of the electorate, less than 2% of statewide elected executive offices were held by Black women as of November 2019. They account for less than 5% of officeholders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress, and state legislatures, according to the Higher Heights survey.

And in Cobb County, Charisse Davis gets messages after school board meetings : “People like you are the problem,” one said. “She’s a racist,” a man wrote. Another described her as “defiant,” and said he had his son watch school board meetings “to see how he shouldn’t behave.”

She hears: You don’t belong there.

“You are dismantling the machine, rocking the boat, and all of those things are the way that they are by design,” she said, and added that one of the high schools in the district she represents is named after a Confederate officer.

“That is what the country is built on, that is racism, that is systemic racism, that is white supremacy. It’s all these things we don’t talk about. But if not now, when?”

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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