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#SayOurNames: Black Women’s Leadership & Our Quest For Equity

Because we know that when Black women step into their power, what needs to be done, will be done.

Politics

Last Wednesday evening (August 19), Senator Kamala Harris took the virtual stage of the 2020 Democratic Convention and addressed the nation as the first Black and South Asian woman to accept a major party's vice-presidential nomination.

From a pandemic to divisive leadership and economic uncertainty, Senator Harris' historic achievement comes at a time when our country is in dire need of leadership, and more specifically - Black women's leadership.

Because we know that when Black women step into their power, what needs to be done, will be done.

A Legacy of Leadership

Last week also marked 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, and while Black women were integral to its passing, their fight for a seat at the political table was just beginning.

Harris' achievement is the latest in a legacy of Black women's suffragists whose leadership galvanized communities and shattered glass ceilings. She notes this in her speech at the 2020 Democratic Convention saying:

"They paved the way for the trailblazing leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And these women inspired us to pick up the torch, and fight on. Women like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McCleod Bethune. Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm. We're not often taught their stories. But as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders."

Image: Mason Trinca / Getty Images

In recent years, we've seen a new generation of Black women effecting change in politics, education, business, and beyond. Black women represent the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs, with the number of Black women-led startups doubling since 2016. They also represent the most educated demographic and have become a political force with a record number of Black women set to run for Congress.

Despite these advancements, Black women disproportionately face challenges at the intersection of race gender. These challenges are not new and actualize themselves in injustices such as workplace biases, disparities in health care, income inequalities, and the erasure of Black women in today's fight against police brutality.

"Anti-Black racism is once again at the center of national consciousness, an unavoidable reality amplified by twin pandemics—the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings in response to unyielding forms of state violence," said Shermena M. Nelson, Chief of Staff and Director of Programs and Community Engagement at the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). "Both COVID-19 and police violence have made blatantly apparent the racial inequalities that persist in American society."

Image: September 2020 of 'O Magazine' honoring Breonna Taylor

For Nelson, AAPF's mission to dismantle structural racism and other barriers that disempower marginalized communities is increasingly important during this time of consciousness.

"We want to maximize this moment of attention, guiding attention to work that is transformative and sustainable. This cannot just be a moment."

Nelson joined a line-up of modern leaders like Linda Sarsour, co-founder of the Women's March, and Reverend Marcia Dyson at the virtual Black Womxn's Summit hosted by the Office of the Dean of the Chapel at Howard University, Senator Harris' alma mater. Hosted on Black Women's Equal Pay Day, the intra-racial summit celebrated Black womanhood while exploring other topics like education, health, sexism, and police brutality, among others, that uniquely impact Black women.

"With the killing of Breonna Taylor, we see once again the need for narratives that account for the racist police violence against Black women and girls. These stories are too often left untold, these names too often left unsaid."

Protecting Black Women in Today’s Social Climate

When it comes to Black women, public outrage often trails to that of their male counterparts. It's been approximately five months since Breonna Taylor's death and her murderers have still not been arrested.

We've seen this time again in cases of police violence toward Black women and girls like Oluwatoyin "Toyin" Salau, Atatiana Jefferson, Charleena Lyles, and Sandra Bland - a case that many of us first associated with #SayHerName, a 2014 campaign launched by AAPF to bring awareness to the names of these victims whose names we often do not hear.

But it shouldn't take for Black women's wrongful deaths to prompt action. How can we begin to effectively dismantle the structures that promote our erasure, so that we, and consequently all Americans, can walk in our full power?

"To properly diagnose and attempt to remedy the disparate violence we must use a framework of analysis that can identify the particulars of these two crises, namely, the ways in which race, gender, and class interact and compound," said Nelson. "We have to look at this as a structural issue. These killings are not just one case. One situation. One moment. They are the products of centuries of discrimination and systems that were uniquely crafted to oppress."

Our country is in a polarized, vulnerable state, one that presents many challenges, but the bright opportunity for widespread and institutional change - but only if we act. To do so, we must support organizations that are doing what is needed to knock down racial barriers and create pathways to equity.

"I believe there is a role for everyone. Education is a key way to support. Educate yourself, your colleagues, your friends. Make conscious, intentional efforts to elevate the movement. Lend your support to organizations who are doing the work (donate, volunteer, attend, promote), and remove your support from organizations and individuals who are opposed to the work."

The power to change leadership and advocate for existence lies in our right to vote. With arguably the most important election on the horizon, now is the time to show up for Black women the way they've always shown up for us all.

"This is not a time to passively observe or wait for others to step up. The time is now. We cannot wait."

To learn more and support the work of the African American Policy Forum, please visit aapf.org.

Featured image by Getty Images

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
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