Politics

Why Stacey Abrams is the real hero of the 2020 US presidential election

The political organiser Stacey Abrams is rightly being celebrated for turning out the Democratic vote in Georgia, a shift that could help Joe Biden secure the US presidency. But we mustn’t rely on Black women to save the world, writes Moya Crockett.  

On a cloudy, humid afternoon in November 2018, Stacey Abrams learned that her Republican rival in the race to be the next state governor of Georgia had declared victory. Brian Kemp’s team were telling reporters that he had secured more than 50% of the vote, making it impossible for Abrams, his Democratic challenger, to win.

Abrams, who would have been the first Black woman governor in US history if elected, didn’t accept Kemp’s version of events. Her team pointed out that a Democratic victory in Georgia was still plausible: not all the votes had yet been counted. Abrams didn’t publicly acknowledge Kemp’s win until the following week, when she delivered a blistering speech in which she declined to formally concede. Her view: Kemp might have squeaked a victory (the official figures showed he had won by a margin of just 1.4%), but he’d used deplorable, undemocratic tactics of voter suppression to get there.

“Pundits and hyperpartisans will hear my words as a rejection of the normal order. You see, I’m supposed to say nice things and accept my fate,” Abrams said. “They will complain that I should not use this moment to recap what was done wrong or to demand a remedy. You see, as a leader I should be stoic in my outrage and silent in my rebuke.

“But stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people. And I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right.”

stacey abrams in georgia
Stacey Abrams speaks during a drive-in campaign event for Kamala Harris in Georgia

It was an extraordinary moment in US politics: a Black woman rejecting the silencing expectations placed on her language, demeanour and behaviour to condemn her white, male, establishment opponent. Almost exactly two years later, Abrams has still never officially conceded to Kemp. And now, she’s being praised as the real star of the 2020 presidential election, whatever happens between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

At the time of writing, Biden was 1,585 votes ahead in Georgia, a lead so small there will now be a recount. If Biden wins Georgia, the Democrat will be just one electoral college vote away from the White House, according to the BBC – and Trump will be unable to reach the 270 electoral college votes he needs to secure the presidency. But whatever happens, the tightness of the race represents a major shift for a traditionally Republican state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. And much of the change is being attributed to grassroots activism spearheaded by Abrams.

“It’s not Black girl magic, it’s Black woman Work,” Ayanna Pressley, the Massachusetts congresswoman and ‘Squad’ member who was re-elected this week, wrote on Twitter. “[Abrams] alongside the coalition she has built [and] led, have been putting it in for our democracy.”

“Stacey Abrams did an incredible thing in [Georgia] and across the country,” agreed author Roxane Gay. “After losing her election due in large part to voter suppression, she continued to organize and work to ensure voting rights to the most disenfranchised people.”

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Stacey Abrams in November 2019

To understand why Abrams’ work has been so influential, we have to understand why it was necessary in the first place. And for that, we have to look at the long history of voter suppression in the US. We’ve all seen the photos and videos: Americans standing in extraordinarily long lines to vote at polling stations, queues that stretch far beyond anything we’d accept as normal in UK elections (even without a pandemic in the mix). That could be chalked up to the American enthusiasm for democracy, but the reality is much more sinister.

“The right to vote is a sacrosanct part of US democracy, but actually guaranteeing and protecting this right has been contested throughout the history of the country,” Dr Todd Landman, professor of political science at the University of Nottingham, tells Stylist. He points to the backlash seen against attempts to enfranchise groups including women and African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Efforts to limit voting continue to this day and include the redrawing of electoral boundaries [a process known as gerrymandering]; restrictions on the location, availability and opening times of polls; and other measures that potentially hinder people’s ability to cast their votes.”

These methods disproportionately affect certain groups, including ethnic minorities – particularly Black and Native American voters – and younger or poorer Americans. Kemp has always denied trying to suppress Democratic votes, yet he cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations as Georgia’s secretary of state between 2012 and 2018, and refused to resign from that post before running for governor (with the convenient consequence that he was responsible for overseeing the election in which he was up against Abrams). One month before the 2018 election, Kemp’s office still hadn’t approved over 53,000 voter registrations. According to analysis by The Associated Press, 70% of these applications belonged to African Americans, despite the fact that Black people made up less than a third of Georgia’s overall population at the time.

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Stacey Abrams campaigning for Joe Biden in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October

All things considered, it was remarkable that Kemp only managed to beat Abrams by 1.4%. In the wake of that election, many expected her to start prepping for another run for office. But instead, she turned her attention to the less starry problem of voter suppression. At the end of 2018, Abrams founded Fair Fight, an organisation that promotes fair elections, encourages voter participation and educates US citizens about their voting rights. By February 2020, Fair Fight had raised $20 million (£15m) in donations, much of which was directed to Democratic parties in states around the US to increase voter registration and grassroots organisation.

Abrams’ and Fair Fight’s work was vital in paving the way for Biden’s success in Georgia. Some 800,000 voters registered in the state between 2018 and the 2020 election, half of whom are people of colour, according to Fair Fight. Yet The New York Times reports that the wider Democratic Party viewed winning Georgia as a “remote possibility” for much of 2020, and Biden didn’t even visit the state until last week.

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Once again, it is Black women who have done the work to advance progressive politics. At the time of writing, data suggests that 93% of Black women voters in the US cast their ballots for Biden, a higher proportion than any other demographic. More than half (52%) of white women, in contrast, voted for the racist misogynist currently occupying the Oval Office. If Trump is ejected from the White House in January, it is Black women who made it happen.

So yes: Stacey Abrams is a political hero. But while Black women’s hard-won successes should be celebrated, their support for liberal politicians should never be taken for granted – in the US or in the UK. Neither should we elide the exhausting, unglamorous nature of the work done by Abrams. She is not a superhero; she is a smart, determined, principled woman who has fought back tirelessly against injustice. We should all sing her praises. But white women in particular should be considering how we can be more like Stacey Abrams – not relying on women like her to save us. 

Images: Getty