Andre M. Perry
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Former Research Assistant - Metropolitan Policy Program
Former Research Analyst - Metropolitan Policy Program
Senior Project Manager - Brookings Metro
In The New York Times’ 1619 Project, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones asked a prescient question about the role of Black Americans in the progress of our democracy: “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
Last night in Georgia, that question may have been answered.
In the 2020 presidential campaign, Black women’s organizing led to tremendous voter turnout—repudiating the advancement of racist, anti-democratic practices under President Donald J. Trump as well as those that preceded him. Now, with Democrats sweeping the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the power and potency of the Black electorate has resulted in a flipped chamber and vastly expanded potential for progressive policy goals.
Turnout in Black precincts in the Georgia runoffs was approximately 93% of November’s general election, compared with an 87% turnout in white, noncollege precincts, according the New York Times writer Nate Cohn. And according to early estimates, Black counties in Georgia increased their support for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff by an average of 4 percentage points from November’s election.
Does this mean America will finally understand Black voters’ role in the health of our democracy? Only if the Democratic Party does not continue to take Black voters for granted, courting their vote but not delivering their agenda. Nor can the party disregard the progressive platform that catalyzed its victories. Bold, progressive ideas produce wins, and old-school Democrats should embrace the ambitious people and policies that delivered Joe Biden’s victory, as well as those in the Georgia runoffs. This represents the power of Black voters in Black-majority cities.
Just two years ago, Stacey Abrams lost a high-profile bid to become governor of Georgia to Brian Kemp. As Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp oversaw an election process that included voting roll purges and onerous registration rules that shamelessly targeted historically disenfranchised Black voters. Abrams apparently took the words of Nelson Mandela to heart when he said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” The voting rights organization Abrams founded after her loss, Fair Fight, played a pivotal role in turning Georgia blue.
As a result of the efforts of Abrams and other local activists Reverend Raphael Warnock will be Georgia’s first Black senator. Likewise, Jon Ossoff—son of a Jewish father and an Australian immigrant mother—will be Georgia’s first Jewish senator. Both candidates ran on progressive agendas; Warnock backs restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and litmus testing judicial nominees for their support of Roe v. Wade. Not to be out-lefted, Ossoff champions gun control and strengthening the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
In this light, Democratic leadership cannot continue to delay progressive legislation for fear of offending centrist and swing voters. Nor should they yield to the violent mobs supporting Trump’s morally bankrupt attempt to overthrow the election. We’re already hearing whispers of a gravitation to the center because of the Senate’s newfound 50-50 split, with a Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote. It would be foolish for the Biden administration to push a tepid agenda at the expense of the people and ideals that provided their very electoral opportunity. Not listening to Black voters’ demands for a progressive agenda may prove fatal for a democracy.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Black voters saved democracy this November, and again last night in Georgia. As Trump was pressuring state officials to “find” votes that would overturn his loss, Black Georgians were affirming their candidates’ progressive agendas and voting in droves to see them elected. That victory, hopefully, will be the final repudiation of Trump’s authoritarian, undemocratic, and illegal power grab.
Now, America can see that Black people were the solution for an authentic democracy all along.