ATLANTA — Perri Chandler got dressed up to celebrate Stacey Abrams’s success in Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday by donning a black T-shirt that read “Elect Black Women.” It was a defiant statement at a time when liberals are having a heated internal debate about whether a focus on “identity politics” is driving some white voters to support Donald Trump and candidates who mirror his style and policies.
Chandler is not having it.
“People who complain about identity politics don’t love their identity as much as black women love theirs,” says the 35-year-old Atlanta resident who works as a diversity facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League. “There is struggle and love in that identity because historically and presently, we continue to be overlooked. But still we thrive and we succeed on levels that are seldom acknowledged.”
Abrams beat her primary opponent — Stacey Evans, who is white — by 53 points, a victory that was celebrated by black women across the country. Hundreds in the growing community of independent political organizers descended on Georgia to help her win the initial leg of her quest to become the first black female governor in the nation’s history.
Women won big in primary elections across the country this week, including in Texas, where Lupe Valdez, who is openly lesbian and Latina, won the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Abrams’s campaign, in particular, has come to symbolize a moment of reckoning for black women, who for the past decade have been the most loyal Democratic voters but have not felt appreciated by the party or the politicians who have benefited from their support. In Abrams, they see a chance to elevate themselves to one of the country’s highest political offices, because many of them identify with elements of her biography.
The daughter of working-poor parents, Abrams was valedictorian of her high school, went on to graduate from Spelman College, a premier predominantly black women’s college, and later earned a law degree from Yale.
While working as a lawyer and launching a small business, she managed to find time to write eight romance novels under the nom de plume, Selena Montgomery. Abrams rose to the rank of minority leader in the Georgia House, the first African American to do so and the first woman to become leader in either chamber of the state legislature. Brown-skinned and full-figured, Abrams wears her hair in natural twists.
“She is a black woman doing this fully in her blackness,” said Christina Greer, a political-science professor at Fordham University. “I think for a lot of black women, it does mean something that she has natural hair. They can tell their daughters that they can be successful — and even an elected official — and not have to change their natural hair.”
Black women didn’t walk away from Abrams when she wrote an essay for Fortune acknowledging that, despite her financial success, she was struggling to repay $200,000 in back taxes, student loans and credit card debt.
“I suspect my situation will sound familiar to others who are the first in their families to earn real money,” Abrams wrote in the essay, saying she amassed the debt while pursuing advanced degrees and helping out financially strapped family members who had fallen on hard times. She also cited historic wealth gaps for African Americans and women.
“The difficulty of catching up and moving forward isn’t all in your head,” she wrote. “Systemic biases, legacy barriers, and current explosions of inequality conspire to undermine wealth generation among minorities, and especially women in these communities. But, as with all obstacles, our obligation is to acknowledge they exist and then fight like hell to circumvent them.”
Greer said that Abrams is an avatar for “a lot of black women who live and work in this country.”
Out of 159 counties in Georgia, Abrams won all but six, meaning many white women found kinship with the Abrams campaign as well. Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights group NARAL, helped knock on doors for the campaign the weekend before the election. She praised Abrams for skirting the playbook and running a campaign on her own terms.
“The script of how you run for political office has been determined for eons in this country by white men who still want to come in and tell a woman like Stacey what to do,” Hogue said. “And she said, ‘No, thank you, I know my state, I know my people.’ ”
Abrams has stumped on a progressive platform to bring Medicaid expansion to Georgia, boost spending for public education and grow the state economy outside of the Atlanta metro region. She also is a champion for the rights of immigrants and LGBTQ people. In the general election, she is banking on rebuilding and mobilizing a coalition of voters of color, women, young people and white progressives to take back the governor’s mansion from Republicans who have held it for nearly 16 years.
Alicia Garza, co-founder of Care to Action, the political organization of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, also hit the streets to rally voters for Abrams. “Stacey Abrams is the future of the Democratic Party. Black women have been showing up for the party for more than 50 years, and now it’s time for the party to reflect it’s strongest and most loyal base,” said Garza, a leader in Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not just about representation — it’s about her experiences as a black woman and how she uses those experiences to solve problems for all of us.”
Chandler’s friend, Shannon Gaggero, also sported an “Elect Black Women” T-shirt at Abrams’s victory party.
“As a white person, it’s on us to educate people why they should support her,” said Gaggero, a 36-year-old community organizer and Atlanta native. “This is not about identity politics. … She is the most qualified person for the job, and how dare you overlook her because she is black.”
The fact that Abrams is seeking to claim this electoral prize in the South also is significant. The majority of African Americans in the country — 55 percent — live in the South, according to the 2010 Census. In her victory speech, Abrams called herself “a proud daughter of the South.”
Greer noted that the region still “has a reputation of being behind the times and not progressive.”
But, she added, “Stacey’s victory in the primary has shown that some hearts and minds have been changed, and she is that change agent. If she can be successful in the South, what are the possibilities for black women across the country?”
Borrowing a quote from the renowned black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, Greer said, “As goes the South, so goes the rest of nation.”
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