Beyond Kings and Queens: Gender and Politics in the 2019 Black Census
Black Futures Lab
It’s Black History — and Black Futures — Month, and an opportunity for us all to consider how economic injustice continues to influence the reality of being Black in America. As explored in Listen to Black Voters: Put Economic Justice First, last year the Black Census Project was released as the largest survey of Black people conducted since Reconstruction. Through this groundbreaking data, it became clear that economic policy issues were among the most serious problems faced by Black communities.
Most recently, a part two to this report was published: Beyond Kings and Queens: Gender and Politics in the 2019 Black Census. I sat down with Alicia Garza — principal at the Black Futures Lab and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently, co-host of the Sunstorm podcast with labor activist Ai-jen Poo — to dive into the findings and what they say about the financial well being of Black people of all genders in our communities.
For the readers who are new to the work of Black Futures Lab, what is the Black Census? And why was it important to put out a second report viewing the data through the lens of gender?
The Black Futures Lab works to make Black communities powerful in politics. Our approach to building power is centered in making sure that Black folks have a voice over the decisions impacting our lives. We know that the challenges are complex, and that the solutions require innovation, experimentation, and most of all, Black political power.
The Black Census is really a listening project. We embarked on this project to be able to hear from Black communities ourselves, about our experience in the economy, in our democracy. We also wanted to hear from Black communities what we longed for, for our future. One of the things we heard most commonly is no one ever asks us what we experience or dream about — people are telling us what we should want or think, or are just solving challenges they don’t face. We didn’t project on anyone what Black people think, feel, or experience. We paid attention to listening deeply to how we articulate the challenges we face everyday — and to give our folks the opportunity to dream big about what’s possible.
We were able to conduct the largest survey of Black Americans in 155 years… the last time this happened was when people who were enslaved were emancipated. The US government was trying to figure out how to restore humanity and dignity to hundreds of thousands of people who had been denied those rights. And so our purpose in conducting the survey was to re-energize our investment and commitment into listening to Black communities, changing the narrative of who Black communities are so we can improve our lives.
We did a series of reports that analyzed data from that project. One is looking at the people who were most politically active; who vote and who go above and beyond by registering others to vote, by helping to make sure people can get to the polls, getting involved in campaigns, and donating to campaigns. We looked at responses from those lenses at the most common experiences and what were the most sought out solutions.
We also put out reports from the lenses of sexuality and gender. What you’ll find is that while we are not a monolith — there are many things that are different about Black people whether you’re in rural Mississippi or in urban Oakland, California — there are a lot of things that connect us and are true across demographic, identity, citizenship status, and even political affiliation. What we found was that wages were the number one issue that kept Black people up at night, and that more than half think politicians don’t care about Black people or poor people. Most people believed politicians care more about white people or rich people, and we also found while there is a deep distrust in the ability of government to address the pervasive problems for the Black community, there are some trusted voices they listen to like Black elected officials, Black media, and Black Lives Matter. What we found possible from this listening process is that we need to address the fact that Black communities don’t feel like we’re engaged with, but also we wanted to do more than just document it and snapshot it. We wanted to translate the things that were most common across differences into a policy agenda along the things we all care about and solutions we all want.
What data from this report most surprised you?
When you disaggregate the respondents based on particular characteristics, it’s not that certain issues become more important, but you get a certain level of depth. Look at it from the lens of gender and sexuality. The issues that are most impactful are still that wages are too low to support a family, but then there are other issues at the top. Like violence. Violence at the hands of the police for violence, in our homes, and in our communities. Those who identify as trans have barriers to achieving the things that they need.
A lot of assumptions that we held about what the responses would be like were shattered. You would think Black cis-gender men wouldn’t support ending violence against transwomen. But more than 75% of Black cis-gender men said that this is a problem. There are stories being told about us without us. Those stories lack the level of nuance that’s needed to understand how we show up in the world. While it’s true that violence against transwomen wasn’t one of the top three issues for Black cis men — it was in the top five.
Stories are important to tell: when we tell stories without nuance we make policy without nuance. We forgot who our potential and natural allies are in the work.
Across gender identity, there was a high degree of alignment around a desire for a more active role of the US government — to create a more equitable economy, raise the minimum wage, tax the wealthy, and provide for critical needs like housing, health care, and child care.
Do you see any current Presidential candidates adequately understanding and appealing to these voters?
The reality is that every four years we do this song and dance where there is a stage full of people who seek our vote, they know that Black communities are important to them securing a nomination for their party or the actual presidency. They know they can’t win without Black community support, but almost none take the time to learn the issues that Black communities care about the most.
When we launched our reporting in the New York Times — in an op-ed called Dear Candidates — we said that showing up on talk shows and doing the latest dance craze, or in a soul food restaurant with uneaten fried chicken, is insufficient. Yes, we are culture shapers. Yes, we set the tone on entertainment and pop culture and all the things that make America fabulous. We are also people who are trying to sustain families. We are lying awake at night trying to figure out how to pay the bills, we miss family members at holidays because they are incarcerated.
So to really address the challenges Black people are facing, we need deeper engagement.
Candidates themselves are not literate on questions of race, or gender, or how to talk about those things at the same time. That’s a problem — not because we aren’t there to say buzzwords like intersectionality. What I care about is that they understand that Black women make 68 cents to 80 cents for white women and a dollar for white men… It would take us eight [additional] months to catch up to the wages of white women, much less white men.
We had a debate with an all-women panel of moderators, but when we get quetsions on things like healthcare — which include things like abortion, and things ike childcare and paid family leave — people are not able to have the conversations because they‘ve never been asked to. Candidates are really great at talking to all the things they think Black communities care about, like HBCUs or saying the words criminal justice reform.
But when you press and say what are you going to do for the economic issues shaping the lives of Black people, they have a hard time doing it. They might throw out some symbolic statements about reparations, or ending mass incarceration but without a plan to do that, and for Black women — sure having a loved one incarcerated disproportionate impacts Black women. You know what else does? Being the head of households with no support. And the impact that has on a formerly incarcerated loved one facing all types of barriers getting housing or health care or a job.
If the person who seeks to lead the country can’t lead for everyone, we’re in a lot of trouble. We’re right now with a leader who is not interested in leading for everyone. They are interested in leading for white rich men and making sure we are subservient to their agenda. That impacts our ability to breathe, to get care when we’re sick, and to not get sick in the first place, to make a wage that keeps a roof over our head, and it has an impact on our ability or weigh in on the decisions that impact and shape our lives.
So what we hope we are doing with our listening project and reports is offering tools on how to lead for everyone and not just a select few.
Transgender and gender non-conforming/non-binary Black Census respondents report living extremely economically precarious lives: “62 percent live in a household where someone was unable to pay a monthly bill in the last year (compared to 53 percent of cisgender respondents); 50 percent put off seeing a doctor for financial reasons (compared to 35 percent of cisgender respondents); 33 percent were not able to pay rent or a mortgage (compared to 22 percent of cisgender respondents).”(11)
This level of data is unprecedented — as an activist, how did data collection become a priority for you, and what does this continuum from data to visibility to action look like? Is there any additional data that’s been particularly challenging to hone down, and that you hope there will be a greater investment in understanding?
For us, we run into a lot of different challenges for what Black people are living. As an organizer first and foremost, it is all about collecting data. As I am trying to get someone involved I need to know all aspects of their life — what makes them angry, what are their dreams, how that impacts them. Those are tools of an organizer and the information that policymakers are using is not gathered the same way we are gathering. It is gathered from polls taken from a small sample of our community. CNN said the majority of Black people who vote are voting Biden — but they only interviewed 1,000 Black Americans in a small geographic location
Because our community is extremely complex it is impossible to sum up — that’s scientific racism… historically, these data points have been used to disenfranchise. I see data and research that can either be liberatory or can continue marginalization. For us, we collect data on our communities and the complexity of our communities. If we don’t, we get stale data that is used to continue to marginalized or disenfranchised.
Lastly, this report emphasizes that black women (both cis- and trans-) are systematically shortchanged in the labor market. “Black women consistently have a higher labor force participation rate than women of any other race, yet pervasive discrimination pushes many Black women into low-paying jobs with limited benefits or opportunity for advancement.”
Who are the leaders, in your opinion, who are doing the work to actively change this reality? As people continue to learn about these challenges, what action can they take to support this work of a more just future?
Yeah, so the reality is that Black women, and women of color, immigrant women, poor women, have all been locked out and left behind — yet have always been at the forefront championing conditions to make things better not just for themselves, but for everybody.
So much of what we see centers around the idea that there is a small percentage of people doing the work. The problem with that is that there’s no incentive for people who have amassed resources beyond their dreams to redistribute that [wealth]. So how do we get improvement?
At the forefront has been the domestic workers movement — people who care for us and care for their families — the civil rights movement, etc. It is in all our interest to make sure that care is part of our lives, and we will all need it one day. I think what happens when we support the women and people who are courageous enough to envision a bold vision for this country, to live up to fairness and equality for all, we get closer to the vision of this country that we all long for. [These women] are deeply engaged in shaping not just the future, but the present.
There’s a million groups I can name. Readers can go to blackfutureslab.org and see the 20 plus organizations that we have signed on to support and our deeply invested in. There are movements happening all around us. People ask me all the time “how can I start a movement?” But movements are happening all around you and need your support — lending your time and your heart. That’s what people are waiting for.
Thanks to Jasmine Rashid for her contributions to this piece. Full disclosures related to my work here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein.