Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro caused a stir last week when he remarked that it’s time to change the order of the primary states in presidential elections. The current schedule puts first two of the Whitest states in the country, Iowa and New Hampshire. Neither is demographically “reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party,” Castro said.
After that MSNBC interview, Castro furthered those comments to other media outlets. He told Rolling Stone, if Democrats don’t elevate voters of color, “Why the hell are we Democrats in the first place?” To Vogue, he said, “We can’t go around thanking Black women for powering Democrats to victory all over the country, and then at the same time hold our first caucus and our first primary in states that have almost no African Americans.” Castro also compared the outdated practice of the schedule, which began in 1972, to the Republican suppression of Black votes.
Because conversations and results from the first primaries of the season can make or break a candidate’s momentum, the concern the presidential candidate raises about leaving out Black women and thereby silencing their voices are valid. Dems have several reasons to rethink prioritizing rural White voters at the expense of Black women voters, because the outcomes can affect the party and the nation as a whole.
As a voting bloc, Black women are loyal and powerful. Turnouts demonstrate that when we are effectively engaged, our work can make seemingly impossible victories possible, such as the Virginia gubernatorial race and the Alabama senate race in 2017. Our donations and hard work canvassing, fundraising, making phone calls on behalf of candidates have put scores of Democrats in office every election cycle.
Castro and others who may share his point of view are not looking to negate rural White voters as an important part of our democracy. However, prioritizing the early input of this demographic leaves out not only Black women voters and potential voters, but also other potential voters across the country.
Including Black women has the added value of being more inclusive to everyone, especially the most marginalized communities.
At least 62.7% of the U.S. population is squeezed into cities and their close suburbs. Primaries open to large numbers of Black women involve heavily populated states and counties, thereby opening the door to earlier dialogue on nationwide issues relevant to a wide-ranging demographic in those areas. For example, residents in urban centers are more concerned than rural residents about issues such as affordable rental housing, poverty, crime, and the quality of public schools.
Curiously, the decision to make Iowa and New Hampshire the first primary states did not come during the heyday of Jim Crow in the South. The schedule was put in place in the early 1970s, not long after Black communities were beginning to benefit from the Civil Rights Voting Act, and, as Castro pointed out to Rolling Stone, just when “African Americans started voting primarily as Democrats.”
Democrat’s fixation with small town America during and since the early ’70s has given rise to a stream of nominees with limited direct urban legislation experience. The only exception: President Barack Obama whose base—for the state and U.S. Senate offices he held—was in Chicago.
President Bill Clinton, on the other hand, climbed the political ladder to the White House from statewide positions of attorney general and governor of Arkansas. His personality made it easy for him to connect with Black communities across the nation. However, his policies, lacking insight and empathy for the way systemic oppression crushes those communities, wreaked havoc for generations—specifically on Black and other marginalized people who live in urban centers.
Democrats will need Black women voters now more than ever to reclaim the White House.
Black women have been preserving the integrity of the Democratic platform—the movement toward diversity and inclusion—with their votes for decades. As the party scrambles to connect with religious White voters, debates rage over whether the party should be more open to people who oppose reproductive and LGTBQ rights. Despite being labeled as the most religious demographic in the country, Black women have been faithful to a party comparatively more inclusive of abortion rights and LTGBQ equality—a steadfast commitment to separation of church and state.
Black women therefore deserve a chance to experience policymaking done with them rather than at them, as well as the right to be involved earlier in the process of choosing who represents the party they loyally support. No Democratic candidate has received the nomination since 1992 without winning a majority of the Black vote.
What can this actually mean in terms of primary strategy? It means starting with any of 10 politically strategic and more highly populated states that also happen to collectively hold 58% of the nation’s Black residents: Texas, Georgia, Florida, New York, North Carolina, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, Louisiana. All have a large Black population and five contain at least one of the 20 largest cities in the nation.
Even if starting with the Midwest is a strategic necessity, why not begin the cycle with Illinois? Or with Michigan, where its majority Black cities, Detroit and Flint, can also be a sound option for a diverse early primary. Even Wisconsin is an option, which has a county—including the city of Milwaukee—that contains twice the number of Black people than reside in all of Iowa.
Some analysts claim that Black people only support establishment candidates. If this is true, Democrats may wonder whether there is any real harm in letting the primary season advance before mobilizing Black women. Black women certainly helped Clinton defeat Sanders, despite his progressive ideas for economic equality.
They also helped deliver wins for more liberal candidates such as Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams in their state primaries, and progressive U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley to Congress. What all of these candidates had was not just the perspective of their racial identity, but the ability to build relationships across political identities while taking the time to engage Black women.
As Avis Jones-DeWeever, an adviser to the Black Women’s Roundtable, remarked during a 2017 Congressional Black Caucus conference, the far left and centrists alike have been trying to court “White male voters who have not supported the Democratic Party for 50 years” rather than “watering the garden” in their own backyard.
No matter the outcome of the primaries, Democrats will need Black women voters now more than ever to reclaim the White House.