After a tumultuous 2020, Black leaders weigh next steps
As a barrier-breaking year draws to a close, there’s one undeniable fact: the strength of Black political power.
Black voters were a critical part of the coalition that clinched President-elect Joe Biden’s White House bid. The nation will swear in its first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent as vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, who herself may be a leading presidential candidate in four years. And as the global push for racial justice continues, Congress is set to welcome several new Black, progressive freshmen next year.
But while Black political and civil rights leaders see opportunity to work with a Biden-Harris administration to build upon the momentum created in 2020, they acknowledge the road ahead won’t be easy given the makeup of Washington and a narrowly divided Congress.
This was a year in which America experienced a racial awakening, fueled by longstanding racial inequities and structural racism laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic’s disparate impact on Black Americans. But Black leaders believe next year will be one that defines the trajectory of America and whether the nation has truly learned from the racism embedded deeply in its history.
"What I think we need to do now is support this new administration that seems to have leadership as a part of his agenda," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a close ally of Biden. "We are where we are today because of a lack of leadership and I think that Joe Biden has demonstrated in his articulations that he’s prepared to provide the kind of leadership that we need."
Biden’s decisive win was seen in part as a repudiation of the racist rhetoric of President Donald Trump. But activists and civil rights leaders believe years of grassroots organizing helped bring about Biden’s victory and they intend to seek a return on their investment.
The NAACP has urged Biden to consider creating a new Cabinet-level position focused on racial justice, equity and advancement. Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president and CEO, said it would be a bold action with potential to yield significant results.
"Trump is a symptom to a larger problem that has gone unaddressed in this country for decades," Johnson said. "The NAACP specifically takes the position that if you state a priority for your administration, someone must own that portfolio for the entirety of the administration and be accountable for delivering on a commitment. And one of the things that was promised was the issue of racial equity being addressed."
Biden has faced intense pressure to create a diverse Cabinet that is not only representative of America but able to implement tangible policies. Clyburn has publicly urged Biden to include more Black men and women in his administration.
"You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression," Clyburn said, before adding, "It was not a good impression."
Biden has named a handful of Black leaders to his Cabinet, including Rep. Marcia Fudge to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development and retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary. But Clyburn said opportunity remains for him to appoint more, including as attorney general.
In recent weeks, Biden and his transition teams have held meetings with various civil rights leaders and grassroots activists, who have pledged to hold him accountable for promises made during the campaign.
Maurice Mitchell, a national director of the Working Families Party, a progressive multiracial grassroots effort, was one of 10 who met recently with Treasury pick Janet Yellen to discuss racial and economic justice. Mitchell said Yellen made a commitment to repairing historical harms that have been inflicted upon Black and other communities of color.
"They’ve expressed a willingness to engage with advocates and organizers, so we’re going to hold them to that," said Mitchell, who is also a Movement for Black Lives strategist. "A lot of Black people are suffering and if we don’t go forward and keep this momentum and keep our focus on structural change, we will be missing a significant opportunity."
The Movement for Black Lives plans next year to continue pushing proposed federal legislation it unveiled this year. The BREATHE Act would radically transform the nation’s criminal justice system, including by eliminating agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the use of surveillance technology.
The proposal came during a national reckoning around brutality from law enforcement and systemic racism that spurred global protests and cries for change after the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
"We defeated Trump and that was a mandate of the Black movement to really defend Black lives and ensure that he could no longer terrorize in a really public and institutional way," said Jessica Byrd, who leads the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project. "I also know for sure that the only way the Democrats are going to win anything else in 2022 isn’t if they quell progressive calls for change but if they actually govern and change people’s lives."
But to push any real federal policy change, Congress will be key. Democrats faced serious setbacks in congressional races this year, losing so many seats in the House that the party has the narrowest majority in at least two decades. Control of the Senate hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia next week.
Still, several progressives will join the House next year, bringing a fresh perspective for a party with an aging leadership.
Activist Cori Bush, who led protests after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, ousted longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s Democratic primary, ending a political dynasty that had spanned more than a half-century. Bush said among her first priorities is a more robust COVID-19 relief package that provides greater assistance to families.
"I’m not so far away from my own pain and struggle and adversity that I can’t remember what it was like," Bush said, noting the immense pressure facing families right now. "I’m not taking off the hat of the activist at all, it’s who I am. And so I’ll use that power and drive, and that moxie."
Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, ousted longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel in New York’s Bronx.
"I’m very encouraged, but we have to be vigilant," Bowman said. "We cannot let up and we have to continue to engage, organize and build a nation that works for all of us. There are people on the other side who can care less about the progressive movement or about wealth sharing or Black people. … So we cannot stop, we have to be relentless to really build and get this country where we need it to be."
In another series of firsts, New York Democrats Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres became the first two openly gay Black men to serve in the House. Torres identifies as Afro-Latino.
But California Rep. Karen Bass, a progressive who has pushed for criminal justice reform and other key legislation, said while it’s important to make note of a history-making year, Democrats face an enormous uphill battle if the party is unable to win the Georgia Senate seats.
"Everything resides on Jan. 5 and whether or not we win those Senate seats," Bass said. "If we do not win those Senate seats, then it is not going to be the full-force, full agenda that all of us would like to see take place."
Bass said Biden could run into challenges similar to those President Barack Obama faced from a Republican-majority Senate that stalled much of his agenda. And beyond the Georgia races, the Senate is losing its only Black woman when Harris takes the oath of office in January.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom faced pressure to name a Black woman as her replacement, with both Bass and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee floated as possible choices. But Newsom appointed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla last week, making him the state’s first Latino in the U.S. Senate.
"There will not be a Black woman in the U.S. Senate and frankly there will only be one Black Democrat and that’s Cory Booker," Bass said ahead of Newsom’s announcement. "Everyone wants to celebrate Black women and what a wonderful outsized role we played in the election, but our representation is not important. So, of course, I think it is vital that that happens."
Though a tough road lies ahead, many remain hopeful that real change is on the horizon — including Bush, who noted that her political ascension is the result of a rich legacy of Black grassroots organizing done by civil rights legends like Shirley Chisholm and Fannie Lou Hamer.
"I’m so encouraged because now we can expect more and I will be one of those people alongside my brother, Jamaal Bowman, in helping to usher in more and make room," Bush said. "We got in the door — now we’re just holding it open."