Looking Back on 2020: The Status of Black Women Then, Now and Beyond

“We’ve certainly seen that Black women are among the most effective and sophisticated political actors on the scene right now, across the country,” Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, told Ms.

Looking Back on 2020: The Status of Black Women Then, Now and Beyond
Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, casts her ballot on Dec. 18 for the Georgia runoffs. (Andrea Young, @andreayoungATL / Twitter)

The harsh realities of 2020 have magnified existing inequalities in our country: The poor got poorer, the rich got richer, racism continued to rear its ugly head, and women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and people living with disabilities bore the brunt of the economic, social and political fallout. 

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, and too many others have led to a moment of racial reckoning in the U.S., bringing discrimination and inequality to the forefront in a way people can no longer ignore. Of course, this violence is not new. But if these inequalities have existed for centuries, why are so many only seeing it for the first time?

It was in this context that we headed into the 2020 election. While voter suppression was rampant, voters still came out in full force, marking the the highest turnout in 120 years—leading to a win for President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black person, and the Indian American person to hold the title.

But while we can breathe a sigh of relief with these major milestones, they are just that: milestones; not systemic change. (Or, as Michele Goodwin puts it: Simply removing Trump from the White House will not fix what’s broken in America.)

“I think collectively, people have a tendency to assume that things are getting better, that progress is being made,” Nicole Moen, board chair of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, told Ms. “And I think in some aspects, surely it has. And yet, George Floyd was still murdered. And so, it is a devastating reminder and indictment that what we have done is not enough.”

“The conditions of possibility for Black women and girls to be disappeared and murdered in their communities by other folks who are within their communities are the same conditions of possibility that allow for Breonna Taylor to be killed in her home by a white police officer and for George Floyd to be killed on the streets by a police officer,” Dr. Terrion Williamson, an associate professor of African American and African studies; gender, women and sexuality studies; and American studies at the University of Minnesota, told Ms.

“I think it’s critically important for us to attend to police violence against Black women, just as I think it’s critically important for us to attend the violence against Black woman more generally.”

In the near future, the newly FDA-approved vaccines promise to bring us back to “normal” in relatively short order. But what is “normal”? Can we ever truly go back to “normal” after the 400 years that brought us to this point? More importantly, why would we want to?

“This is not going to be solved by eliminating a few bad apples,” said Moen. “This is a problem that infects our society. From people who are upfront with their racism, to people who view themselves on the side of racial justice, and equality, and anti-racism, but who nevertheless, given the society in which we all live, every single one of us has implicit biases.”

While so many are now engaging in self-reflection, we need to figure out how to translate that into action. But how?

Ms. writer and podcast co-producer, Mariah Lindsay, sat down with Andrea Young, executive director of ACLU of Georgia, to discuss these issues further, shed light on the Georgia run-off election, and the future of the U.S. going into 2021.

(Here more from Young on this week’s episode of the Ms. podcast, “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin.”)

Mariah Lindsay: In my view, it’s impossible to look at 2020 without talking about race, racism, policing and the protests that we’ve seen. It started with the murder of George Floyd and the protests that sparked from that. It was further fueled when the news of Breonna Taylor got out, and was covered in national media. But what’s interesting about the timeline is that Breonna Taylor happened first—but wasn’t really talked about until after George Floyd’s murder.

Looking Back on 2020: The Status of Black Women Then, Now and Beyond
A Sep 23. protest in Philadelphia after  grand jury brought no charges against Louisville police for the murder of Breonna Taylor. (Joe Piette / Flickr)

What are your thoughts on the failure to center Black women in these conversations around police violence and overcoming racism in policing?

Andrea Young: I mean, I think the failure to center Black women is a perennial challenge. For me, Sandra Bland was a really pivotal experience. I think what was so dramatic for people about George Floyd is what we saw as a parent, as a Black parent who’s had to talk, as a Black person who has utilized respectability politics as a strategy for living in this society, what you saw in the George Floyd situation, and again, in the Breonna Taylor situation is two people who were doing everything that we are told to do.

George Floyd didn’t resist; he was compliant. He was respectful—even when they were squeezing the life out of him. Breonna Taylor was going to work every day, she was living her life, she was a contributor to society. They were both doing the things that Black people are told, “If you do this, then racism will be less of a problem in your life.” And Sandra Bland, similarly, here’s a young woman who is going to a new job, she’s excited about it. And, so I think both of those instances, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, just show what a trap racism creates for African Americans. 

Personal responsibility is something that I certainly embrace—everyone has personal responsibility. It is not enough. And society bears a huge responsibility for what happens and the difficulties that African Americans encounter. And so we had a special march here [in Georgia], during the whole sequence of protests, we had a special march, the Say Her Name march that Mary-Pat Hector and other young Black women organized.

But I think that absolutely we’re beginning to look more at issues as they concern young Black women. … As Black women, we so often have stood for the civil rights of everyone but ourselves. We’re making those voices heard more, and I think that’ll continue.

Lindsay: Do you think that perhaps the convergence of events this year that has made everything more magnified, do you think that we could be at a turning point where this will actually begin to stay in the national conversation and real change might be possible coming out of everything that’s happened?

Young: Yeah, I believe so. And I believe because, frankly, because young Black women will make it so. I think that we’ve certainly seen that Black women are among the most effective and sophisticated political actors on the scene right now, across the country.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Black women who have been working in Georgia, the Black women who organized to elect Doug Jones in Alabama, the leaders, like Ayanna Presley, like Cori Bush. Our new Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who comes out of Planned Parenthood, who is unabashedly pro-choice, unabashedly pro-Black, pro-woman and very much in the progressive wing of the party, but looking at the bread and butter issues that Black women care about. Black women, we are nurturers, we are leaders in our communities, we are the people who bear the brunt of problems in our communities, and we also are on the forefront of solutions for those communities.

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Lindsay: Truly, this past election, Black woman came out in full force. An exit poll from the New York Times said that 90 percent of Black women voted for Biden. So they were a big part of the reason that all this happened, and continue to show up and show out during elections.

I want to talk to you about what’s going on in Georgia. There was massive voter suppression, but still, the voter turnout was amazing. And I know that you said that the first day of early voting for this runoff election was actually higher than the first day in the general election, is that right?

Young: And that has continued, the first three days were higher than the first three days of the general election.

Lindsay: That’s phenomenal.

Young: And it’s because people are phone banking, people are text banking, people are knocking on doors. People didn’t let up. They just kept at it. We’ve worked a lot on voter information, especially for folks who don’t vote in every election. And let’s be clear, there’s a pandemic, there are lots of people who are on the verge of being evicted, the food banks have long lines. So people are dealing with all the things that they typically have to deal with in marginalized communities. And on top of that, they have COVID.

So to help them, to make sure that people are able to access information from trusted sources about the issues in this election, because I think it’s important to say that Black women are issue voters. I mean, it’s not like they’re in love with the democratic symbol. They are voting for health care, they are voting for education, they are voting for economic opportunity, they’re voting for a minimum wage that would lift families out of poverty. So they see the issues that are being presented, that constellation of issues that are associated with the Democratic party right now are those issues, which have a better chance of uplifting their communities.

We too easily talk about these party divisions—but it’s the issue divisions. The Republican party is now aligned with people who don’t even believe in one person one vote and democracy. We’ve got people right now trying to wholesale challenge registered voters, Georgia citizens. We had the senior leaders of the Republican Party trying to have votes thrown out, the votes of people of color literally thrown out after they were cast. And those people self-identify as Republicans.

For the ACLU, we are about the issues. And so we want people to know where the candidates stand on the right to vote, on racial justice, on criminal justice reform, on protecting a woman’s right to choose, and, for that matter, reproductive justice. Because a state that doesn’t offer protection on the job for pregnant people, that is also a huge problem. The whole point is for women to decide about these things, families to decide about their reproductive health, and for the government to provide the support that people need for the choices that they make. Not government interference.

So, Black women have come out to vote, because the candidates are talking about these issues and expressing positions on these issues that are very important to them.

Looking Back on 2020: The Status of Black Women Then, Now and Beyond
Young leads the Georgia Urban Rural Summit Legislative Strategy Session in 2018. (ACLU of Georgia / Facebook)

Lindsay: There’s something amazing I find about the argument: “We can’t let more people vote, we’ll lose.” But isn’t essentially what people are saying—well, what Republicans are saying, when they’re trying to suppress the vote?

Young: So I call that the plantation patriarchy. That there is a sort of mindset that there is the plantation, that some people are important, and many other people are not important. They’re there to serve, they’re there to be exploited.

And that’s very much the context of the struggle that we are in, in a state that fought the mask mandate. I mean, we had a governor who threatened to sue the Black mayor of Atlanta, the mayors of the cities all around Georgia, who were insistent on mask mandates to protect their people, and the governor of Georgia was going to sue to stop them. And the governor of Texas was successful. There are governors who said the cities could not protect their own people.

You really see that there’s this racialized politics that we’re dealing with that says, some people’s lives are important and other people’s are not.

Lindsay: Speaking of the pandemic, they also used COVID-19 as a means to try to further suppress access to abortion, and other reproductive health care. I know that the ACLU Georgia just recently issued a report on the status of women that talked about the bans going into effect and HB 481. I am wondering what you think about how they are using the pandemic to further attack reproductive health, rights, and justice?

Young: I think it’s breathtaking, the lack of concern for people. They’re sort of pro-life from conception to birth. And that’s really where it ends. So we actually started to do a women’s report, initially to say this is how women have improved their lives because they’ve had reproductive freedom.

What we do see is that since abortion rights came into being in the state of Georgia and after Roe v. Wade, what you saw was all across the state, the age of first birth went up. So instead of being in the late teens, it moved to the early 20s, all across the state, even in rural Georgia. So women, when given the opportunity to control their fertility, we’re making the choice to do that.

And so we started seeing more educational attainment by women in the state of Georgia, but what we didn’t see is the income growth that should have accompanied that educational attainment. And so we don’t see access to health care, we don’t see access to prenatal care, we don’t see access to protections from Pregnancy Discrimination at the job, we don’t see women on boards, and in C suites, and at the heads of leading institutions across the state.

So, yes, women in Georgia have made tremendous progress. They have done their part, but the society has continued to maintain the barriers that allow women in Georgia to be paid less for the same work and the same education as men, allowed that women can be fired if they’re pregnant. The glass ceiling is lower in Georgia than in other states, and certainly lower than in states with comparable economies.

We’re going to be working to pull together more of a women’s coalition. That was really stopped by COVID: We were going to release this report, we had dozens and dozens of women’s organizations who wanted to come together and talk about this report and talk about the status of women in Georgia. 

And basically to say that the abortion ban was a symptom of disrespect for the state’s women. And that a state that respected and valued women would not even have debated a measure like that.

And we see that disrespect that lack of value in so many other aspects of women’s lives in the state of Georgia, the pay gap, and so forth. So, it’s something like the minimum wage, Georgia’s a service economy, if the minimum wage in Georgia was $15 an hour, it would lift hundreds of thousands of families out of poverty.

And we see that in the pandemic. Women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. They’re losing jobs or being forced out of the work force. People at home with kids who are both working and functioning as their child’s teacher and full time caregiver while they try to keep a full time job.

The burden of this pandemic, on women, I think, perhaps has been another thing that’ll be a political motivator for more sustained change. And we saw the first protest to Donald Trump, even before we knew some of the horrendous policies that would be coming, was the Women’s March, which was the largest march Georgia had ever seen.

“The plantation patriarchy … is a mindset that there is the plantation, that some people are important, and many other people are not important. They’re there to serve, they’re there to be exploited.”

Lindsay: Going into this new administration, going into 2021, what do we need to be focusing on first, what fights and opportunities for change are really critical moving into these first 100 days and into 2021?

Young: Well, one of the things that disproportionately affects women, and the ACLU is looking at a host of policies that can be done by executive order, but one is to deal with this issue of college loan forgiveness. And it seems like that’s an elite strategy, but this disproportionately affects women, and it disproportionately affects Black people.

Black college graduates have more student loan debt and make less than their white counterparts. And traditionally in the African American community, when you are first generation college, part of your responsibility is to help the rest of the family. So the college loan debt is something that, again, is putting an extra burden on the people who are doing everything, right, who are doing all the things that they’re supposed to do. And yet they’re not getting the return on investment that white people get for the same effort. And it’s even worse if you don’t finish college. So there are lots of people with college debt, who never got their degrees. Mostly Black students drop out of college, because they can’t afford it. So then you have the worst of both.

So that would be one thing that would put real money, real dollars back into Black households and women led households. And I think that needs to be the focus. The focus needs to be on the financial stability of our households, because we have been rocked.

My daughter is in her early 30s. She experienced 9/11 in high school and the economic crash that happened. She experienced the 2008 crash, and now she’s experiencing COVID. So this is her whole young adulthood, has been governed by these crises. And what those crises have done in the black community is strip the communities of wealth. So the 2007 crash, basically stripped Black households of about a billion dollars in wealth.

There’s got to be a focus and a concentration, on the things that make for economic well-being and stability. Many of us have just begun to claw ourselves back from say, being underwater on their mortgages, because no fault of their own when COVID hit. You’ll hear a lot of these stories. We were just getting stable again, because Black folks also experienced the 2007/2008 crash two years earlier, and it ended two years later for Black families. There’s got to be a focus on the economic stability and well-being and sustainability of particularly Black households and women-led households.

For more on how we reckon with the racial unrest that exists in our country—especially when it comes to police violence—and for much-needed glimmers of hope, tune into this week’s episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Year in Review, Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond—with special guests Russ Feingold, Deirdre Fishel, Stephen Vladeck and Andrea Young.

Listen here:

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Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin."