So why was Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, making an appearance at this year’s Essence Festival in New Orleans, an event known for its high-powered mix of music, culture and empowerment, geared to engage black women globally? Did he see and enjoy “Girls Trip,” the 2017 mega-hit about the reunion of four black female buddies, set against the backdrop of the festival, and decide to get in on the fun, maybe take in a Janet Jackson concert?
Or was he connecting with his party’s most loyal base, which has carried the electoral load for years, and has also expressed dissatisfaction when that contribution was downplayed or overlooked?
As Democrats prepare to fight an uphill battle against a nominee that could shift the balance of the Supreme Court rightward — on issues from voting rights to health care to affirmative action — and at the same time try to generate enough enthusiasm to flip the House and Senate in the midterms, it makes sense that the party would launch a Seat at the Table Tour, with a stop last week in New Orleans. The mission, says the DNC, is “to rebuild relationships, restore trust, and strengthen infrastructure within communities to champion Democratic values and build towards electoral victories.”
The DNC credits Waikinya Clanton, its director of African-American outreach, for initiating the tour, a joint effort of the committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and black female elected officials. Vice Chair Karen Carter Peterson joined Perez at the roundtable discussion at the Essence Festival, which in total attracted more than half a million attendees.
This is not the first time Perez has paid attention or been reminded to. Just about a year ago, a group of black women — activists, community leaders and elected officials — wrote Perez an open letter that identified the party’s “real problem.”
“The data reveals that Black women voters are the very foundation to a winning coalition, yet most Black voters feel like the Democrats take them for granted,” the letter said.
Since then, the party has acknowledged the African-American women whose votes and organizational efforts carried Democratic Sen. Doug Jones over the finish line in his Alabama race. But it has also been chided for being less than enthusiastic in support and funds for female women of color running for office.
A question of civility
That hasn’t stopped those candidates from stepping up and often succeeding in contests across the country. Organizations such as Higher Heights have stepped up as well to mobilize black women’s economic and electoral strength.
When Rep. Maxine Waters met with continued and relentless race-based attacks from the president, who calls her “low-IQ,” Higher Heights came to her defense.
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The same can’t be said for Democratic leadership. After the African-American California congresswoman urged protesters to confront members of the Trump administration over policies, including separating parents and children at the border, leaders urged her to counter Trump’s incivility with civility. Anything else, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, was “not American.”
Nearly 200 black female leaders expressed their displeasure with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi this month over their “failure” to support Waters in the face of “unwarranted attacks from the Trump administration and others in the GOP.” Meanwhile, a Southern California prosecutor threatened Waters with profane and violent social media posts, saying “you would think someone would have shot” her by now.
Even more ground
It would seem the relationship between African-American women and the Democratic Party is a work in progress, though it is fair to say the GOP has considerably more ground to make up. Chief of Staff John Kelly has never apologized for maligning African-American Democratic Rep. Frederica S. Wilson after the president’s controversial reaction to the death of a serviceman in Niger. And Trump has never apologized to Haitian-American Republican Rep. Mia Love’s for reportedly slurring her immigrant parents’ home country.
One person who took a seat at that New Orleans table, along with office holders and political operatives, saw an opportunity to share a message for policymakers of all parties. Linda Goler Blount is president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, whose mission is “to lead the effort to solve the most pressing health issues that affect black women and girls in the U.S.”
“If there was ever a time for black women to be heard and mobilized, this is the time,” Goler Blount told me. She welcomes the Seat at the Table Tour, especially considering what’s happening on the Supreme Court and in the midterms. “Black women tend to get lost in these conversations,” she said, adding that their voices need to be recognized up front, out loud, early and often.
Some relevant issues, according to Goler Blount, include maternal mortality, infant mortality and poverty among black women and in black communities. “The Affordable Care Act is getting chipped away, and we tend to lose the most as black women,” she said. On the Supreme Court, “even if there is not a full-scale appeal of Roe, it too can be diminished or rendered ineffective.”
In the coming weeks, the Black Women’s Health Imperative will launch its first-ever legislative agenda for black women’s health, she said. The group, which does not endorse candidates, will be sharing its findings with Republicans and the public, to get the message out and spur action. Black women have shown that for generations, “we can literally change the course of this country toward justice.”
And just as black women have shown throughout this country’s history, invitation or not, they demand that seat at every table.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.