CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As voters across the country finished casting their ballots last Tuesday night, a group of supporters of former vice president Joe Biden gathered here in a wood-paneled cidery to watch the results.
The evening gathering was mostly Black women over the age of 40, who clinked glasses and cheered loudly as they watched his Super Tuesday victories roll in. In many ways, they had themselves to thank.
In North Carolina and states across the country, Black women like them helped deliver the wins for Biden last week. And with Democratic nomination contests in six more states Tuesday, including three with significant Black populations, Biden again will turn to this important constituency as he battles with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
“People outside are beginning to say, ‘Look, it’s the black women,’” said Representative Alma Adams, whose district includes Charlotte.
Black voters in Southern states voted overwhelmingly for Biden on Super Tuesday, according to CNN exit polls. Among Black voters, the majority tend to be women. In the 2018 congressional midterms, 55 percent of Black women voted compared to 47 percent of Black men, according to US Census data.
“If not before, definitely now, people understand that they serve as the political booster cables for the Democratic Party,” Antjuan Seawright, a political consultant from South Carolina, said of Black women.
Seawright worked on the 2017 Senate race in Alabama, where Black women played a key role in electing Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator from the state in 25 years. Black women then went on to propel Democratic wins in gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Louisiana, as well as in state legislative races in Virginia this year.
Looking into the future, he said, Black women are the secret to helping engage, and reengage, Black men.
“Every African-American male belongs to or has some connection to a strong Black woman,” Seawright said.
On Tuesday, voters head to the polls in Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi, where Black voters form an important part of the Democratic electorate. Biden acknowledged that on Monday night, scheduling a campaign event in Detroit featuring two former rivals and Black leaders who have recently endorsed him, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Sanders has countered with an endorsement from veteran civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who won the Michigan caucuses in his 1988 presidential campaign.
Data for years have shown America’s demographics shifting toward a majority-minority country. As the nation changes, once-marginalized groups of young people have looked to Black women as the original model for how an often overlooked group has made its voice heard.
“We are the matriarchs, so to speak, and you know, we just kind of grew up that way, we had role models,” Adams said, citing her mother who earned money doing domestic work and did not have an education but pushed her to attend college.
Adams arrived at the Biden watch party just as his North Carolina victory was announced. Biden won 62 percent of the Black vote in the state, according to CNN exit polls. His wins last week were propelled in large part by his victory in South Carolina three days before, when 61 percent of Black voters chose Biden, reviving his campaign.
Adams said the experience of living in the Jim Crow South taught Black women that the ballot box was their most effective tool to help their communities. Now they are again turning there to try to avoid four more years of President Trump, whom many of them see as the most dangerous threat in their lifetime to all the progress they have made.
“We cannot afford not to vote so that we can turn this around,” Adams said.
On the back of a campaign flier, Jacqueline Barksdale kept a tally of states Biden won as she sat at a long table in the center of the cidery last Tuesday night. The 53-year-old had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her husband to come to the watch party. Instead, she found company in two other women whose partners also preferred to stay home. As the returns came in, they cheered with their new friends.
“People are seeing the importance of the African-American vote and the importance of African-American women voting and how we always go to the polls,” Barksdale said.
Beside her, Ava Blount said the needs of Black women are not much different from those of any other demographic group, but as the heads of their households, they have extra motivation to make their opinions count.
“It’s us who stand our families up,” said Blount, 57.
The women said they support Biden because they want someone in the White House who reflects the values they teach their children. “We want someone who is caring, like a woman, who is loving and decent,” Blount said.
Cathy Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who studies race and politics, said focusing on the voter turnout of Black women unfairly narrows their involvement with politics and society more broadly. It also narrows the spectrum of their political views to cast all Black women as in lock-step with moderate policies of a candidate like Biden.
“Black women are smart political actors and what we are experiencing now is a type of political pragmatism,” Cohen said of their support for him.
But just as in other demographic groups, the 2020 election has shown a generational divide among Black women. Ask the middle-aged women at the Biden watch party about Bernie Sanders, the progressive Vermont senator running against Biden, and they get angry.
“He’s appealing to that group of people who is easily influenced, who is simply not going to do their homework,” Blount said. Young people are now looking for a “wing and a prayer” but it is parents’ duty to raise children who can see through politicians’ false promises, Barksdale said.
In Charlotte, this generational divide played out in stark contrast this year. Vi Lyles, the city’s first Black female mayor, endorsed Mike Bloomberg for president.
Lyles’ daughter, Aisha Alexander, is a progressive organizer in Washington and an outspoken critic of some of her mother’s political decisions, including the endorsement. Alexander supported Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who espoused many of the progressive platforms of Sanders in what Alexander called a more practical format.
For Alexander, 36, the shifting views of young Black people are not developed in spite of the views of the older generation, but because of them.
“There is certainly a generation of folks who have come to know this idea of compromise as a means of survival, and as a means of getting a seat at a table, and I don’t downplay that at all, because if they didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t be able to flip the table over,” Alexander said.
At some point, though, it will be time for this new generation of Black women to become the leaders and help take the Democratic Party to a new place, Alexander said.
Younger Black women are now pushing the Democratic Party to do more of the community organizing and groundwork they learned from their mothers and grandmothers, she said.
“Whereas Black women have been a solid base, Black women need to become the face of the party,” she said. “And if that doesn’t happen ... then you’re going to lose us, and if you lose us, you lose this country.”