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Jeneé Osterheldt

Election marked a hopeful, tiny step against American political racism

Former Vermont lawmaker Kiah Morris (bottom) and Election Night winners (top, left to right) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes, Ilhan Omar, and Sharice Davids.
Former Vermont lawmaker Kiah Morris (bottom) and Election Night winners (top, left to right) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes, Ilhan Omar, and Sharice Davids. Associated Press Photos; Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The leaves are changing in America. As the political fog clears, the colors are clear.

Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes, Ilhan Omar, Sharice Davids, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and so many more made history Tuesday night.

Those wins — ushering black, Latina, Muslim, Native American, and LGBTQ candidates into office across the country — prove Americans are flexing their civic muscles and watering freedom. Citizens are in a boxing match with racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and inhumanity.

Tuesday, the ballots were their gloves.

When Pressley won, running unopposed after her upset victory over Michael Capuano in September’s Democratic primary, she took her place as Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman. In Connecticut, Hayes had the same honor.


These strides are not as simple as partisan wins. They are, in part, a stand against the conditions that led Kiah Morris to resign as Vermont’s only black woman lawmaker in September, citing ongoing racial harassment and threats.

“Unfortunately, the overt racism and ugliness in our current politics has become all too common. No candidate, including Kiah Morris, should ever fear for their safety because they dared to be bold and run for elected office,” Pressley said Sunday. “As women, people of color, immigrants, and survivors, many of my brothers and sisters in service have faced their share of hostility and vitriol, myself included.”

Kiah Morris in downtown Bennington, Vermont.
Kiah Morris in downtown Bennington, Vermont. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Pushed Out

For four years, Morris, a Democrat, served as state representative for the town of Bennington. She moved there from Chicago over a decade ago to be with her husband, a native of the town.

Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation (94.5 percent), didn’t feel exclusionary. She liked the nature, the peace, the community.

“Being here felt like breathing,” she tells me as we sit in the safety of a co-working space in Bennington.


But in 2016, two years into serving, she began to hold her breath. Right before Donald Trump’s election, an envelope full of racist images was slid under the door of her town’s Democratic headquarters. Weeks earlier, a Ku Klux Klan mailer was sent to the office.

Morris began receiving intimidating and racist posts (her son was called a mongrel, there were Jim Crow type caricatures directed at her) on social media. The posts have been removed.

By the end of that year, a judge issued Morris a restraining order against white nationalist Max Misch, a man who terrorized her online and stared at her uncomfortably at a firehouse on Election Day according to court documents uncovered by the Bennington Banner.

It didn’t begin and end with Misch. Even on the House floor, she experienced racism — not directed at her — but in the context of her fights for ethnic studies programming in public schools and Black Lives Matter protections.

Vermont Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson witnessed it.

“People would stand up and question whether racism in the forms that were being discussed really existed,” Johnson said. “I’m heartbroken for her and the Legislature, and I’m furious we have a culture that supports this and allows it.”

But it was the aggression coming at her directly that pushed Morris to first pull the plug on running for reelection and then resign her seat early a month later.


Swastikas were painted on trees near her home. A group of white teens began to hang outside of her house, staring into the windows sometimes. Other times, they lingered near the property. She heard from a neighbor that someone called her the n-word.

People, she said, worried for her safety.

There was a home invasion — that may or may not be related. Police said in September that they had not found enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime.

And the final straw was a death threat her son saw online earlier this year. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan opened an investigation in August. No updates have been given since. Donovan’s office did not respond to inquiries from the Globe.

Morris said her community supports her. But she believes the normalization of racism puts public figures at higher risk for attacks and there aren’t enough protections in place.

“It makes it hard to know when you’re going into Walmart whether or not someone will confront you,” she says. “You jump and move every time your dog barks. And you don’t sleep well at night because you are constantly vigilant about the safety of your family.”

Though Morris has stepped away from her position, she says she will continue to speak out and call for change.

“As difficult as this work is, as painful as this work is, there are so many people trying to rise to the occasion, to look at policies and legislation surrounding racial justice and equity.”


Pushing Back

“Tonight we have closed the gap between yesterday and tomorrow,” Stacey Abrams said to her supporters Wednesday morning, “but we still have a few more miles to go.”

The gubernatorial candidate is hoping to become Georgia’s first black woman governor, much like Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum aimed to be Florida’s first black governor.

Gillum just barely lost his bid against Ron DeSantis. Voters are still waiting for the final votes to be counted in the showdown between Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp. Over 75,000 ballots had yet to be reported as of Wednesday morning, with Kemp holding 50.3 percent of the vote at last count. A runoff, where voters would return to the polls Dec. 4, is a possibility.

Georgia voters were plagued with long lines and what some have called voter suppression tactics by Kemp, who is also the secretary of state.

The races of Gillum and Abrams were two of the most prominent in the country and the clearest examples of America’s festering supremacy.

Both candidates were targets of racist robocalls funded by The Road To Power, a white supremacist group.

“Well, hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum, and I be asking you to make me governor of this here state of Florida,” one prerecorded message began. Another referred to Oprah as a “magical negro” and Abrams as a “negress.”

Trump belittled Gillum’s historically black college education and called him “a radical socialist.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, when referring to the election in Florida, called it “cotton-pickin’ important.”


DeSantis chose the phrase “monkey this up” when talking about the possibility of Gillum winning.

Trump called Abrams “unqualified” despite her substantial political history and education. And now, with the votes too close to call, Abrams is being painted as a sore loser who won’t concede by the opposition. Headlines continue to infer she “refuses to concede,” placing the onus on her. She is being pressured to take a loss in an undecided election that has been met with the stalling of thousands of voter registrations, long lines, old and in some cases broken poll machines, and reduced polling locations, much of it disproportionately affecting black folk.

“Civil rights has always been an act of will and battle for our souls,” Abrams said Wednesday. “Democracy only works when we work for it, when we fight for it, when we demand it . . . in a civilized nation the machinery of democracy should work for everyone, everywhere not just in certain places and not just on a certain day.”

Last month, Jonathan Walton, Harvard Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, flew to Atlanta, where he maintains a residence, to vote early for Abrams.

“To think that I cast a ballot to elect the first African-American woman governor, a progressive candidate in an otherwise conservative state, fills me with pride. While some attempt to halt the changing cultural winds by appealing to fear, bigotry, and hatred — multiracial, progressive campaigns like Abrams demonstrate to me that the ‘Confederate Lost Cause’ approach to Southern politics is on its death bed,” he said, referencing the romanticization of the confederacy. “Now it’s just a matter of how expensive Donald Trump and his ilk are going to make the funeral.”

Pushing forward

Headlines make the Democrats taking the House the big win on Tuesday. Partisanship isn’t the absolute solution. This country was riddled with oppression long before the rise of Republicans, Trump, and his blatant xenophobic commercial.

The midterm victory is bigger than political parties. It’s about overcoming historic and structural racism that hurts our country and has stung Morris, Gillum, and Abrams this election cycle. Stereotypes are flipping on their heads. Hurdles of hate are being cleared. Slowly, a system of supremacy is being dismantled.

Look at the Midwest. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, not only became the first hijab-wearing member of Congress, as a Somali American, but is also the first woman of color to represent her state at that level. She and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib are now the first Muslim congresswomen.

In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected governor.

In Kansas, Sharice Davids defied the odds and became the first openly lesbian member of Congress from the state. Both she and New Mexico’s Deb Haaland are the first Native American congresswomen. And there are many more.

Election Day was a hopeful tiny step marching toward where this country needs to be. Americans and their elected officials are fighting for the future. They are doing what it takes to ensure we never lose another Kiah Morris to the parasitic nature of prejudice and oppression.

“Our nation will continue to confront these challenges daily as diverse talent and perspectives emerge. Until we no longer have to defend our right to be here, our right to run — we will continue to speak out forcefully and aggressively against bigotry in all its forms,” Ayanna Pressley said.

The leaves are changing in America. I’d say we’re coloring them revolutionary.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.