Millions of people worked as hard as they possibly could to turn the country onto a different path and still the village idiot was elected.
What to make of such an outcome? What do we know about the participation of women of color at the polls? Did women of color and White women move in the same political direction? And how do the results inform women’s rights and racial justice activists about the critical tasks ahead?
It’s an exceptionally bitter pill, but we must swallow it whole. The November balloting, a referendum on an aggressively militaristic foreign policy, defiant of the most basic human rights norms, was a stunning setback for peace and progress. No real alternative course of action was offered by a cowed and strategically bankrupt opposition party. But it is still the case that, given the choice between delusional, reckless empire building and the faint possibility of a more measured approach to world affairs a majority of the electorate chose the former. They also chose to reinstate an administration that promotes massive disinvestment from communities of color, a bold assertion of patriarchal values in public policy, and privatization of every last scrap of social capital.
There are nearly as many theories about how we arrived at this outcome as there are voters. But we can be clear about at least one thing. Had it been up to women-of-color voters, the current resident of the White House would be packing his bags and heading back to Texas.
According to CNN exit polls based on over 13,000 respondents, Bush received 62 percent and Kerry 37 percent of the vote from White men. Fifty-five percent of White women voted for Bush, while 44 percent voted for Kerry. Only thirty percent of men of color voted for Bush, while 67 percent of them voted for Kerry. Most significantly, 75 percent of women of color voted for Kerry, which means less than one-quarter of women of color supported the current administration’s policies.
The voting patterns of women of color led the trends in our communities, which voted heavily Democratic. Bush received only 11 percent of Black votes. Unsettled controversies remain regarding the Asian American and Latina/o vote, but Bush received a decided minority of votes in these communities as well. An estimated 24- 34 percent of Asian American voters and 33 percent – 40 percent of Latina/o voters supported Bush.* A substantial majority of Arab American voters also cast their ballots for change. Native American figures are not available.
Much has been made of the gender gap in US elections. Organizations stake their political strategies and their income streams on the margins between male and female voters. The gender gap refers to the difference in the percentage of women and men who vote for a given candidate, and to the tendency of women to vote more heavily Democratic than men. On November 2, 48 percent of women versus 55 percent of men voted to re-elect Bush. However, despite the administration’s record, Bush gained 5 percentage points among women from 2000 to 2004. The Republican victory can be attributed, in no small part, to an increase in women’s support. Where did this support come from?
While some statistics talk to us, others virtually scream out for interpretation. Let’s contemplate, for a moment, the Mississippi vote, where White women and non-White** women voted in an exact mirror image of each other. A jaw-dropping 89 percent of White women in the state voted for Dubya, while 89 percent of Black women voted for Kerry. This margin of difference along racial lines was widest in Mississippi, but gaps of 50-60 percentage points were common in the Southern states, and the national divergence between White women and women of color settled in at 31 percentage points: 55 percent of White women voted for Bush while 24 percent of women of color did. A single-minded focus on the gender gap sidesteps this troubling reality.
Does it make sense for feminists to give their entire attention on the 5-10 percent electoral gap between women and men and none to the 30-80 percent gap between women of color and white women? What are the strategic consequences of that focus?
If we are striving for reality-based politics, and we certainly cannot afford to do otherwise at this moment in history, we will conduct a deep inquiry into why and how women’s political thinking diverges so profoundly along the colorline. What motivated a majority of White women, especially in the South, to identify their interests so thoroughly with those of the Republican Party? How we can begin to bridge the racial chasm in US politics to further a progressive agenda?
There are no ready answers to these lines of inquiry. But perhaps pursuing them honestly will jog us out of denial for long enough to think creatively about how to approach the bleak four years ahead.
* Figures for Black vote from CNN exit polls. Latina/o vote from the Willie C. Velasquez Institute and NBC. Asian American vote from Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and APIAVote. Arab American vote from Arab American Institute.
**Census figures categorize 61% of Mississippi women as White and 37% as Black. http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/tables/SC-EST2003-03/SC-EST2003-03-28.pdf
Women’s Voices, Women Vote: http://www.wvwv.org/
Votes for Women 2004: http://www.votesforwomen2004.org/
Center for American Women and Politics: http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/
Willie C. Velasquez Institute: www.wcvi.org
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund: www.aaldef.org
Arab American Institute: www.aaiusa.org
* Linda Burnham is the Executive Director of the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, CA. She helped coordinate the Count Every Vote initiative in the South.