Turning the “Light of Truth” Down the Ballot: Important Political Choices for Black Women in Chicagoland

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” — Ida B. Wells

There is an enormous amount of focus around the choices of Black women during this election season, and much of that energy is directed to the presidential ticket. It is pretty clear that Dem nominee Former Vice President Biden’s running mate choice in Sen. Kamala Harris might have been a result of the groundswell of demands for a Black woman VP, from Black women political commentators  that I’d categorize as centrist, status quo Dems. 

But I’m not here to voice my gripes with the emptiness of regarding symbolic tokenism as a triumph. I’m here to draw our attention further down the ballot, to think about the countless races that deserve our careful attention and care, because they have very salient consequences for our lives and livelihoods. I want to draw your attention here to a few specific positions and even particular candidates that you need to spend time paying attention to as a Black woman. This is not intended to be exhaustive, because I want you to be inspired to go and do further research. I will focus here on reproductive justice, sexual violence, federal reparations, and maternal health. 

Reproductive Justice

Control of Black women’s reproductive choices via forced sterilization or birth control coercion has a particularly fraught history in this country, with ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) women being forced to undergo sterilization as late as 1974 in North Carolina. We must remember this history and continue to support the pursuit of reparative justice for the living victims and their descendants. But we still need to continue to ensure that Black women are able to have access to culturally sensitive, comprehensive reproductive care without coercion, with the full spectrum of  birth control and abortion, in order to prevent unintended pregnancies. A 2019 University of Michigan study found that although young Black women tend to live closer to pharmacies than young White women, those pharmacies are less likely to provide easy access to condoms, have less pamphlets about birth control, aren’t open as many hours per week, and are less likely to have women serving as pharmacists.

It can be easy to get lulled into thinking that living in a blue state like Illinois means your reproductive rights are secured for perpetuity, but that’s simply not the case. 

Here are two down-ballot choices that are important to pay attention to during this election season: 

  1. State representatives and senators: Back in 2017, IL state legislators voted to pass HB 40, which expanded access to publicly-funded abortions in IL. You should look up the voting record of your current state rep or state senator, if they were elected at that time, and you should reconsider voting for them if they voted “no” for this bill. Begin to research other candidates. If they were not yet voted in office, send them an email, asking about how they would vote if they were able to at that time and how they plan to ensure continued protection of reproductive access for Black women. 
  2. Judicial candidates: Associate Circuit Judge Jennifer Ascher was able to put a stop to anti-abortion groups who were attempting to file suit to stop the aforementioned HB40 from going into effect. That’s an elected position and you need to start making more intentional choices about that list of judges at the end of your ballot. It is not okay to simply pick out all of the Black-sounding names. You really need to be making sure that you research your judicial choices in order to ensure that they are prepared to put a stop to any anti-abortion or reproductive health barrier efforts. Attend candidate forums and ask those questions directly, or look up cases they have made in the past. Find a political advocacy group that has values aligning with your own and see if they’ve made recommendations or endorsements. I will take a moment here to pub BWOP Chicago (Black Women Organizing for Power), the organization that I represent. We have released an endorsement guide for IL voters that we hope you might find useful. Another approach could be to find organizations that have values in direct opposition to reproductive justice and check out who they endorse so you know who NOT to vote for. For example, you could check out the Illinois Right to Life endorsement list and ensure that you are not voting for any candidate that has been endorsed by this organization.

Sexual Violence 

Black women face sexual violence at alarming rates throughout the nation, and it is startling to begin to look at this problem on a more granular level. I will preface this by saying that in our current reality, carceral solutions are all we have and I’m not here to make apologies for that. Black women are far too vulnerable right now in this City for theorizing without concrete solutions that can be enacted now. 

During 2019, 45% of rape victims in the City of Chicago were Black women, despite being only 16% of the population. Additionally, Black women experience sexual harassment in the workplace at rates higher than any other group of women. We report sexual harassment at seven times the rate of Asian women, three times the rate of Latina women, and three times the rate of White women. 

Here are three down-ballot choices to pay attention to during this election season: 

  • Judges: You should pay close attention to the way that judges handle cases involving sexual violence. You need to ask judicial candidates how they plan to create trauma-free environments for victims, ensuring that they invite rape crisis counselors into the courtroom, maintain the victim’s privacy, and accelerate trial schedules. You also need to pay attention to the bond amount and court transcripts to ensure that judges demonstrate a level of empathy and care for the victims. You don’t need to be electing judges like Cook County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Hill, who released an accused rapist bus driver on a $400 bond after being caught on surveillance camera sexually assaulting a passenger with special needs multiple times. Judge Hill isn’t currently up for re-election until 2024, but you should bring up his conduct as a litmus test, asking judicial candidates about how they plan to ensure that victims of sexual violence aren’t re-traumatized through the criminal justice system. You’ll probably  want to retain judges like Cook County Circuit Court (9th) Judge Anjana Hansen, who is seeking retention this year, and ensured that a CPS teacher who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl was denied bond.
  • State reps. and senators: You need to be asking state-level legislators about their funding priorities for sexual violence support services. Ensure that they plan to make funding to prevent sexual violence a priority in future appropriations bills. You should also be talking to them about how they plan to divert funding to the 6,000 rape kits waiting in the state’s backlog.
  • County State’s Attorney: You need to be asking elected prosecutors how they plan to deal with cases of sexual violence and workplace sexual harassment. How do they plan to ensure that the criminal justice system does not serve to re-traumatize victims? 

Federal Reparations

This is the one issue that I will cover that isn’t gender-specific, and that’s because it’s just that important. Nothing else on this list will substantively change anything for Black women who are the descendants of American chattel slavery, which is 82% of the Black women in this country, without the enormous debt that is owed being paid via a comprehensive program of federal reparations. There is a clear financial cost to being the descendant of American slavery, and we see this demonstrated by various statistical points. I won’t be exhaustive here, but in Miami, Black Caribbean households have a net worth of $12,000 vs. Black ADOS households with a net worth of $3,700, and the same pattern is observed in Boston. In Los Angeles, Black African households have a net worth of $72,000 vs. Black ADOS households with a net worth of $4,000.  

Therefore, it is clear that there is a measurable cost to being a Black woman who is the descendant of enslaved people here in the United States. Of course, reparations as a comprehensive federal policy will go to all ADOS people, but I place this here because this particular policy stands to be radically transformative in the lives of 17 out of the 21 million Black women here in the United States. 

Here is one down-ballot choice that is important to pay attention to during this election season: 

  • Congressional reps and senators: Call up your current Congressional representative and Senators and ask if they support H.R. 40  and the companion Senate bill S. 1083 with the critical edits of Dr. William Darity, Jr, leading stratification economist from Duke University, which ensure that any reparations study has an 18-month deadline, ensures that the recipients are Black American Descendants of U.S. slavery, and focuses the Commission on closing the racial wealth gap as a primary goal. If the candidates in your district don’t support these edits, they don’t deserve your vote and that includes long-time incumbents.

Black Maternal Health

Although I am glad that we are finally having public conversations about the fact that Black women in the U.S. die in childbirth at rates comparable to that of women in countries with far less resources, I am dissatisfied with the solutions that are being put forth. Here in Illinois, Black women are three times more likely to die within a year of pregnancy than any other group of women and 72% of these deaths have been found to be preventable. If you are a woman of childbearing age, you don’t have a vote to waste on candidates that don’t understand the urgency of this crisis, so you really need to do your due diligence. 

Here are three down-ballot choices that you need to make this election season regarding Black women’s maternal health: 

  1. Congressional reps and senators: You should  investigate whether your rep. or senator is a part of the Black Maternal Health Caucus. More importantly, interrogate them on how they believe the Black maternal health crisis should be addressed. There are quite a few right answers: increase funding to HBCUs in order to create more Black OB-GYNs, designate funding for majority-Black serving hospitals, create a federal Black Maternal Allowance tax credit, launch federal investigations to identify and sanction hospital systems with a pervasive history of endangering Black women’s lives during childbirth, etc. There are also some decidedly wrong answers: deflecting away from your specific question about Black women to bring up other groups of women and an intense focus on only researching the problem (women are dying right now) are both terrible answers. If a candidate gives you one of these terrible answers, you should reconsider voting for them. Find someone else. 
  2. State reps and senators: Please understand that our state legislature determines how additional federal funding for hospital systems is distributed, to the tune of $250 million this past spring. So your state reps. and senators need to be interrogated on their plans to secure funding to ensure that state-of-the-art maternity clinics are built within Black neighborhoods, all Black women have access to a subsidized doula, the creation of a statewide Black Maternal Allowance (states fail to provide safe birthing environments, so the logic is that they should at least be footing the bill), and the creation of Black OB-GYN pipeline programs, providing all-expenses paid education for Black women who will commit to serving Black mothers in the state of Illinois for a specific time period. If they are averse to these policies, you should reconsider voting for them. 
  3. State’s attorney: Any candidate for this position needs to be interrogated on how they plan to to make it their business to file class action lawsuits on behalf of Black women who have lost their lives or experienced malpractice during pregnancy and childbirth. Hospital systems need to be held accountable for the fact that majority-Black serving maternity wards have complication rates 11% higher than those that do not serve majority-Black mothers.

In closing, there are a lot of down-ballot races that merit your careful attention as a Black woman in this election season. Do not be blinded by the glitz and glamor of the frenetic news cycle’s intense focus on the presidential race. There are important decisions being made that impact your life and livelihood on a local level, and you have more access than you think to the folks making these decisions. Here’s a simple way to start: Use a website like www.ballotpedia.com to type in your address and look up your sample ballot so that you know who is vying for your vote. After that, begin calling up candidates’ offices or sending emails asking them about their positions. Attend one of their virtual town halls and ask your questions. Follow them on social media and tweet them asking your questions. Remember that you are not obligated to be anybody’s mule or prioritize anyone’s agenda over your own. Your vote is your own, so make the best decisions that you can for yourself.