MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — The little girl ran up to her, wide-eyed and giddy.
“Are you Charisse Davis?” the fourth grader asked.
Davis was stunned. A former kindergarten teacher and librarian, she was more accustomed to shuttling her two sons to basketball practice than being seen as a local celebrity. But she had been elected the only Black woman on the Cobb County School Board, gaining office in a once conservative suburban community where people who look like her rarely held positions of power.
Something had changed in this place, and something had changed in her.
“I love your hair — your hair looks like my hair,” the girl squealed, calling friends over.
It was a moment both innocent and revealing: Not just a child seeing herself in an elected leader, but also a reflection of the rapidly building power of Black women. It’s a momentous change that could make history on a national ticket and determine the outcome of the presidential race.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Americans are preparing to choose a leader and a path through a time of extraordinary division and turmoil. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series “America Disrupted.”
Black women have long been the heart of the Democratic Party — among the party’s most reliable and loyal voters — but for decades that allegiance didn’t translate to their own political rise. There have been zero Black female governors, just two senators, several dozen congresswomen. And the people representing them instead have not met their needs: Disparities, sometimes deadly ones, persist in health care, policing, education and economics.
Now Black women are mobilized and demanding an overdue return on their investment. Over the last several years and across America, Black women ran and won elections in historic numbers, from Congress to county school boards.
Just two years ago, five Black women were elected to Congress, four of them in majority-white districts, according to the Higher Heights Black Women in American Politics 2019 survey.
Now Joe Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and at least six of the contenders are Black — including California Rep. Karen Bass, who said, “I think what we’re looking for is representation, acknowledgement, inclusion.”
This transformation is taking place in once unlikely places, suburban counties in the South. Places like Cobb, a rambling expanse of strip malls and subdivisions just north of Atlanta that doubled in population midway through the last century as white people fled the city. Then, slowly, families of color followed, also seeking bigger yards and better schools.
The year Charisse Davis was born, 1980, Cobb County was 4.5% African American. Now it’s more than 27% Black and 13% Hispanic. Its politics caught up with its demographics: In 2016 Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to eke out a win in Cobb County since Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, in 1976.
President Donald Trump’s presidency, which has fueled racial divisions and appealed to white grievance, unleashed for some here an overwhelming urgency. Black women added their names to down-ticket ballots; they are canvassing, knocking on doors.
These advocates emphasize that Trump’s administration has failed to contain the coronavirus that has killed more than 154,000 Americans, a disproportionate share of them African Americans. He has responded to mass demonstrations over police violence by calling protesters thugs and encouraging law enforcement to beat them back with force.
When Stacey Abrams, a Black progressive Democrat, ran for governor in 2018, she focused her campaign on women of color. In that election, more than 51,000 Black women in Cobb County cast ballots — 20,000 more than voted in midterm elections four year earlier.
Although Abrams lost narrowly statewide, she won Cobb County handily.
“Given how directly Black women have been impacted by the incompetence and the malfeasance of the Trump administration, Black women are going to be at the forefront, not only giving rise to voter turnout, but also shaping the conversations that we will be having in this election season,” said Abrams, whose name has also been widely circulated as a possible Biden running mate. “It has been a sea change in how vital our voices have been.”
In Cobb County, Charisse Davis looked at the school board members, saw no Black women, so she ran and won. Meanwhile, for the first time a Black woman became the chair of the county’s young Republicans. Two joined the Superior Court bench. A teenager ran for class president, and she won, too.
Black women can meet this moment in a way no one else can, they say: The world watched the video of George Floyd begging for his mother as he was dying under a police officer’s knee.
Charisse Davis’ sons, 10 and 14 years old, asked her: Why won’t the officer just let him get up?
When she looks at her own sons, she sees her babies. But the older boy is now taller than she is. He likes hoodies. She worries a stranger might see him as a menace, not a boy whose mother still has to remind him to floss his teeth.
“That is the reality of being a Black mother in this country,” she said.
But despite progress, Black women remain underrepresented.
Although they make up about 7.5% of the electorate, less than 2% of statewide elected executive offices were held by Black women as of November 2019. They account for less than 5% of officeholders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress, and state legislatures, according to the Higher Heights survey.
And in Cobb County, Charisse Davis gets messages after school board meetings : “People like you are the problem," one said. “She's a racist," a man wrote. Another described her as “defiant,” and said he had his son watch school board meetings “to see how he shouldn’t behave."
She hears: You don’t belong there.
“You are dismantling the machine, rocking the boat, and all of those things are the way that they are by design,” she said, and added that one of the high schools in the district she represents is named after a Confederate officer.
“That is what the county is built on, that is racism, that is systemic racism, that is white supremacy. It’s all these things we don’t talk about. But if not now, when?”