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Stop Saying the Deep South Is a Lost Cause

Southern Black Voters

Black women saved us from Roy Moore, but even white men are open to change if the message is right.

As far as surprise twist endings for mid-season cliffhangers go, the Alabama Senate election has to be one of the better ones ever done.

People had already written off Alabama as a lost cause, lamenting how horrible Alabama is for electing an alleged pedophile and getting their garment-rending shirts on, but were amazingly surprised by the outcome. This of course sent the punditry and Twitter hot takers into a tizzy to get their views in before Roy Moore even conceded. Well, they shouldn't have rushed because Moore still hasn't conceded, which is fine, you don't need to concede to be considered the loser.

These hot takes ranged from "The Republicans Are Doomed in 2018" and "This Is a Referendum on Trump" to darker takes like "Democrats Could Barely Beat a Pedophile and Everything Is Awful" and the very popular "Thank Black Women!"

For the most part, all but the darker takes about how the South is just awful and Democrats are total failures are on the money. Yeah, 2018 is going to be rough for the Republicans and polls are showing that all but the most hard-core supporters of Donald Trump are abandoning ship. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan has read the writing on the wall and is talking about retirement. Mind you, retirement for a former Republican politician actually means a huge pay raise as a lobbyist or think tank member (also a pretty sweet book deal).

The takes that the South is horrible for barely moving beyond voting for an alleged predator and that if the Democrats had run someone to the far left, they would have won by a greater margin are mostly out-of-touch statements from the Twitter think tanks of the far left and honestly insulting because of the other big take from this election, which is that black voters, especially black women, helped carry the day.

Black voters have remained a consistent staple in the Democrats arsenal in winning elections ever since John F. Kennedy came out and spoke up for Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960 election. Ever since then, black voters of all education and income levels, anywhere in the country, have been a consistent and vocal part of the Democratic base. That being said, one does have to concede that at times the Democratic Party has not listened to its black voting base on a range of issues, which has resulted in no small amount of cynicism and skepticism regarding national politicians who make huge promises but fail to deliver on them.

Black voters have remained loyal, even at times when the Democratic Party on the national level didn't deserve it. Now, of course, many outside observers have piled onto the Democrats for pulling a bare 1.5-percentage-point win over Moore, which, yes, I agree, is a bit unsettling, but have called for all sorts of radical politics -- that seem more at home in Berkeley or Burlington than Birmingham -- as a way to secure victory in the future. This has caused me no small amount of frustration as those calls seem to be coming overwhelmingly from those in areas of the country that are, frankly, very white, very liberal, and very not Southern.

One of the things that has always bugged me as a Southerner has been the perception of "outsiders" toward the Deep South. Of course I could write entire books on the topic, but it essentially comes down to a condescending and paternalistic attitude toward Southerners of all races, genders, and sexualities. For a long time, progressive movements in this country have considered the South a lost cause and tried to pass down equality and progress in a trickle-down fashion from D.C. They comment about how lacking in education Southerners are and how if they were smarter they wouldn't vote the way they do. They've sort of "half-assed" progress in the Red States.

That's why the key to securing victory for progressive causes in the South is to take a note from black voters and civil rights history. Many lefty comments and complaints about Doug Jones were that he just wasn't left enough (see this weekend's news) or focused on the wrong issues. Jones ran a pretty standard Democratic campaign; focusing on keeping the Affordable Care Act and business growth. Many complained he didn't run on a $15 minimum wage, Wall Street reform, universal health care, etc. Well, you see, to a lot of Alabamians that stuff didn't matter. Jones's take on health care wasn't about free and universal health care, but bringing health care to rural communities that suffer a major shortage of providers. His take on jobs and wages was living wages and equal pay disparities. You see, a $15 wage in some parts of America is at or above the median income, and you can live quite well on it, unlike places like Seattle or San Franscisco, where it's barely able to keep you treading water.

Jones also focused on civil rights issues such as sentencing reform and disproportionate sentencing of black people. He ran locally. Alabamians aren't as concerned about things that affect a person in New York City or Silicon Valley, they're concerned about the things that affect Selma and Dothan. He spoke to Alabamians, not pundits, bloggers, and talking heads in D.C. or New York City.

Yes, a huge part of those are the concerns of black voters, but they also affect the working class and poor whites of Alabama as well, which is why if you look at the exit polls, the black vote remained steady for the Democrats, but the Democrats also gained with white voters there. The Democrats won by being Alabamians. There were few major celebrities and politicians coming from out of state to stump for Jones who didn't already have roots in Alabama; local hero Charles Barkley was embraced instead of viewed as a carpetbagger. This is why it's important for the rest of the country to understand, you gotta run as a Southerner to win in the South.

So what does this mean if the rest of America wants to see progress in the South? It means let us handle it, but get our backs. The best example of this goes back to the black community. During the '50s and '60s, at the height of the civil rights era, white volunteers came from all over America to places like Alabama and Mississippi to register black voters, to organize communities, and to protest for their rights, but they were volunteers. The leaders of these activities and movements were local black activists with CORE, the NAACP, COFO, SCLC, and SNCC. These activists knew the communities they worked in, knew their needs, and knew the culture and politics of the area, and so these leaders organized volunteers and allocated donations from around the country to fund these efforts in ways they saw best. They took charge in making progress; yes, they had help from the outside, but it was their plans, strategies, tactics, and leadership that made it happen.

This self-empowerment has remained a major part of the black community and has been copied and learned from by every progressive cause from women's rights to LGBTQ rights. Our own queer progress is thanks to the lessons learned, often the hard and tragic way by black political activists and women such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, Bree Newsome, and Clara Luper, who are now national leaders and heroes sprung from this locally led and organized efforts.

We do owe black voters, and especially the underappreciated and recognized efforts of black women, for teaching us how to make progress in regressive and reactionary communities, and we need to take the lessons that they taught us, but that we seem to have forgotten along the way. American progressives need to fund, volunteer for, and defend local organizations, candidates, and movements in these parts of the country. Giving to the national level of an organization such as Planned Parenthood doesn't mean it gets spent in some of the communities in the red states where it's most needed. A local legal victory in California doesn't mean much if it can't be repeated in Mississippi or Louisiana because the funds for the fight aren't there. Expecting a candidate in Georgia or Louisiana to be campaign like they were running in Southern California or Vermont and being angry that they are running in a way to get elected locally is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

There are so many good lessons to take away from Doug Jones's victory in Alabama, but there are a few to be made clear. Firstly, Democrats need to treat black voters like the loyal and stalwart members of their party that they are. They deserve an incalculable amount of thanks. Secondly, we need to center their concerns and voices. Black concerns aren't just black concerns but everyone's since white people too can be victims of police violence, poverty, and discrimination, but most importantly when black people are disproportionately discriminated against, it makes us all weaker.

The red states aren't lost causes. As we saw, it was the steadfastness of black voters and the activism of black women who built the bedrock for Jones's victory, we need to remember that black people as well as LGBTQ people live in these places and are fighting every day to make them better. The rest of America needs to stand behind these Southern progressives, empower them, listen to them, and help them make the changes in their own community without casting judgment or telling them how to do it. The greatest lesson learned from this victory is one that was taught to us long ago by black America, we just seem to have forgotten it.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_kerri.

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