DETROIT— Hard conversations about race have been at the heart of the Women’s March from the moment it began to take shape last fall, and at the Women’s Convention in Detroit this weekend, they were front and center once again.
“Today, we are going to talk about black women,” Symone Sanders, former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.), told a crowded conference room in the Cobo Center on Saturday, to loud applause. Some 4,000 women had traveled to Detroit for three days of panels, training sessions and marquee speeches — all part of the first major women’s convention in the United States in 40 years.
Sanders, who has spoken about her own experiences with discrimination on the campaign trail, led a panel called, “94 percent voted against Trump: following black women in 2018.”
The message was clear: For Democrats and progressives to win future elections, white women must do better.
Fifty-three percent of white women who voted in the 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, 94 percent of black women who voted chose Hillary Clinton.
“So many times when I look for sisterhood from white women, I don’t find it,” said panelist Brittany Packnett, an activist and vice president of National Community Alliances with Teach for America. “It wasn’t just missing on Nov. 8.”
Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, praised the racial mix of the women who’d opted to attend the panel on Saturday morning. There was a fairly even split between white women and women of color.
But while the mood in the room was warm and enthusiastic, with attendees frequently breaking out in cheers, Campbell argued the white women present couldn’t simply pat themselves on the back if they did not vote for President Trump.
“You may not have,” she said. “But did your cousin?” Campbell urged them to have those conversations, and to continue having them no matter how uncomfortable they become.
“I thought it was really interesting and informative and I learned so many things that I feel like I can take forward in my own work,” Natalie Welland, 25, who had come to the convention from Canada, said after the panel. Welland, who is white, said she appreciated the message that white women do not have to apologize for their privilege, but they must use it.
“It’s about, ‘just do the work,’” she said.
“It was important for me to go to that [panel] because I wanted to make sure that white women understand why we are upset,” said Erica Fuller, who is a black 25-year-old, from Portland, Oregon.
“These are the types of conversations I’ve been having for years,” she continued. “But one of the things that feels new this year is that because we actually have statistics showing how white women voted for Trump, it’s clear that we’re not pulling this out of our behinds.”
Several sessions at the convention took direct aim at the role white women play in propping up white privilege. On Friday, some 200 women took part in a discussion called “Confronting White Womanhood,” in which they were urged to “unpack the ways white women uphold and benefit from white supremacy.”
At the panel on Saturday morning, the wide-ranging discussion frequently turned to criticism of the Democratic party, and how it can better support black women voters and black women candidates. Panelists called the party “out of touch” and said it would not be enough to simply replace white male legislators with white women.
“The Democratic party is too male,” said Letitia James, public advocate for the City of New York and the first woman of color to hold citywide office in the city. “It’s too pale and too stale.”