By Michelle Ebanks
As we head into the homestretch of the midterm election on Nov. 2, examination of the crucial role of black voters to the fate of many leaders was unavoidable. After all, as The New York Times recently indicated, "The black turnout percentage in the [2008 general election] exceeded white turnout by a fraction of [a] percentage." These are very impressive numbers by any measure, and not easy to dismiss even in this noisy political season where the Tea Party has dominated headlines.
However, quiet as it's kept, just two years ago another political revolution was fomented on Nov. 4, 2008, that remains a compelling American story.
Once all 125,225,901 ballots were counted, black women had the highest voter turnout. In fact, "eligible black female voters increased [our presence at the polls] by 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7 percent in 2004 to 68.8 percent in 2008," according to the Pew Research Center. Further, black women had the highest voter turnout among all racial, ethnic and gender groups that year. What gives? Unlike the present political winds of change, we weren't enraged but engaged with the possibility of change. This feeling hasn’t abated yet.
For all the chatter about current American discontent, an opposite effect is happening with black women and the black community. Our own study on the State of African-American women echoes this sentiment with respondents indicating optimism, self-confidence and personal resiliency are integral to their emotional, financial and spiritual well-being.
A recent study by noted University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers indicate that happiness gains for black women increased, while white women, despite their educational, economic and social progress, are less happy. As readers of Essence magazine have been telling us for the past 40 years, black women are looking to make their communities and neighborhoods better and safer places for their families and for themselves. Perhaps what's been underreported is the enormous educational, economic and social progress that African-American women have made since 1970. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Education, "Black women earn two-thirds of all bachelor's degrees awarded to African Americans." In 2002, "Black women owned 547,341 companies," a 75 percent increase from five years before. And if you want to know how far we've come, look at the White House, where three generations of African-American women call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue their home.
The optimism so many of us feel isn't seen through rose-colored glasses. Plenty of us can relate to Velma Hart, the middle-class Maryland woman who recently asked President Obama to assure her that he remained the change agent she had voted for during a memorable town hall meeting. But others of us see our reflection through First Lady Michelle Obama, whose buoyancy in the face of adversity reminds us of the wisdom of our grandmothers, who multitasked and got things done at work and at home. It is their wide-eyed view of the present that has kept the black community focused through time immemorial.