Sen. Cory Booker hit the 2019 Essence Festival Power Stage Saturday afternoon first remarking on the Black excellence evident in every corner of the room, then immediately diving into his reason for attending—to gain the trust and earn the votes of Black American women.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who often speaks on his decision to remain in the Newark communities that raised him, said that Black women taught him to never forget where he came from, nor on whose shoulders he stands.
“From abolition to civil rights, from workers’ rights to women’s rights, Black women have been at the center of every movement for social justice in our country’s history,” Booker said, offering a brief synopsis of Black women’s vast influence on the politics and culture that shape the nation.
According to the 2018 Power of the Sister Vote survey, conducted by the Black Women’s Roundtable, an intergenerational public policy network, in partnership with ESSENCE magazine, the Democratic Party has experienced a 12 percent drop in support from Black women since 2017, while the percentage of Black women who said neither Democrats nor the Republican Party represents their best interests increased by one percent—21 percent in 2017 to 22 percent in 2018; further, the percentage of Black women who think the Republican Party best represents them has increased by nearly two percent.
Even with this shifting demographic, Black women still overwhelming vote Democrat, and still have the power to determine election outcomes, something of which Booker is keenly aware.
“Black women are going to be the highest voters in this country, then the agenda of African American women has to be at the center of the Democratic Party’s agenda…because right now the reality is unacceptable,” Booker insisted from the Essence Festival Power Stage to loud applause.
Reading from his notes, Booker itemized the oppression of Black women in this country:
“Black women have the highest level of workforce participation. Eighty-percent of Black mothers are the breadwinners for their families. But still the pay gap for Black women making only 61 cents of every dollar that a white male makes is unacceptable in our country. The fastest growing group of entrepreneurs are African American women who don’t get the access to capital that they deserve. Black women have four times the maternal mortality rates of white women. This is unacceptable.“
Channeling James Baldwin, who wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955), “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” Booker located Black women’s pain within the larger white settler-colonial project known as the United States, telling the Essence Festival audience, “If America hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.”
In his closing pitch, the senator from New Jersey set his sights on Donald Trump, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., saying, “We are in a time right now where a person in the White House is spewing bigotry and racism…a person pushing policies that hurt communities of color.”
“But, the existence of demagoguery and hate has never defined us as a nation,” Booker claimed. “What defines us is how we choose to respond to the challenges before us.”
Then he went back to the start—Black women.
“We cannot be a nation that’s truly free until everyone is free,” Booker reminded the crowd, his tempo rising as if speaking from a Baptist pulpit at altar call. “And I know, we’re going to make it to the Promised Land, that right there at the top of that mountain will be Black women raising the flag of America.”
While Booker used most of his speech time to emotionally connect with the Black women voters in the audience, during a follow-up interview with MSNBC political analyst Rev. Al Sharpton, he talked a little more in depth about his economic policies, making it plain that “paychecks help you get by, but wealth in America is what helps you get ahead.”
Watch Booker’s full remarks and follow-up interview below: