US elections

The sisterhood for presidential candidate Joe Biden

Joe Biden stands on the threshold of an improbable victory with the backing of black women, writes Oyama Mabandla

01 November 2020 - 00:00 By OYAMA MABANDLA
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An 'awakened sisterhood' could sweep Joe Biden to power in the same way it propelled Barack Obama to power, says the writer.
An 'awakened sisterhood' could sweep Joe Biden to power in the same way it propelled Barack Obama to power, says the writer.
Image: Reuters

On the morning of April 11 1992 the British public woke up to a headline on the front page of the British tabloid, The Sun, declaiming: "It's The Sun Wot Won It". This was a reference to the pivotal role played by that newspaper, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, in helping a hapless John Major come from behind to snatch an improbable victory against the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock.

Britons and the entire world had gone to bed thinking that Labour had finally ended its political drought after a 13-year exile from power that had ushered in the Thatcherite and Reagan revolutions in the global political economy and the beginning of the neoliberal era. But it was not be. The Sun had managed to reach the hearts and soul of middle England, thus managing to outwit the Notting Hill cognoscenti and the grandees of Fleet Street. It is my fervent hope that as the world wakes up on Wednesday morning, November 4, it will be confronted by a headline declaring similarly that "It's the Sisters Wot Won It" as Joseph Robinette Biden jnr is declared president elect of the United States of America.

Joe Biden had for all intents and purposes been left for dead after being humiliated in the three early primary contests. He had come fourth in Iowa, a humiliating fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada, but would make his final stand in South Carolina, where black voters, led by the black sisterhood and congressman Jim Clyburn, would draw a line in the sand and declare "Nö passaro" as the famed Spanish communist, Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, nicknamed "La Pasionaria", had declared against Gen Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War.

The sisterhood had decreed that the delusions of the Bernie Sanders revolution, which stood no chance against Donald Trump in the general election, "would not pass" South Carolina. And it was indeed in the hills and marshes of that state that the "Feel the Bern" movement would be mortally wounded, and three days later, on Super Tuesday, gored to death by a remarkable alliance of the black streets, led by black women, and the suburbs, led by what in American political science argot is referred to as "soccer moms".

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, left, and US President Donald Trump speaking to voters during their campaign rallies.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, left, and US President Donald Trump speaking to voters during their campaign rallies.

The soccer moms are historically a Republican redoubt. But driven by the racism and misogyny of the current occupant of the White House, these white women have found common cause with their black sisters. And when women unite, heaven rejoices.

There is no more potent force than an awakened sisterhood. As we say in this country, Wathinta Bafazi, wathinth' imbokodo; Uzakufa (You strike a woman, you strike a rock; you will die).

Joe Biden has never been "accused" of being a scintillating political talent. But black women, suffused with a sagacity earned in the centuries-long existential confrontation with white power, had intuited that to defeat a vile, racist septuagenarian, you needed a decent, centrist septuagenarian.

They could have chosen the silver-tongued Rhodes Scholar from Newark, their own brother, Cory Booker. Or the sassy Kamala Harris, a member of the oldest black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. The brilliant policy wonk and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, whose policy prescriptions aligned very closely with the needs and aspirations of the black community could also have been an option. Ditto with Bernie Sanders. But they recognised that those policy prescriptions, if not backed by the majority of the electorate, would vaporise into the stratosphere. They knew intuitively that America is a centre-right country and most Americans are not revolutionary in the Bernie mould.

I want to posit that that postulate holds true for every other country. While the energy and passion may be on the revolutionary margins, elections are won and lost in the centre, where most folks dwell. This is a wisdom that has eluded many a progressive, notable among whom is the self-bloviating Harvard philosophy professor Cornel West. Proof positive that a mastery of the arcana of Hegelian dialectics does not make one necessarily wiser.

Black women played a similar role in orchestrating Barack Obama's historic and successful quest for the White House. Before his victory in the Iowa caucus on January 3 2008, Obama had been trailing Hillary Clinton among black voters, who were not yet convinced a black man could win the presidency by lopsided margins. But a quiet effort had been taking place away from the prying eyes of the national media, which had already crowned Hillary president.

Galvanised by Michelle Obama, a daughter of the South Side of Chicago, the hardy neighbourhood that is Chicago's answer to New York City's more famous Harlem neighbourhood, black women in hair salons, nail bars and churches, enchanted by this highly articulate and handsome brother having chosen as his wife a smart "down home" sister from the 'hood and not some "high yellow" prom queen from the Atlanta suburbs, had begun canvassing for him.

They would put pressure on their husbands and partners to get behind the Obama cavalcade on pain of being shut out of the bedroom. And in the fullness of time a seismic change of sentiment would course through black neighbourhoods, forcing even the renowned civil rights icon, John Lewis, to retract his endorsement of Hillary. Obama would similarly eviscerate Hillary in South Carolina, driving her husband, Bill Clinton, into paroxysms of bitterness and recrimination bordering on bigotry, which would come back to haunt his wife eight years later as black folks sat out the 2016 election.

Biden stands on the threshold of an improbable victory. He turns 78 on the 20th of this month, making him, if elected, the oldest president-elect ever in US history. It has helped that he is the personification of decency when decency itself is on the ballot. Running against an unhinged "grab them by their what-what" ignoramus and narcissist, the female vote, which valorises decency, has flocked into Biden's arms. And as people who have endured so much personal pain and anguish, a lineament of the black experience, black women, who are the custodians of black history and folklore, saw in Biden a kindred soul.

The Blues is, after all, us. As Jim Clyburn memorably put it when endorsing Biden a few days before the pivotal South Carolina primary: "We know Joe, but most importantly, Joe knows us."

Hopefully in the next two days those bonds will be parlayed into a victory that will free America and the world at large from the dangerous hallucinations and fulminations of a madman. Two hundred and thirty thousand American lives and counting, betrayed by Trump's failure in managing the coronavirus pandemic, deserve no less.

• Mabandla is a businessman

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