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August 26, 2020

Sports Promised To Move Our Country Forward. It Can't Leave Women of Color Behind

By Diahann Billings-Burford

Today, our country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment becoming law, giving women the right to vote. Anniversaries provide an opportunity for both reflection and recommitment.

That reflection begins by defining what we're celebrating. Are we observing the day all men and women came together to root out sexism and redefine our democratic process, or are we commemorating an important but imperfect piece of legislation in an unfinished agenda?

As a Black woman, I celebrate the latter. Women of color, at best, can honor the significance of the day while knowing the women's suffrage movement was not fully inclusive of us. It fell short, and the effects of that exclusion still resonate in 2020. That 100 years later those principles the 19th Amendment stand for still don't apply to all of us helps explain 2020, which just this week provided another heartbreaking and visual reminder of racial injustice in this country. For women of color, the 19th amendment was a starting point in a still-ongoing pursuit.

The shortcoming of the larger women's suffrage movement, which did not intend to benefit women of color and purposefully pushed their plight to the boundaries, provides clarity on what our nation must recommit to – and what sports leaders must recommit to, given their platform and that many of those who returned to the arena this summer pledged to use sports as a stage to promote change. That recommitment is to ensuring the freedoms of women of color are protected and ending racial discrimination. We must commit to making a more perfect union, which is what fearless Black women suffragists who have since been subjected to historical erasure pledged to when they sacrificed for a country unsympathetic to their plight. If sports promised to move our country forward during this national reckoning, then it can't leave women of color behind.

Yet even 100 years later, as more women of color run for political positions than ever before, this is a tall order. Voter suppression, the 2013 weakening of key provisions in the Voting Rights Act and the COVID-19 pandemic pose true threats to our democracy. Much like in 1920, suppression efforts are being strengthened to silence an electorate whose turnout often surpasses the national number and only recently has received credit for its far-reaching work.

Make no mistake, this is a moment to celebrate. That imperfect legislation is indeed connected to the reality of the first Black and Asian woman being on a major presidential ticket this fall.

However, as Black women break political barriers and lead movements, we are again at risk of being marginalized, including at the polls. During the women's suffrage movement, Black women were often excluded from participating in or attending meetings. We were forced to the backs of marches. While Black women began fighting for suffrage as early as the 1830s, understanding voting was necessary to achieve racial equity, it wouldn't be until 130 years later that we could realistically participate in our democracy. Black women fought the combination of sexism and racism simultaneously, but by the time the 19th Amendment passed, the intimidation and terror of Jim Crow was entrenched, disenfranchising Black women before ever casting a ballot.

After we reflect, what must we commit to in 2020? That the particular issues facing Black women must not be pushed aside. That the Black women orchestrating change must not be pushed aside. Not again.

I recommit because this is not only century-old history. New research published by the American Psychological Association shows antiracist and feminist movements often fail to advocate for the rights of Black women. Lead researcher Stewart Coles said, "Black women are often overlooked in people's conversations about racism and sexism … [and] this 'intersectional invisibility' means that movements that are supposed to help Black women may be contributing to their marginalization."

So I celebrate and recommit to the values of the Black women whose shoulders we stand on, from Sojourner Truth to Mary Church Terrell to Maria Stewart to Ida B. Wells, who founded The Women's Era Club, which played an integral role in women's suffrage but has been overshadowed by groups that distanced itself from Black women a century ago.

Much has changed for the better in this last 100 years. Within our athletics sphere, the sports community is increasing its allyship in improving our imperfect union for women of color as of late. Let's first recognize the WNBA and its players' fight for justice even amidst a pandemic, where they have led a movement to be heard, like in Georgia's senatorial election. Players like Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore have opted out of competing to combat social injustice and voter suppression, and players inside the bubble have dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor. Within the NFL, as part of the Rooney Rule expansion, the NFL mandated teams and the league office to interview minorities and/or female applicants for senior positions. I'm cautiously optimistic that some teams will interview and hire more women of color. In Orlando, several NBA players chose to wear "Say Her Name" on the back of their jerseys, a credit to the work of Columbia professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw.

At RISE, we've partnered with the Sacramento Kings and When We All Vote to help grow Rally the Vote, a nonpartisan coalition of nearly 30 teams across leagues such as the NBA, WNBA, MLB and NWSL that are using their platforms to encourage voter registration and participation and ensure that everyone's voice is heard and counted. We're also part of the NFL Votes initiative, working directly with teams to register players to vote, empowering them to lead their fans and communities to exercise that right while educating on the importance of voting in the fight for racial equity and social justice. Additionally, our nonpartisan initiative RISE to Vote, which equips the sports community with the tools and knowledge to get civically engaged, has worked with more than 60 professional and collegiate teams.

The best way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment? All of us must reflect on this great moment in history and commit that this time the freedoms of women of color will be protected as well.

Diahann Billings-Burford is CEO of RISE, a national nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.

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