The Future of the Abortion Fight Is Black Women

Moving beyond a post-Roe world means centering Black women: to trust them and fund their work, and for white-led reproductive rights groups to step back.

Photo of George state Rep. Erica Thomas with a megaphone protesting for abortion rights
George state Rep. Erica Thomas protesting for abortion rights at the state capitol. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

“Number one, it’d be great if the people who have the money and the power would listen less to their internal feelings and thoughts and more to the people doing the work on the ground. And maybe if they are going to listen to some of their internal thoughts, maybe they could sit with the uncomfortableness that they seem to have with class and race.”

That’s what Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund and reproductive justice advocate in Mississippi, told me in a recent conversation. The last time I spoke with Laurie was in September. Back then, I still had hope that despite the obvious hyperpartisan bent of the Federalist Society-captured Supreme Court, the justices would at least do their job and block Texas SB 8, the rogue six-week ban with bounty hunter enforcement. But it has been 142 days since the law went into effect on September 1, and when presented with an opportunity to uphold its own precedent—to do its job—the Supreme Court did nothing.

Instead, the FedSoc Six on the bench decided that the Constitution doesn’t matter anymore—not when it comes to abortion rights.

The Court’s inaction has emboldened anti-abortion advocates and has set reproductive rights advocates back on their heels.

So the questions for 2022 are: What are abortion rights enthusiasts supposed to do? What are reproductive rights advocates supposed to do? What about mainstream reproductive rights organizations?

How do the reproductive rights and justice movements move forward in a post-Roe world in which 26 of 50 states have criminalized abortion?

The answer that I keep coming back to is listen to Black women. Trust Black women.

Black women like Laurie.

People like Laurie work in the shadows, diligently putting funds together to get as many people abortion care as possible and organizing against restrictive laws. She even said to me at one point, “Girl, I’m deep in the shadows.”

It’s time for people like Laurie to emerge from the shadows. People like Laurie need more resources poured into their grassroots efforts. They need white-led reproductive rights organizations to take a step back.

The question becomes: Will they step back? Do they even know how?

Here is the conversation I had with Laurie. It has been edited for clarity.

Imani Gandy: The last time we talked, it was September. Since then, Texas has gone tits up, the Court is signaling that they’re going to kill Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson. Where do we go from here? What is it that people need to do? What is it that the movement needs to do in order to figure out how to move forward?

Laurie Bertram Roberts: I mean, I feel like number one, it’d be great if the people who have the money and the power would listen less to their internal feelings and thoughts and more to the people doing the work on the ground.

And maybe if they are going to listen to some of their internal thoughts, maybe they could sit with the uncomfortableness that they seem to have with class and race. And think about why that is. And think about why it is that they seem to only want to fund policy work, and seem to only want to fund certain kinds of people over other kinds of people.

IG: They’re funding more lobbyists and consultants as opposed to pouring money into mutual aid and that sort of thing.

LBR: Right. And my other thing would be, hold on a second, there’s this dichotomy going on right now where it’s like, you have big donors—I can’t name anything, but I’m just saying there are big donors pulling out of funding reproductive rights and reproductive justice, and saying, “Oh, well we’re now going to be doing racial justice.”

IG: As if they’re not the same.

LBR: As if they’re not connected, as if they’re not the same. There are no silos, people.

The silos have to die. They have to die. Reproductive justice organizations are doing racial justice. Some racial justice organizations are doing reproductive justice. Frankly, if they’re doing racial justice well, they are doing reproductive justice, even if they’re not calling it reproductive justice, just because it’s all connected. Unless they’re being overtly sexist, right?

IG: Yes.

LBR: So we can’t just take these things apart. And you’re like, “Oh, well now we’re divesting from reproductive justice, because there’s been this critical call for [racial justice] money.” Also, let’s stop acting like these big donors don’t have money to do them both.

IG: We have to get beyond a reproductive rights framework. And I feel like the best framework for those difficult conversations really is reproductive justice, and people are just really, they’re hesitant to do it. They’re just stuck in this rights framework. They’re stuck in this second-wave framework.

LBR: I feel like the only reason they’re stuck in the reproductive rights framework—I’m just going to be honest—is because white women, that’s their framework. The reason that they reject reproductive justice is because to do reproductive justice properly, you have to concede that it centers people of color.

You can’t do reproductive justice and not center marginalized people. So that means white ladies don’t get to be in the front no more.

IG: And they love being in the front.

LBR: And they can’t do that. They just will not get their ass to the side or just one step behind. They’re happy to tell us to be … I mean, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ida B. Wells lately, but it really feels like we showed up for the march and we’ve been told to stand in the back again and again and again. And I’m like, what year is this?

IG: And it also feels like people will say in public, yeah, reproductive justice, and listen to Black women, and trust Black women and blah, blah, blah, but in practice that never seems to work out.

LBR: Yeah. Trust Black women until it’s time to put some money in there, or wait until it’s time to do some real decision-making, or until it’s time to recognize who did the work. Because they’re fine with letting us do the work and be the mules of the movement. That’s what I call it. I mean, I said last year—well, actually I said that in 2019—I was like, I’m not doing any movement mammy work. I don’t do movement mammy work anymore. Stop calling me a week out from your event that you’ve been messing up, you and a group of white ladies, and now you couldn’t get no Black folks to come. Now you want to call me and two other organizers.

IG: Right. Last minute.

LBR: Last minute. And you want us to round up all the Negroes, like we’re supposed to go out and blow a horn and get everybody to come. I mean, it’s so offensive.

IG: Yeah. It is. It is. So really the bottom line is white women in the movement need to take a step back—

LBR: Because they’re trying to basically replace white men, versus actually having equity. Then you can’t actually share equity with us.

IG: They want to smash the patriarchy just long enough where there’s a little crack that they can squeeze through.

LBR: Right, because otherwise they wouldn’t be holding onto their adjacency to white power so hard.
So, I mean, we’ve seen this with white women over and over again—when it comes to who it is they have an allegiance to, it’s white men.

IG: So what’s it going to take?

LBR: I honestly worry that what it’s going to take is folks really losing access. And as usual, it’s not going to affect the folks at the higher income levels. But we don’t have as many folks up there anymore. We don’t even have as many folks that are middle class anymore.

We have a whole lot of people who think they’re middle class, but they’re working class. And I mean, I know this, because since the pandemic happened, we have a whole lot more callers who would’ve considered themselves middle class, but can’t afford a $700 abortion. Not even on a credit card, so that’s just reality. So I just, I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. And when I say interesting, I mean in the worst way. I don’t mean, “Oh I’m so interested to see.” I mean in the worst way, when, and as you say, when Roe falls.

IG: Yeah. I mean, Roe is going to fall. And my prediction is within that day, obviously whatever trigger bans go into effect. And then other states are going to call special legislative sessions. It’s going to be a very busy summer.

LBR: What I’m interested to see is what white women are going to do. Are they going to sit back and do nothing? Are they going to lose their shit? Are they going to just do what they usually try to do, and just whisper in white men’s ears?

IG: Have a march maybe.

LBR: Right. It’s like, what are y’all really going to do? I hear all this big talk about organizing underground railroads and whatnot. But I don’t see a lot of working except for really small groups of folks who are the same folks that I’ve always seen. And maybe a few new ones.

What the problem is, it’s just violence. Literal violence that white feminists engage in against specifically women of color and orgs led by them.

And the other thing I want to just highlight, I’m not sure if you wanted this part, but when we’re talking about how there’s this structure, that’s literally setting stuff up to fail. You also have these donors and I know, I feel like I’m on a roll about donors, but it literally is how we end up failing, because we have private big-money folks, who are in control of who gets what, and they can literally shape how the ground looks in a state. They can decide who’s legitimate.

I’m also always amused that sometimes it feels like we’re in 1990s’ thinking. I really started doing GOTV [Get Out the Vote] back when Clinton was in office. And sometimes a lot of the strategy and stuff feels very much like Clinton era. Does that make sense?

IG: Yes.

LBR: It feels very much like respectability: “Don’t say abortion too much.” Folks decide who they’re going to elevate, and who they’re not. And I’m not even saying other folks don’t deserve it, but you can water all the grass.