Why are there limitations to the growth of Black women in state legislatures?
This past November, we witnessed a historic moment in politics with the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, an Indian American and Black woman. This, coupled with the record number of Black women candidates and newly elected officials may mark the beginning of a shift. However, too many Americans believed that “we have overcome.” The victories shifted the conversation but unfortunately have not moved the needle enough on Black women’s representation in state legislatures.
In a recent report by State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women (NOBEL Women), just 4.82 percent of state legislators are Black women (356 out of 7,383 legislators). This problem—caused by the racialized patriarchy so entrenched in this country, of which the progressive movement is not immune—has wide-ranging impacts on policy and the leadership pipeline.
How the States Compare
It’s not surprising that states with large Black populations have some of the highest numbers of Black women in the legislature: Georgia with 39 Black women, Maryland with 28 Black women, and New York with 23 Black women.
But many states with large Black populations are woefully underrepresented. In fact, Mississippi, the state with the highest Black population in the country, has a staggering disparity in representation—Black women make up approximately 19.36 percent of the population but just 7.47 percent of the legislature. In Louisiana, the state with the third-highest Black population in the country, Black women make up approximately 16.82 percent of the population but just 5.55 percent of the legislature—a disparity of over three to one.
See how your state compares here.
It is important to note that “full representation” does not mean that our goals are achieved when Black women’s percentage in the legislature matches that of their population in the state. Full representation means that the voices, experiences, and leadership of Black women impact every piece of legislation.
Why State Legislatures are So Critical
State legislatures consider over 100,000 bills nationwide each year. Every day, decisions on issues ranging from reproductive justice, education, workers’ rights, health care, food and agriculture, criminal justice, and voting rights are made in state legislatures. In the midst of a pandemic and economic recession that are having devastating consequences on Black women, the need for Black women to have decision-making power in the solutions to these crises has never been more apparent. The people who most intimately know the true impact of structural racism and sexism—Black women—know best how to dismantle those systems and move to a just and equitable democracy and society.
“Having worked at every level of government—community, county, state and federal—I can unequivocally say that the work of local and state governments present the greatest opportunity to have a direct impact on the lives of our constituents,” said U.S. House Rep Robin Kelly (D-Ill.). “And now, with the relentless assault on voting rights in state legislatures across America, more Black women are needed in state elective offices to preserve our most precious Constitutional right.”
Addressing the Leadership Pipeline
It is crucial to have Black women serve in leadership positions within state legislatures. When we do, the potential is limitless. For example, Maryland Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones is using her power to advance the state’s first “Black Agenda,” aimed at eliminating racial gaps in health, wealth, and housing. “As Maryland’s first Black and first woman to serve as Speaker, I am also the only one to introduce a statewide plan for racial and economic justice. Diverse leadership at every level of government is the vehicle that drives us closer towards progress,” said Speaker Jones.
A call congratulating the first African-American woman #PaHouse Minority Leader is how I like to start my Mondays. Wishing @RepMcClinton the best of luck in her work to lead PA forward. pic.twitter.com/9TmVDds6wa— Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (@SpeakerAJones) March 1, 2021
In Maine, House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross is the first Black woman to serve in state legislative leadership and has just sponsored and passed the first law in the nation to require racial impact evaluations for every piece of legislation in the state. These women are proof of the transformative power of Black women in leadership. But that’s not to say it’s easy.
Black Women Elected officials Experience Misogynoir, Too
Misogynoir, which was coined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, is defined as specific hatred, dislike, distrust and prejudice directed toward Black women. Misogynoir shows up in every facet of society, especially in politics. One might assume that Black women that serve in public office have a layer of protection from mistreatment, but this is not the case. These women are victims of wrongful arrest, are sometimes ignored by colleagues, and are held to a different standard than their white counterparts. For example, Georgia Representative Park Cannon was arrested for simply knocking on Governor Kemp’s office door. Ohio Representative Emilia Sykes was stopped as she tried to enter her state house building because she didn’t “look like a legislator.”
A Black state lawmaker in Georgia was arrested for protesting “Jim Crow-era” voter laws critics say are designed to disenfranchise voters of color.— AJ+ (@ajplus) March 26, 2021
GA Rep. Park Cannon was charged with a felony for knocking on the governor’s door — facing 1-5 yrs in prison.
(📷: @TWareStevens) pic.twitter.com/sH1FuIg0Lk
Elected Black women are not exempt from the treatment that non-elected Black women deal with on a daily basis. Black women that may be interested in running for office may see this and question if pursuing public office is worth the pushback. If we want to see more Black women running for office, the community must call out mistreatment, check their own misogynoir, and ensure that Black women that are in elected positions are safe as they do their jobs.
I was once told when stopped that I “don’t look like a legislator” and thus need additional screening. After that incident I they clarified that it was because I looked “too young.” I’m not the youngest legislator in the OH General Assembly.— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) May 31, 2018
Solutions for Equitable Support
Allies and accomplices must support Black women who are considering a run for state legislative office. The challenges are all too real, and without support, too many women may not make the decision to run.
Georgia Representative Sandra Scott shared many of the considerations Black women across the nation go through: “I can’t afford to run for office, I don’t know a lot of people. What if I lose? What will the legislators think about me?”
This is where allies must step up to fill in the gaps. Support looks like asking Black women that you trust to run for office, committing to help them raise money, and assisting them with innovative field strategies. Support also looks like understanding the ways that misogynoir interrupts the campaigning process and making sure that you do everything you can to guarantee a fair campaign.
Support looks like going the extra mile to ensure that the next class of Black women interested in running for office have the opportunity to do so.
The recent and unprecedented response to the power of Black women in politics must result in tangible action steps. The election of more progressive Black women at all levels of government, especially on a state and local level, provides the public with an opportunity to acknowledge the role of Black women in our democracy and will ensure that those with the lived experiences are shaping their own futures. With that, the public must be ready and willing to meet the needs of the Black women that pursue public office.
It’s not enough to thank Black women. We also have to ensure Black women are at every table where decisions are being made.
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