Juneteenth is celebrated in the United States as our second Independence Day. While July 4 commemorates independence from Great Britain, the freedoms that were proclaimed in 1776 applied only to a limited number of white, male citizens. Juneteenth offers an opportunity to reflect on the immeasurable harm inflicted by the institution of slavery in this country, and to commit ourselves anew to rectifying the continued effects of that legacy.
Even now, 158 years after the first Juneteenth, our elected leaders remain overwhelmingly white and male—meaning Black women political candidates are battling the status quo on two fronts.
It is no accident that the women’s rights movement in this country was initiated by abolitionists. The women who met at Seneca Falls and drafted the first Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 were experienced organizers who had cut their political teeth in the abolition movement. There have always been obvious synergies between the fight against sexism and the fight against racism. However, the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s too often elevated white voices to the exclusion of Black women. Even as white women saw marginal gains in political representation, progress for Black women has been infuriatingly slow.
Our elected leaders remain overwhelmingly white and male—meaning Black women political candidates are battling the status quo on two fronts.
Despite making up 7.7 percent of the total U.S. population, and 15.3 percent of American women, Black women are vastly underrepresented in elected office. Historically, only two Black women have ever served in the U.S. Senate: Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, elected in 1992; and current Vice President Kamala Harris, who was sworn in as a California senator in 2017. The current number of Black women in the Senate is zero. No Black woman has ever served as governor of a U.S. state.
Our research has shown that a multitude of barriers conspire against Black women’s political ambitions. Black women candidates have less funding than other candidates because of racial disparities in income and generational wealth. Thus, fundraising and supporting partisan leaders is crucial to their success. Yet party leadership often wants to throw their money behind a less politically “risky” candidate, further entrenching the state of affairs. While fundraisers may be willing to back a Black candidate or a woman, supporting a candidate who is both is seen as too great a political risk.
These biases are exacerbated by a winner-takes-all electoral system. In districts where each party must whittle down the options to a single candidate, the more historically proven candidate is more likely to be chosen. Thus changes in demographics, or even in the preferences of the electorate, fail to be reflected in the faces of our political leaders.
Even as white women saw marginal gains in political representation, progress for Black women has been infuriatingly slow.
We also know how crucial representation is to building a new generation of leaders. When Black girls see Black women in leadership roles, their ability to see themselves in those roles is solidified. It can be much more difficult to recruit young candidates and build those ambitions when there are fewer examples to follow.
Black women candidates for elected office must fight bias on multiple fronts, not just at the ballot box, but all along the way to get there. In the face of these barriers, we cannot wait for incremental change. As intersectional feminists, we have a responsibility to dismantle the barriers to a truly representative democracy.
Political action committees and party leadership must commit to backing Black women candidates. Nothing will change if the big money only flows to candidates who perpetuate the status quo.
There are structural changes that can help remove these barriers as well.
- Paying state legislators a living wage would allow for a significantly wider and more diverse candidate pool. This, in turn, would help Black women serving in their state legislatures a chance to build the political experience needed to prove themselves as candidates for higher levels of office.
- Term limits are another reform that can help improve representation for women of color.
- Moving to the use of ranked-choice voting for primaries and general elections is another proven reform that can increase Black women’s political representation. Ranked-choice voting elections are less divisive, eliminate “vote splitting” and reduce bias in candidate selection. (In the 2021 New York City council race, we saw how the use of ranked-choice voting in conjunction with candidate training programs resulted in a council that was 61 percent women, the majority of whom were women of color.)
The abolition of slavery in the United States was only the first step in Black women’s liberation. As a country determined to rise above the tyranny and oppression of our past, we must be committed to removing the remaining vestiges of injustice and inequality, in our society and in our political system. The best way to commemorate Juneteenth? Donate to a Black woman candidate.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.