Black American women currently have more political power than ever in the history of this country. We’ve seen the first Black female Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson and sworn in the first Black and Asian American female Vice President, Kamala Harris. There are 28 Black women in congressional seats that “We the People” elected, a record high.
It’s a number that impresses Singleton McAllister, an attorney who has practiced government relations and public policy law for more than 20 years, serving in numerous positions in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I’d say we’ve come very far. Let’s consider the history made last month when Jennifer McClellan, a former Virginia state senator, was sworn in to become the first Black woman to represent the former capital of the Confederacy in Congress,” McAllister shares.
“McClellan joining the 27 other female members of the Congressional Black Caucus is the result of a growing move toward increased diversity, in particular a rise in the number of young and female voters. These changes have even prompted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to recruit more women and people of color to his ranks.”
While it is absolutely important to acknowledge and celebrate the progress we have made toward equal and fair representation for Black women in American politics, we can also recognize that there are still vast pitfalls and inequalities in our political systems. Once Kamala Harris assumed higher office, there was no longer a single Black woman in the Senate. And no Black woman has ever been the governor of a U.S. state. “Congress members are still far more likely than the overall U.S. population to be white, a percentage that has not really changed since 1981,” McAllister reports to EBONY.
Holding these dual truths in mind: record-breaking representation in what is still an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated space, it is clear that we have work to do to break these all too familiar barriers down.
During Justice Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings in March 2022, she faced a blitz of bewildering and aggressive questioning from Republican senators like Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn and Lindsey Graham. Cruz asked her if she agreed with Ibram X. Kendi's Antiracist Baby and if babies are racist.” Deciding whether a book teaches children Critical Race Theory, a legal theory dissected in law schools, is not her job. Blackburn asked Justice Brown Jackson to provide a definition for the word "woman," the job of a biologist, not for someone about to sit on the nation’s highest court. Graham, who did end up voting to confirm Brown Jackson, stormed out after a heated exchange with New York State senator Chuck Schumer over one of Brown Jackson’s answers about representation as a value of the constitution.
Earlier this year, Lori Lightfoot became the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose a reelection bid. A spike in crime in Chicago and Lightfoot’s clashes with labor unions and Chicago Teachers Union did not help her keep a stronger voting base, as well as facing significant competition from six other Black candidates for the Black vote. Obviously, Chicagoans didn’t explicitly choose not to vote for Lightfoot because she is a Black woman, but it’s undeniable that she’s held to higher and stricter standards by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I see this as the practice of bringing in Black women to handle situations more likely to be in crisis than others,” McAllister explains. “Known as a glass cliff—or perhaps what I would call being asked to jump without a parachute—Black women are expected to come in to fix challenging problems or manage high-pressure situations where missteps could result in harsh penalties not experienced by their white peers. So while the opportunity may be well-deserved, the stakes are huge. If things don’t go right, it could mean another Black woman won’t be considered for such a role in the future, which is very unlikely the outcome for a white man put in a similar situation.”
Michelle Obama, who was never a politician, was routinely accosted in the media for completely arbitrary and harmless “offenses.” She was constantly criticized for how she looked and dressed, or for how she was “disrespecting” America by daring to go on a date with her presidential husband. Vice President Kamala Harris reportedly feels “stifled from feeling like an outsider in D.C.” An attack ad directed at Stacey Abrams darkened her skin. These are just three prominent examples of the struggles Black women are facing in the American political scene.
Despite the fact we still have a long way to go before Black women achieve true political equality, we have also come incredibly far. Black women were effectively disenfranchised until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, less than 60 years ago. Across the nation, more Black women than ever before are running for local and state government positions, as well as national positions of political office.
“We must remain steadfast in our commitment for greater representation at the local, state and national levels, advocating for an ability to shape policies based on a set of life experiences that are as diverse as its population,” McAllister emphasizes.
As Black women wield more political power than we ever before, to forward progress toward equality, we must continue to vote for and elect Black women in local and national offices and encourage, support and uplift Black leaders in our respective communities. It’s important to follow and empower people like Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, or Imani Barbarin, a Black disabled woman who uses her platforms on social media to advocate for differently abled people and to share her experiences that shed light on everyday inequalities and injustices.
“Ensuring that young, ambitious women can see themselves in their leaders will help move the needle,” McAllister concurs. “As the Vice Chair of the National Women’s History Museum, I am proud that we will be able to bring to life some of these Black female trailblazers at the new exhibit in Washington, D.C, We Who Believe in Freedom: Black Feminist DC. By showcasing their contributions to women’s history through political activism, we can help reverse the alienation and under-representation experienced by younger women. I also think a shift in how we think about who we are as a group is important. We are not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all box that must be checked. We bring a set of skills, perspectives and experiences that are as diverse as any, and those assets should matter just as much as anyone else’s, regardless of gender or race.”
By doing something as small as investing more of our time and attention in Black activists, leaders and politicians and in what they’re advocating for, we continue to make steps toward an equal future.