In late April, more than 200 Black women sent a letter to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, urging him to select a Black woman as a running mate for 2020. I was one of the organizers and signers of the letter. It has been clear for some time that Black women are not only the key to a Democratic victory in November, we are also the leaders that the party, and this country, so desperately need.
Biden has already committed to choosing a woman as his vice-president. And as his team vets potential picks, political pundits, journalists and a sizeable segment of the American public question if a winning ticket could include a Black woman. Possible running mates include Senator Kamala Harris, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, United States Representatives Karen Bass, Val Demings, Marcia Fudge and former national security advisor Susan Rice. Each of these women are highly competent and capable and brings decades of experience in public service. The question is not if they are ready to lead, but if America will let them.
When women run for office, they often have to make the case that they can do the job since men hold the majority of elected positions at local, state and federal levels. For Black women, the bar is much higher. They must also show that they can win with white voters in non-Black districts. Black women candidates are subject to intense scrutiny, having to prove themselves “electable” and “qualified” in ways that their peers do not. No matter how many degrees earned, years of experience or time held in office, there are still people who are unable or unwilling to recognize the capacity of Black women to be effective leaders.
Black women are recognized as a key voting bloc within the Democratic Party. But it’s a mistake to take for granted how Black women candidates have widespread appeal to a diverse coalition of voters. In 2018, the Higher Heights Leadership Fund partnered with The Brookings Institution to analyze the variables associated with the elections of Black women across the country. We found that recent mayoral victories in some of the most populous cities in America as well as unexpected wins in that year’s primaries, show that Black women are, in fact, viable in districts that were traditionally out of reach. This includes the election of London Breed as the first Black female mayor of San Francisco; Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; and Lauren Underwood, who won the race for Illinois’ 14th U.S. Congressional seat, in a majority-white district. Underwood not only beat six white male candidates in the primary, she also became the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress.
In 2018, Stacey Abrams became the first Black woman in America to win a gubernatorial nomination by a political party. She also turned out more voters of color in that race than in the 2016 presidential election. Still, Abrams as a potential candidate for the vice-presidency has evoked dismissal and hostility by those who are offended by her confidence. She has not been shy about her ability to do the job or her desire to lead. “As a young Black girl growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if I didn’t speak up for myself, no one else would,” she said in a recent interview on Meet the Press. In presenting herself as her own advocate, Abrams has challenged our biases about leadership. Men do this all the time—stepping up to lead even when they don’t have the necessary experience. But society is uneasy when Black women know their worth and unapologetically go for what they want. Discomfort with our ambitions presents yet another barrier to being elected to office. If Black women don’t advocate for themselves, who will?
As we approach the presidential election in November, the stakes could not be higher. Our country has greatly suffered under its current leadership and we are in crisis. Black women cannot afford to simply “Vote Blue, No Matter Who.” We demand a return on our voting investment in the form of policies that directly center Black women, our families and communities and we are claiming our seats at decision making tables. Democrats need to do more than convince swing voters and energize their loyal base to win. They must also recognize the capacity of Black women to govern. There is a disconnect between relying on Black women to turn out the vote but not engaging and supporting us as candidates. We refuse to accept leading from the back of the bus. We have proven that we can win, even the most challenging of races. America, are you ready to follow our lead?
Glynda C. Carr is President and CEO of Higher Heights, the only national organization providing Black women with a political home exclusively dedicated to harnessing their power to expand Black women’s elected representation and voting participation, and advance progressive policies.