When Georgia State House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams—a Black woman—recently declared her gubernatorial run, news agencies rightly noted that her candidacy holds the potential to shatter one of America’s still-countless glass ceilings.
But Abrams’ campaign is momentous in other ways that could have even greater, more long-term effects on the political landscape.
Abrams’ candidacy gifts the Democratic infrastructure with a clear opportunity to invest in its under-appreciated and under-supported backbone: Black women. It also offers Black women voters a high-profile vehicle for demonstrating that the organizing and voter mobilization employed to elect Barack Obama to two presidential terms and send a historic number of Black women into political offices in 2016, even as other Democrats failed, was not an intangible confluence of circumstances.
Decades of data confirm that Black women are the Democratic Party’s most committed, reliable base. And yet, as a recent open letter to Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez so aptly detailed, the Democratic infrastructure has failed time and again to invest in the very people who are the party’s future. Despite this continued stifling of Black female leadership and an unwillingness to invest in sustained engagement of black women voters, Black women candidates claimed some important political victories on the national, state and local levels this past November.
The current Congress has the largest number of Black women ever serving in the House of Representatives, and in the U.S. Senate, California’s Kamala Harris became the first Black woman to be elected in 20 years. There are also more Black women seated in state legislatures: 266 compared to 256 at the end of 2015.
If Black women candidates and voters can accomplish all this with so little formal support, imagine what’s possible for progressive leadership gains if Black women like Abrams and others are given the right support over the next four years.
While diversity itself is a legitimate goal of any inclusive democracy, the importance of Black women leadership goes well beyond browning up the halls of political power. History shows that when Black women win, they usher in policies and laws that uplift communities and create pathways to success for those who are ambitious and capable, but often under resourced or discounted. It was, for example, Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee, both of California, who paved the way for academically accomplished, low-income students to go to Cuba for medical school and return to the U.S. to provide care to underserved communities.
It was Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin who stood up on the House floor in 2011 to successfully oppose then Congressman Mike Pence’s bill to defund Planned Parenthood. It was Orlando, Fla., State Attorney Aramis Ayala who recently took the bold stance of refusing to pursue the death penalty in any of her cases because of its disproportionate, often unfair, use when defendants are people of color or poor. And it was New York City Public Advocate Letitia James who struck a blow for pay equity by sponsoring the bill that became a recently signed law prohibiting employers from asking prospective hires about their salary histories.
This is the kind of engaged, responsive leadership typified by Black women, and it points to a clear path forward for our country: one that can help lift us out of the ‘sunken place’ of politics if we commit to supporting their leadership and political engagement.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Americans are stuck for the next three-plus years with White House leadership that is regressive and dysfunctional. But, we have opportunities between now and 2020 to begin turning the tide on the perilous policies we see coming out of Washington as well as some state and local legislatures.
Increasing the number of Black women in elected office will be critical to this effort. Abrams’ run to replace outgoing Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is just one of those opportunities. This year, voters in several major cities will have viable Black-women candidates running for mayor. They include Cincinnati’s Yvette Simpson, who in early May beat the incumbent mayor by 11 points in the open primary, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Charlotte’s Vi Lyles and New Orleans’ LaToya Cantrell. Their wins could help create a powerful progressive coalition among the nations’ top-city mayors. Currently, only five Black women serve as mayors of America’s 100 largest cities. There is also growing speculation that Sen. Kamala Harris—who is quickly becoming a rock star of the Democratic Party—will be among those vying for highest office when the 2020 presidential campaign heats up.
If history has taught us anything, however, it is that Black women who run for office do so in the face of odds that far outweigh their White female counterparts and male counterparts of any color. A 2015 report from our organization—Higher Heights—and the Center for American Women and Politics found that Black women are less often encouraged and more often discouraged from running for office than are men and White women. They also tend to represent less-affluent districts and constituents, making it more challenging for them to raise the money needed to mount sustainable political campaigns in this age of multi-million dollar politicking. As result, even when they are clearly the most qualified candidates, Black women often lose due to lack of resources. We saw a painful illustration of this during the recent mayoral election in St. Louis, Mo., when Tishaura Jones lost her bid by just 888 votes.
If progressives want to realize a stronger country and democracy, they must invest in Black women’s political leadership and support them in mounting successful runs from city councils to mayors’ offices, state legislatures to governors’ chambers, and Congress to the Oval Office.
So, what does this support look like? It looks like institutions, philanthropists and folks capable of small and modest donations funding programs that prepare Black women to run for office. It is PACs and super PACs and individuals donors committing to providing Black women candidates with early resources and endorsements so they have a fighting chance at winning. It is Black women activating the collective economic and organizing power of our networks to support these candidates. Research shows that Black households donate a larger percentage of their income than do other ethnic groups, so its not a question of whether Black folks give to causes that matter, it’s a question of whether and how they are engaged.
Leading into 2020, our collective work must be fully focused on building an active, national network of Black women, their allies and institutional partners so that we can activate the dollars and boots-on-ground needed to create an environment where Black women run and win—and where America wins. We have to create the leaders we want, and there is no more promising investment toward this end than Black women.
Glynda Carr & Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founders of Higher Heights, are building a national infrastructure to harness Black women’s political power and leadership potential. Headquartered in New York, NY, Higher Heights for America, a national 501(c)(4) organization and its sister organization Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, is investing in a long-term strategy to analyze, expand and support a Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthen their civic participation beyond just Election Day.