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Glynda C. Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen are cofounders of Higher Heights for America, a New York–based national organization that works to build political power for Black women.
On Monday, September 10, in the nation’s capital, Higher Heights and the Brookings Institution—a nonprofit policy think tank—unveiled a major new report: Claiming Seats at the Table: Black Women’s Electoral Strength in an era of Fractured Politics.
The event featured a panel including Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh, Virginia delegate Marcia S. Price and Running Start cochair Tasha Cole, as well as an analysis from report author Andre M. Perry, Ph.D., a fellow at Brookings.
ESSENCE caught up with Carr to glean insight on the report and what implications it may have for Black women voters before November’s midterm elections and beyond. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the overarching theme of this report and why is it timely?
GLYNDA C. CARR: The concentration of Black residents in a district is positively correlated with Black women’s electoral success. In 2014, there was only one Black woman elected mayor of a top 100 largest city, and now there are currently seven Black women who have been elected.
However, recent victories of Black women in the top 100 largest cities suggest that race is becoming a less prominent factor in what a growing segment of voters consider when evaluating candidates. Black women candidates are winning in districts with significantly different demographics than typical of majority-Black districts. These changes suggest an increasing number of routes Black women can take to get elected.
ESSENCE.COM: Can you cite some examples?
G.C.: Lauren Underwood [won the primary] and is running for Congress in a suburban district outside of Chicago. This district is only 3 percent Black. Lucy McBath [won the primary] for Congress in a Georgia district that is 60 percent White, 15 percent Black, 11 percent Asian and 12 percent Hispanic. Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman serves a New Jersey district that is 75 percent White and 11.7 percent Black.
ESSENCE.COM: What are other key takeaways of the report? How does it relate overall to the body of knowledge about the electorate and Black women voters?
G.C.: States with the highest percentages of Black residents offer the greatest opportunities for Black women to be elected across the state and in minority-Black districts.
The South has a great opportunity for Black women’s leadership. Georgia, where Stacey Abrams is running for governor, and Alabama are examples. In 2018, Alabama saw a record number of Black women running in the primary.
ESSENCE.COM: What about outside the South?
G.C.: Ayanna Pressley bested a long-term incumbent to win the the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District primary.
These candidacies create a role model effect that will inspire the next cohort of Black women to consider running for office or higher office, and prompt them to consider offices previously believed to be out of reach.
ESSENCE.COM: Higher Heights has previously released reports with author Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D., at the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. They include The Status of Black Women in American Politics (2014, 2015 and an update in 2017) and The Chisholm Effect: Black Women in American Politics 2018. How does the new report build on that?
G.C.: This newly analyzed data can be combined with recent anecdotal lessons to gain a clearer understanding of the unique challenges that Black women face when running for public office; the kind of encouragements that moves them to declare their candidacies; and the resources that enable them to run, win and lead.
Despite being virtually tied with White women for the highest rates of voter registration and turnout, Black women are less likely to be encouraged and more likely to be discouraged from running for offices than their White counterparts or Black men. Moreover, when Black women run for office, they are less likely to receive the early dollars and early endorsements that often position candidates to mount successful campaigns. Finally, despite a deep well of successful grassroots and political activism, Black women are often challenged to find the type of culturally relevant candidate training that can help them translate their experience into effective campaign strategies.
ESSENCE.COM: Higher Heights and several other organizations have been working to build a pipeline of Black women who are prepared to run for office. What lessons have emerged?
G.C.: A multiyear investment in a comprehensive recruitment and training strategy can build on recent gains to expand a pipeline of Black women ready to run, win and lead on the federal, state and local levels.
We can create an environment for stakeholders, donors and political institutions to lend critical early support by driving the narrative that Black women are viable political representatives and that there are broader pathways to victory for them than previously envisioned.
Grassroots activism around issues such as education, economic opportunities, the environment and safe and healthy communities are ripe recruiting grounds for Black women political candidates. An active network of Black women, allied supporters and advisers is key to a successful campaign for Black women candidates, particularly early on.
ESSENCE.COM: Any additional thoughts to share ahead of the November midterm elections?
G.C.: This November, Black women are poised to build on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of her historic election to Congress as the first Black women to serve in the House of Representatives. This year, if successful, Black women will see gains at all levels. We can elect the first African-American woman governor in our country’s 200-plus-year history and the largest number of Black women to serve in Congress.
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