Editor’s Note: This installment will conclude our three-part series that considers the extensive impact of Black women on politics in the United States. Stay tuned in for legislative coverage at the state level from our monthly column, Under the Dome.
Representation Matters “Representation matters” has become a way to dismiss underrepresented people while pretending to acknowledge them. Yet, representation does matter, especially in the halls of power. One follows the other. The more people are represented in the room where decisions are made, the more likely their interpretations will be varied because their lives will not be conscripted to the rigid desires of institutionalized oppression.
Representation was important when the country was wrenched from the hands of its indigenous peoples; again, with every broken treaty; again, with the advent and aftermath of slavery; again, with the discrimination and segregation of successive immigrant communities; again, with suffrage; and again, again and again. In a culture whose foundation is the supremacy of whiteness, maleness, upper-class membership, xenophobia, and homophobia, the society that rests upon this foundation builds structures that are predicated upon these stated “isms.” Meanwhile, people who do not fall into these standardized categories still exist.
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” chronicles one of the most vivid depictions of a marginalized life in the United States. The novel is striking because it brings to life identifiable experiences of real people while depicting the basic contradiction of a supremacist nation—the necessary presence of the marginalized; for without the subordinated, that nation cannot exist. The difficulty for those who would be supremacists, is people who have been dehumanized by the system are not inhuman or subhuman. The oft-forgotten variable in the equation of oppression is that it lulls its architects into a state of smug complacency, which eventually leads to a belief system that has little knowledge of the realities of the people it oppresses. While a percentage of the population creates barriers to keep the marginalized out, those very people start to wonder about their exclusion, question it, demand a place in it and, finally take their places. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, famously said,
“If they don’t invite you to the table, bring a folding chair.”
Her advice is both sage and instructive.
If you don’t see yourself represented, make your presence known. In “Women and Corruption: What Positions Must They Hold to Make a Difference,” a 2018 study by Chandan Kumar Jha and Sudipta Sarang, the authors discovered women politicians put forth and support policies closely aligned to the welfare of women, children and family. While this may not be true for every woman who enters politics, it certainly follows the widespread patterns of gendered socialization in most patriarchal societies that place women as primarily responsible for social relationships. Additionally, the role of Black motherhood has been highlighted by the recent election of Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, murdered by a white man because the car in which he was riding played its music too loudly. As one of The Mothers of the Movement, she has highlighted the role of the National Rifle Association in the violence against Black people, especially young Black men, and has taken her platform to the floor of the House in January 2019.
Head of the Class I am a politics professor, specifically, a political sociologist who views social and political structures from the perspective of one who understands complex structures. This country has come to its current moment in ways both simple and complex. In this, the final of a series from me about the role of politics in the lives of Black women and girls, I hit a mental roadblock. I love the study of group behavior, specifically politics, but am often reminded of the ways in which our systems of governance are based on more than just the cameral (i.e., judicial or legislative) systems we construct. Those are all byproducts of existing cultural beliefs and practices.
When I teach American Politics, I am continually awed by the care with which the Founding Owners constructed the government of this nation as it became sovereign, but I never lose sight of the realities inherent in their work. Audre Lorde’s quote about the master’s tools never dismantling the master’s house is rarely far from my mind. And since the mid-terms, I am slightly stuck trying to answer the question: “What difference will this change in government make in the lives of Black women and girls?” It is a legitimate and potentially vexing question. Lorde’s statement reverberates. It tolls. It rings as clearly and as loudly as the metaphorical bells of freedom. What then to say? The framers of the founding documents did not mean “freedom and equality” for all. One does not have to conduct a deep dive into history to know that their definitions of humanity did not extend beyond wealthy white men.
As I write this, I am watching the convening of the 116th Congress. In the well of Congress, there now sit 437 representatives. (As of this writing, the representative from the 9th district of North Carolina has not been seated due to a serious allegation of election fraud). As representatives filed in and the cameras panned the room, the contrast was striking. The Democratic side of the room is visibly diverse. The Guardian reports “the proportion of white men within the Democratic caucus is set to drop from 41 percent to 38 percent, while the same percentage is set to rise among Republicans from 86 percent to 90 percent.” The Republican side of the room is decidedly not diverse. As the legislators sit to take the roll call vote for the Speaker of the House and Minority Whip, the contrast becomes even greater. Representative Hakeem Jefferies enthusiastically introduced Rep. Nancy D. Pelosi (D) with a short rousing speech highlighting the importance of her work, with a healthy focus on the work of the body for all the people of the United States. Rep. Liz Cheney (R) introduced Rep. Kevin McCarthy by issuing a line that garnered the applause of, literally, two people, and talked of building a wall. It occurs to me that the answer to the question, “What then, to say?” is this: It’s too late. You already wrote that sh-- down.
The Founding Owners could never have conceived of the United States that now exists. This likely true conjecture is a constant topic of discussion in the halls of power and among policymakers. With every new cultural shift and sociopolitical movement, the inevitable refrain begins anew surrounding the justification for and development of new norms, ideologies, and policies. In the heady excitement of days filled with white men’s thoughts of independence from the empire, exploration of new frontiers of lands that already had people residing on them, and the luxury to write new systems of governance into existence–predicated upon documents that had already been written–these men launched their ideas into a society of people who came to these shores to take freedom away from those already here and to live lives based on the knowledge that their way was, in fact, superior to all others. They knew the life they imagined and came to build would remain. They understood the superior nature of their construct would ensure this legacy. And now, in January 2019, we find that of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 102 are women. Democrats hold 89 of those seats; Republicans hold 13, and four women hold seats as delegates. Of these numbers, 43 representatives are women of color. In the Senate, four senators are women of color. In addition, a Black woman, a Latina, an Asian Pacific Islander, and a Caribbean American woman serve as Delegates to the House from Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands, respectively.
Mission Impossible: Reneging For just a moment, strip the obvious issues with the Founding Owners. Their work constitutes a symphony of white male patriarchal art. The existential madness it takes to construct a system in which the underlying predicate is that your group—and only your group—will remain in power for as long as power exists is, indeed, a form of delusion. For power cannot kill all the threats to it, though many people wielding the tool have tried. Their overarching goal was to create a system that delays the ascent of tyranny, based upon law and honor, with the promise of compromise. (That isn’t irony that you’re sensing. It’s hypocrisy. The two are different.) In doing so, they conceived of the current representative system, in elected citizens, and created three branches of government, with different powers that would act as a check on each other, with the consent of the governed. The people.
To recap, Black women (or most anyone else) were not “the people” for a very long time, and the anachronism that is the Electoral College is an institutionalized relic of The Framers’ belief of their inherent superiority. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965that most people were granted the right to the franchise; however, the system of governance that was created is a masterful work of governmental, philosophical, and foundational thought. The fact that it was meant to serve no one but the “masters” can now be secondary, for when more people are represented, as they are now coming to be, the system begins to work for a broader range of people.
For the first time in a very long time, Black women and girls can see the potential benefits of a political/governing system that represents our needs. And when the view of representation expands to the state and local level, the pattern of the November 2018 elections broadens the trend of positive representation in the halls of power. This is both in spite of, and because of a system designed for rich white men in a time when there are fewer and fewer of them in the ranks of the population. This testament to the endurance of the bones of the structure that they created may just give us the tools of change.
In the jargon of politics, this is called “No take backsies.”
Now that power is beginning to be diversified in ways that reflect the population of the country, and with an eye toward repairing injustice and creating justice, the system the Founding Owners created is poised to begin to work for Black women and girls.
National Crittenton outlined some concrete ways in which elections can impact the lives of Black girls. In a far-ranging exposition, the Foundation lists ways policy can be directly affected by the very people I watched be sworn into office at the Congressional level, as well as the myriad people across the country who have been seated this week in state houses, senates, mayoral offices, city councils, boards of education, and governorships. The participation of women of color, but especially Black women, can do more than what one Black man in the presidency could do. They can make change. Our systems of governance do not rely upon the individual; it relies upon the collective, as do the communities of Black women. Today, perhaps more than at any other time, there is a real possibility that long term change can occur in the lives of Black girls; for the first time in the nation’s history, it looks as if it could really be a nation meant for all of us.
No take backsies.