Last month, Black women celebrated the historic ascendancy of Kamala D. Harris to the White House — only to be disappointed this week by the loss of crucial representation in another important body of government.
On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced his pick to fill the seat vacated by Harris, the only Black woman senator; he chose his secretary of state, Alex Padilla. Come Inauguration Day, the decision will have erased the representation of Black women in the U.S. Senate as whole.
Black women were a core force in bringing about change this election year, yet when the time came to show concrete appreciation beyond empty platitudes, we have been left still having to fight for representation. Before Harris’s 2017 election, Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, was the sole Black woman elected to the Senate — in 1993. It shouldn’t take decades for Black women to again have a seat at the table.
To be clear, Black women are not asking for a handout or charity when it comes to placing Black women in leadership. There were capable Black women Newsom could have chosen, such as Democratic Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee, two very accomplished House members, and a whole list of others. With this decision, instead, out of 100 members in the Senate, there will be 21 White women, three Latino men, one Latina, two Asian women and two Black men. There will be zero Black women.
To be a Black woman in the United States of America is to exist in a state of constant dualities. Progress and setback, triumph and defeat, celebration and disappointment — it’s a constant game of starts and stops for us. That’s because we exist in a system that oppresses us through both racism and sexism. Newsom’s decision is an exemplification of this. It is both disappointing and expected in a country that often expects Black women to show up and do the work, but also to “wait our turn” when we demand more power and leadership roles.
The recent historic electoral victory of more than 80 million voters rebuking Donald Trump’s administration had the benefit of a galvanized demographic of Black women. This is not exaggeration or a baseless sentiment. It was 91 percent of Black women who showed up in support of the Biden-Harris ticket. Black women, too, were crucial in the “blue wave” we saw in the 2018 midterms.
When Black women leaders are involved in a struggle, victories are often won. Black women have one of the highest rates of voter turnout. They have also historically been the most pro-union demographic group, fighting to boost living standards for all working people. As we have seen, when Black women are empowered, we all benefit.
Some will claim that Black women shouldn’t be upset with Newsom’s Senate pick — after all, another person of color was picked for the seat (Padilla is Latino). Others will say that it shouldn’t be about “identity politics” and that the seat should be filled with the most capable person. Both of these arguments are shortsighted.
There is no doubt that it will be a historic moment when Padilla takes the seat; he’ll be the first Latino senator from California. But why did that win have to come at the expense of Black women’s representation? The country has to ask itself why Black women, often one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups, are expected to give up their sole representation in our country’s highest legislative chamber. We also must grapple with is why there is an either-or situation when it comes to Black and Latino representation in the so-called progressive state of California — and the country as a whole. This comes back to the vilification of “identity politics” when it comes to winning true representation.
When we as Black women — or other marginalized groups — demand government bodies reflect our ever-changing population, we are often met with dismissive arguments that wanting such representation is meaningless. We are met with talk of meritocracy, that positions must be given on the basis of ability, not race or gender. Do we face a shortage of Black women and other marginalized persons possessing the required “merit”?
What we have seen, time and time again, is that the politics of this country are identified with the policy preferences of White men. And representation in government has followed. It would seem that the derision of identity politics only applies when people of color demand recognition
Despite this setback, there should be no doubt that Black women will continue to be on the front lines of the struggle for a better tomorrow for all peoples. History has shown us that much. But no longer will we be quiet when it comes to the disregard for our voices and our leadership. Our disappointment in the status quo carries on, but so too do our resilience in ourselves and our confidence in what we are capable of achieving.
We will make that evident in our continued organizing efforts and in the votes we cast. We are not the mules of the Democratic Party or anyone else.
Chauncey K. Robinson is an award-winning advocacy journalist and film critic.