Opinion

Opinion: A Not Entirely Unexpected Campaign Roadblock for Women of Color

Will suburban white women embrace them?

Stacey Abrams takes the stage in Atlanta on Tuesday to declare victory in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary. If elected, she would become the first African-American female governor in the country. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The women of color who are still standing in an electoral slog that ends in November know their road to continued success will be hard. This is the United States, and the fact that they are still pioneers for getting this far in 2018 is not just news-making but also a little depressing.

It is also true that they can’t always count on the support of some of the same feminists they may have joined — in marches, #MeToo protests and the ballot box.

Will these candidates gain the support of white women, a majority of whom voted for Roy Moore in Alabama and Donald Trump in 2016? (I remember when white women across the country — including my gym partner — exclaimed, “We did it” after that December Alabama Senate race,  conveniently setting aside the longtime and long-term activism of African-American women who accounted for Doug Jones’ slim victory over Moore, accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers.)

Will the white suburban women voters who polls say are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the actions and attitudes of the president turn to the alternative, if the candidate promoting alternative policies is a woman of color?

Not so close?

The concept of togetherness among women, even in the feminist movement, has always been a bit strained, with occasional public flare-ups.

In her quest to capture the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, counting on the same coalition that would elect Barack Obama in 2008, Rep. Shirley Chisholm had experience in national and New York state politics. She was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968 and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

But in stepping out of line to run (and when has waiting for their turn ever panned out for black women?), she earned some personal support but little institutional backing from the female and African-American organizations who looked for someone more “electable,” such as that year’s eventual Democratic candidate, George McGovern.

Unbought and unbossed” was Chisholm’s slogan, and she has been honored as something of a secular patron saint by Higher Heights for America, a national organization that focuses on mobilizing and elevating the voices of black women across the country. The group isn’t waiting for allies to come to the rescue, and it will have opportunities this fall to change a narrative that has sought to portray black women as diligent workers but not quite ready to lead.

On Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams decisively won the Democratic primary and the chance to become the nation’s first African-American female governor of Georgia — or any state, something to think about for those in the North, East and West who would point to the South as being uniquely recalcitrant.

Before the race, Glynda Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founders of Higher Heights, which supported Abrams, wrote that in November, “Abrams and hundreds of other Black women running for office across the country will face off against their opponents for local, state and national offices. Many of these women exemplify the kind of promising, proven leadership that progressives say they want. But if we refuse to challenge and correct damaging, false narratives about Black women’s leadership abilities — and records — we will ultimately deprive our towns, cities, states and country of the elected officials who are most connected, committed and able to address the inequities and divisions chipping away at our democracy.”

Taken for granted

Democratic African-American women lawmakers and leaders last year called out their own DNC chair, Tom Perez, for taking their efforts for granted. They pointed out the success, in every region of the country, of women of color who refused to wait for permission, who recognized that you can’t win if you’re not playing.  

Of course, any voter, male or female, is free to disagree with the policy of any candidate and vote accordingly. This is not an argument for checking identity boxes. But often, constituencies that would seem to have much in common fail to come together for reasons that are vague at best and can veer into offensive stereotypes.

Strategist, consultant and advocate Atima Omara has written about her election as the first black president of the Young Democrats of America, the youth arm of the Democratic National Committee, after traveling the country and building a winning multiracial coalition.

But when she announced her candidacy, she wrote, “I was accused by many within the organization who formerly lauded my organizing and fundraising work of all of a sudden being ‘difficult to work with.’ … There were comments about my clothes, my hair, and the way I spoke. I wasn’t the favorite to win, even though I had served faithfully and the longest within the organization. It was hard, extremely painful at times and lonely. However, it is a story I hear often — across the political spectrum — from women of color who seek leadership roles that have never been held by us before.”

Republicans, bolstered by party members’ solid support for President Donald Trump, are coalescing around candidates who support him. Except for swing districts, where many incumbents are choosing to step away, allegiance to Trump is the litmus test.

Democrats, traditionally more difficult to corral, have seen the primary success of candidates who would present a definite change in Congress and the states. They are as varied as former fighter pilot Amy McGrath in Kentucky, nonprofit director Kara Eastman in Nebraska and former state legislator Linda Coleman, an African-American competing in a predominantly white, suburban North Carolina district.

The only chance for Democratic success in admittedly uphill races in November will be if groups that don’t always share trust across difference find unity in purpose and policy.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc.

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