Black Women Take Their Rightful Place in the Halls of Congress

From the moment they entered the political sphere in the US, politicians of color and female politicians — many of whom were barred from formal entrance in the political sphere — have been marginalized by white men because of their race, their gender, or their religious beliefs.

This past week was no exception. On May 13, President Donald Trump lambasted Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American Congresswoman from Detroit, for her recent comments on the Holocaust. Earlier this year, Trump lodged a Twitter missive against Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, the first Black Muslim woman elected to Congress, which resulted in countless death threats against her. While it is tempting — and convenient for the Democratic party — to think these attacks began with Trump, a closer look at US history shows that politicians of color, and in particular female politicians of color, are routinely questioned by the right and the left about their opinions, tactics, and loyalty to America.

Consider the case of Shirley Chisholm, who became the first Black woman elected to the US Congress in 1968. When she launched her bid for the presidency in 1972, white writer Norman Mailer called her campaign “quixotic” and quoted an unnamed politician who accused her of “ego tripping.” An editorial in the Chicago Daily Defender, a prominent Black newspaper, went so far as to suggest that Chisholm was peddling in “vaginal politics.” But Chisholm knew that running for office as an unapologetic Black woman would change America’s conversation on race and constitute a victory in and of itself.

Now, finally, Chisholm is receiving the credit she deserves, with a memorial scheduled to open in her honor next year in Brooklyn. But how much progress has really been made in creating a political climate that ensures women of color in politics are not patrolled and stigmatized the way Chisholm was? From 2009 to 2011, I served as the lead foreign policy staffer for Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African American representative from Minnesota.

During my time on the Hill, I observed how Black elected officials were seen as irresponsible, lazy, or naïve by many of their white counterparts.

This was particularly true regarding foreign policy issues, where Black politicians were unfairly accused of being against America any time their views challenged the official view.

In 2001, legendary Bay Area Black Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the lone vote against the use of force authorization post-9/11. Following her vote, Lee’s office was flooded with hate mail. The Wall Street Journal called her “anti-American;” The Washington Times insinuated that she was more loyal to Fidel Castro than to the US government. Much of the coverage of her was patronizing, suggesting Lee had no idea what she was thinking.

But Lee’s experience is not an outlier. This problem is deeper than most realize. According to a 2003 study by Mary Hawkesworth, a political scientist at Rutgers University, “the longer Black women have served in office and the more powerful positions they hold within legislation, the stronger are their feelings of exclusion.” Female politicians of color can also experience negativity from within their own party and from men of color. Chisholm, for example, faced backlash from Black male politicians; Lee, who once served as a staffer for Chisholm, remarked in 2017 about how Democratic leaders often look the other way or even go after women of color politicians when they are being pilloried. Lee said, “Sometimes some of the guys try to take on women of color when they wouldn’t take on their own peers.”

One person who is acutely aware of this is Omar. After she tweeted about Israel — tweets which she later apologized for — Democrats passed a resolution that censored her. There are obvious racial and gender undertones in the way in which Omar is treated, with the insinuation that she is an irrational, angry Black woman. And yet when some white people discuss Muslim public officials like Omar, they’re often stripped of their racial and gender identity to focus on their faith exclusively. But Omar is acutely aware of US history and how Black women show up for each other when others run away. Black women stood up for Shirley Chisholm, and 100 Black women came to Omar’s defense at a time when some immigrant Muslim American leaders threw her under the bus. In interviews, Omar frequently speaks out about being a Black woman, but reporters often de-emphasize this point, as if a Muslim in America cannot also have a racial or ethnic background. I witnessed this when I worked for Ellison, who often spoke about his struggles as a Black man in Minneapolis. Reporters would routinely ignore him and instead ask, “But what is it like to be Muslim?”

Despite this, there is a silver lining. We are witnessing a remarkable moment in which politicians of color, and in particular women of color politicians, are pushing back with greater force and effectiveness than ever before.

I believe two things have changed to bring us to this moment. First, social media has created opportunities for women of color politicians to bypass white reporters, many of whom have historically been dismissive and condescending of their ambitions and ideas. California Senator Kamala Harris, for example, uses social media to note her racialized and gendered treatment, including the many times white male colleagues talk over or interrupt her in the Senate.

Second, last year’s midterm elections brought into office a record number of women of color (including Omar, Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), and many others). These politicians boldly stand against racism and misogyny, and stand up for each other using their large Twitter and Instagram platforms to offer support — and to fend off attacks from both Republicans and Democrats. Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might try to trivialize their influence, but these politicians continue to amass followers and campaign donors.

As we head into the 2020 elections, these female politicians of color are not only influencing the national agenda but are, in fact, driving it. Politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Georgia state Representative Stacey Abrams are among the most sought-after presidential endorsements. This is their moment in US history, and they do not care, rightfully so, what white people, or men, make of their continuing ascent.

About the Author

Zahir Janmohamed has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other publications. He previously worked as a senior foreign policy aide in the US Congress and as the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. He is now an MFA student in fiction at the University of Michigan.