Fresh off the frays of the last U.S. presidential election, women of color in 2017 have been inspired to run for political office in unprecedented numbers. From Andrea Jenkins, a Black trans woman running for Minneapolis City Council, to biracial activist and lawyer Nikkita Oliver running to become mayor of Seattle, women of color are taking political matters into their own hands.
Women of color were also easily one of the more positive outcomes from the 2016 general election, with the amount of women of color in U.S. Senate quadrupling. The election of newcomers like Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth and Catherine Cortez-Masto is showing promise for a Congress more wholly representative of the American people. The 115th Congress to date is also the most racially diverse Congress in U.S. history.
Despite the new makeup of Congress and the boom in political participation in 2017, women of color in political office are still disproportionately underrepresented. Women of color make up only 7.1 percent of the current Congress, and only 5.9 percent of the current 7,383 state legislators in the nation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
America’s leaders aren’t truly representative of its constituents. Aside from being overwhelmingly male, 81 percent of the current Congress is composed of non-Hispanic White members, even though only 62 percent of Non-Hispanic White people make up the nation’s population.
The path to political office isn’t as simple as some may believe, especially for women of color. In fact, there are deep structural factors behind it. We’re facing a democratic institution that was built by white men, for white men, and the path to success in political office is often stifled.
Women of color are so often excluded from leadership roles or having a voice at the table—the political arena is no different. Finding a successful pathway to political office goes beyond “leaning in” or plowing ahead despite systems and biases already working against women of color. Instead, we need to break down the forces keeping these women from positions of power in politics in the first place.
The political establishment itself doesn’t exactly favor women of color. Essentially “political power brokers,” as the Center for American Progress calls them, these party leaders, donors, and advocacy groups decide who’s viable and safe enough to invest time and money in winning political seats. Women of color also might be viewed as a “risky” choice because of race and gender-based biases, becoming more prone to scrutiny in the public eye.
Women of color also might not have access to this political clout because of socioeconomic status, as they tend to represent less affluent areas than their White counterparts. Without the support of strong donor networks or power brokers, getting people to invest in the political ambitions of women of color becomes tricky. Research has shown that Black female congressional candidates tend to get disproportionately less in campaign contributions than white, male counterparts.
Another prominent barrier to entry is incumbent men in political office, who have a huge advantage in holding onto their seats. According to the American Progress report, 97 percent of the incumbents who ran for seats again in the general election ultimately won them, leaving little room for opportunity for newcomers like women of color.
Despite these barriers, women of color are staying resilient in the political sphere. Organizations across the nation are making it their mission to not only get women interested in running for office, but they’re also making sure they’re successful in doing so. Emily’s List is easily one of the largest financial resources for women of color seeking federal office.
A group based in New York called ‘Women of Color for Progress’ has also made it their mission to get women of color politically engaged and assure that they are elected to public offices in New York. The group is also aiming to work with office-holders to craft legislation and break down barriers preventing more women of color from entering public service.
Bringing women of color into the national conversation on life-changing legislation is paramount. We’re living in a time where our most fundamental rights are being put into question by lawmakers out of touch with their constituents. We need women of color in these spaces to assure that the voices of the marginalized across the nation aren’t being erased.