Following the 2020 election, social media was brimming with hundreds of messages paying homage to Black women for their diligent work in delivering the White House for Democrats. Posts demanding that we thank Black women were retweeted thousands of times as people affirmed that Black women had once again saved democracy.
But in the wake of all the celebration and the recognition of Black women’s power as voters and organizers, it was difficult to reconcile that this familiar enthusiasm would once again fail to translate into greater representation for Black women in elected office. Last week, we saw this play out again when former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D) and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) lost their bids to be Virginia’s next governor.
Black women remain severely underrepresented at every level of government but particularly in executive positions like governor. While Kamala Harris made history in 2020 as the nation’s first woman vice president, in our nation’s 244-year history a Black woman has never served as governor. In fact, just 10 have ever served in a statewide office. Starting in 2018, when Stacey Abrams ran for governor in Georgia, to this year when Carroll Foy and McClellan gained incredible momentum in the country’s most high profile race, Black women have been stepping up to pave a way and finally make history. However, all this momentum has yet to result in a decisive win at the executive level. Instead, our ambition for such executive roles continues to be met with suspicion and downright incredulity.
The time has come for that to change but the burden should not be on Black women. The question is not whether Black women are qualified enough to hold the office of governor. It is whether we are willing to both abandon the structures that deem them “unfit” for executive office and build new systems of support and affirmation.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) frequently states that the people closest to the pain should be the ones shaping the policy. As Black women, we often live at the intersection of the greatest inequalities that exist in American society including racism, sexism and economic and political disenfranchisement. When we run for office, it’s because we recognize that people will continue to suffer unless new perspectives are represented at the table. Even before we declare our intent to run, many of us have already been active in our communities and led substantive movements for change. Despite this, the myth persists that not only can Black women not lead at the highest levels of politics, but also that they can only win in places where most of the voters look like them.
Black women are proven leaders who have, in many cases, helped fill a void in leadership. Last year, women like San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) set the pace for local governments’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was among the first elected officials to order life-saving protocols like stay-at-home orders. In response to the uprisings over the police killings of Black Americans, Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod (D) spearheaded efforts in the state legislature to expedite and pass an expansive police reform bill that would increase accountability. And in Massachusetts, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins directed her office to grant emergency protective orders to victims of domestic violence who had become trapped due to stay-at-home orders necessary to keep us safe from the spread of the virus.
Black women are also on the forefront of the ongoing fight to ensure that our country lives up to its democratic ideals. After losing her race in 2018, Abrams launched a new voting rights group Fair Fight Action to defeat the very forces that caused her to lose in the first place. She and dozens of Black women organizers across the South elevated the issue of voter suppression nationally and their efforts paid off. Georgia flipped blue for the first time in 30 years, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris won the White House and Democrats took control of the U.S. Senate. Black women have long been putting in the work and if that doesn’t make us qualified to lead, I’m not sure what does.
As we look towards the next election cycle, Black women across the country are already gearing up to run for key statewide offices including the U.S. Senate and that of governor. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is challenging incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and in North Carolina, former chief justice of the state supreme court, Cheri Beasley, has already announced her bid for senator.
Over the next year-and-a-half, 38 states will hold elections for governor and Black women are already starting to emerge as candidates to watch. There is already plenty of excitement for a possible comeback from Abrams in Georgia, and in South Carolina, state Sen. Mia McCleod (D) is making history as the first Black woman to seek the governorship there. The number of Black women on the ballot will likely exceed the record-breaking number who ran in 2020 so we have an opportunity and responsibility to set them up for success.
The Democratic Party only stands to gain more power and electoral influence if they make the necessary investments in Black women candidates. In regions of the country previously deemed unwinnable, like the South, states have become battlegrounds ripe for new leadership. Strategists even believe that by increasing the number of Black women on the ballot, these candidates can build key coalitions of voters to help the party win.
This country has long relied on the power of Black women to move it forward. Equal representation at every level of government is the least we deserve.
A’shanti F. Gholar is the president of Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women who want to run for office.