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Black Women Candidates Answer the Call for Change

Young Black girl in red coat laughing and walking in a crown with a white bullhorn

This post is the first in the new Gender, Race & Place in Minnesota series published by the Gender Policy Report, a project of the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy (CWGPP) at the University of Minnesota. The series will provide deeper context for the findings of the 2020 Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota report, a research collaboration between the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the CWGPP. The latest data show that while women of color have increased their presence in the Minnesota legislature and in Congress, they remain underrepresented relative to their proportion of the state’s population. Here, political scientists Nadia E. Brown and Camille D. Burge explore the electoral landscape for Black women candidates

Minnesota Black women are helping to bolster claims that this is the year of the Black woman candidate. Like their counterparts in other states, Black women in Minnesota are running for political office at higher than usual rates. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest continuously operated Black newspaper and longest-lived Black owned business in the state, reported that over 40 Black women were expected to file the candidacies for federal, state, and local offices this year. As of June 2, 14 Black women were running for seats in Congress and the Minnesota state legislature. However, only three of these women have advanced to the general election for the House of the Representatives.

Minnesota mirrors the national trends of Black women seeking elected office. The Center for American Women and Politics details that at least 130 Black women nationwide are running for Congress in 2020, compared to 87 in 2018 and 52 in 2016. This trend is further exemplified in the candidacy of Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), a multi-ethnic Black woman, who sought the Democratic nomination for president and is now the 2020 vice presidential nominee.

Black women candidates face systemic obstacles at every step of the campaign process, from recruitment to fundraising. Yet instead of holding them back, it is racial injustice that drives some of these women forward.

George Floyd’s Cries Echoed Among Black Mothers

As Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was heard calling for his deceased mother. This call seemingly activated Black mothers, who took Floyd’s murder and last words as a call to use electoral politics to challenge racial injustices. Indeed, Laverne McCartney Knighton, a candidate for Minnesota’s state senate, decided to run for office because she “wanted to know that his call to his mother did not go unanswered.” Likewise, Marquita Stephens, another state senate candidate, also noted that she “had to come forward when I saw that video of the murder of George Floyd and the knee pressing on his neck as he uttered his last breaths a call to his mother. During those eight minutes and forty-six seconds, I knew that I had to come forward.”

But while Minnesotans are electing Black women to the state legislature and have sent Ilhan Omar to Congress, this group is still proportionally underrepresented in elected office when compared to their numbers in the population. Black Minnesotan women understand that the system was not designed for them. In an interview with the Spokesman-Recorder, Alberder  Gillespie, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota’s fourth district, noted that “there’s not a system that’s supportive of us.” Gillespie founded Black Women Rising after training White candidates for political office and noting that the Democratic party did not fully support Black women as candidates.

Recent research suggests that anger plays an active role in Black Americans’ consideration of running for office. Four Black women have sought seats in the Minnesota state legislature as a result of Floyd’s murder. These women join hundreds of other Black women who are running for elected office in 2020. Although many filed prior to the murder of George Floyd, the pattern is undeniable. Black women candidates see electoral politics as a way to change American political representation and to make government more reflective of their needs.

Perils and Prospects on the Road to Elected Office

Research on Black women candidates and elected officials supports Alberder Gillespie’s claims. State sponsored killings of unarmed Blacks and the dismal support of Black women candidates by the major parties are part and parcel of a system that routinely undervalues Black bodies. Numerous Black women political elites have shared their frustrations, pointed critiques, personal challenges, and cautious hopes for the American political system to represent them, their communities, and their policy preferences. We need to better examine both the perils and prospects for Black women candidates.

Black women candidates and those with nascent political ambition routinely document that political parties do not support them. Although some Black women candidates have enjoyed national attention and have had high-profile campaigns, that is not a generalizable experience among this group of candidates. Black women are less likely to be recruited for political office than their white counterparts. This limited recruitment effort ties directly to their challenges with securing significant financial backing early on in their campaigns and particularly from donors outside of their districts. As a result, these women are most likely to raise less money as they often rely on small donations. Not being recruited and having limited access to campaign resources signals to these Black women that it would be tremendously difficult to launch a campaign. As such, those with political interests and a desire to seek elected office may not run.

But when Black women do run, they often win. They do it without the traditional support systems and instead utilize their own networks to gain elected office. Once elected, Black women are effective legislators who often draw from ethno-racial and minority communities to form winning political coalitions both inside and outside of the legislature. They do so despite racist and gendered biases and structural challenges that are incorporated into the very structure of our legislative institutions.

From Pain to Power

As Minnesota and the nation reckon with racial injustices, Black women candidates—in the spirit of the movement called into action after the murder and grand jury indictment of Breonna Taylor’s killers—are poised to speak on behalf of communities that are often neglected, silenced and ignored. In the words of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, (D-MA) “those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Black women candidates in Minnesota are living out this truth as they seek elected office.

Nadia E. Brown is an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University. In July 2021, Dr. Brown will be a full professor in the Department of Government and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Georgetown University. She is also the lead editor of Politics, Groups and Identities, a journal of the Western Political Science Association.

Camille D. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. A scholar of American politics with an emphasis on racial and ethnic politics and political psychology, she is at work on a book project entitled Fired Up, Ready to Go: Pride, Shame, and Anger in Black Politics.

Photo courtesy of Men As Peacemakers

This post was originally published by the Gender Policy Report on October 20, 2020.

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