“When the vote is taken by our body, Black women don’t win,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan said in an interview. “I cannot comprehend how, for 40 years, a Black woman has never earned the collective majority vote of our caucus.”
Rep. Lawrence lost her race to be elected to the House Democratic Caucus by a single vote. After she lost, Lawrence researched the last time a Black woman had held an elected position in the Caucus.
She was shocked to learn that it was Rep. Shirley Chisholm 44 years ago who held an elected leadership spot.
“I think it’s something that absolutely needs to be addressed,” Rep. Karen Bass of California said. “The caucus as a whole is sensitive to it now where I don’t know that they were a couple of terms ago.” Bass just completed a two-year term as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The current House Democratic Caucus leadership boasts a diverse group: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, both white women, are in the top two positions. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina has held a leadership in the caucus for years. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York is currently in his second term as the caucus’ chairman, he’s even been rumored to be considered as the next speaker.
Even with the diversity, however, Black women have routinely been left out of elected roles. Speaker Pelosi appointed Rep. Barbara Lee of California as the co-chair of the Steering Committee. It’s technically a leadership position, but it is an appointment, not an elected position.
Lee previously ran for leadership against Jeffries two years ago, but lost. She is a part of the Black women who’ve run for and lost elections to leadership positions since the House flipped in the 2018 midterms.
Rep. Lawrence raised the issue on a private phone call, where she recited a quote from Chisholm: “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining.”
Some of her colleagues, a lot of them white men, thanked her for raising the issue.
The cause of so many Black women not winning their elections is multifaceted.
Some representatives highlighted their experience of having their leadership capabilities questioned even with greater seniority of their colleagues.
Their struggles to get elected, however, are disappointing given the record turnout by Black women during previous election seasons, especially last November.
“I can’t sit here and say every Black woman who runs is the best qualified or should be elected. But dang, 40 years?” Lawrence said.
Rep. Val Demings of Florida noted that Democrats need to be doing more and that there are unique opportunities for the 27 Black women Democrats in the House.
“In a moment where Kamala Harris was just sworn in, I think that’s where our focus should be right now. And then how we can look to her to help elevate other qualified women,” Demings said in an interview after Inauguration Day.
“There’s always more work to do, but yesterday we just swore in the first Black women in the second most powerful position. And I think that’s pretty special.”
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