Black Women’s Political Leadership: The Barriers

Atima Omara | Dec 11, 2019


Black women are woefully underrepresented across all levels of government – check out the numbers here. While institutional barriers for Black women are ever-present on the campaign trail, here are three I’ve seen time and again:

1. Money

First and most importantly, raising money is harder for Black women. While there are Black people who have the extra funds to give to candidates, the wealthiest donors still skew white and male. Those donors have historically invested in candidates whose experiences reflect their own—which is often very different from the experiences of a Black woman candidate. Lack of funds makes it harder to run a competitive campaign.

2. “Electability”

Second, party leaders, strategists, donors, and voters have preconceived notions of “electability” informed by their perceptions of preferences—which inevitably seem to trend toward whiteness and maleness being the “normal” attributes for an electable candidate. A volunteer in Iowa who made around 13,000 calls for Senator Harris said she ran into that constantly in her conversations. Even if the voter is predisposed to like the candidate, they might believe someone who isn’t a Black woman has a better chance at winning the race. Despite having been Minority Leader of the House Democrats in George’s legislature, Stacey Abrams had to convince many she had the right strategy and could actually win the race for Governor of Georgia.

3. Gatekeepers

A third common struggle for all women candidates, but especially Black women candidates, is the gatekeepers in politics. These gatekeepers can take the form of elected officials, community leaders, donors, and others who have a vested interest in certain candidates running and winning.  Even today, a Black woman candidate is less likely than others to have the long history of political contacts and accumulated relationships with these gatekeepers to be taken seriously.  In my time in politics, on both sides of the aisle, I’ve always heard about the woman candidate taken out to lunch or coffee (if she was lucky) and very politely told that it’s “just not her turn.”

Do I believe that America is ready for more Black women in public office at all levels, even the Presidency?  Absolutely.  But the challenges to breaking through are real, and if we want to see our democracy reflect our society, than we need to invest dollars, training, and actual support at the polls for more women of color candidates—especially Black women.

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