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Study examines outsider status of black women in politics

Black women are one of the most active political constituencies in the nation, yet they are severely underrepresented in federal, state, and local government,
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Two women pass a voting sign in downtown Newark, New Jersey on May 13, 2014.

Black women are one of the most active political constituencies in the nation, yet they are severely underrepresented in federal, state, and local  government, according to a new study released this week. The Higher Heights Leadership Fund and the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, in collaboration with the Center for American Progress, has released these findings in a report entitled the “Status of Black Women in American Politics," which highlights the extent to which black women’s voices are not being adequately heard, or their concerns addressed.

Through the examination of academic research and statistics on the black female electorate, the report makes it clear that this demographic is increasingly vital to the political process. Black women had a higher voter turnout rate than any other race or  gender subgroup in the 2008 and 2012 general elections. Within the black community, women make up over 52% of the population, represent nearly 60% of the electorate, and turn out to vote at a rate nearly 10% higher than men.

There are tangible results of this influence: it is widely recognized that black women were pivotal in electing Terry McCauliffe as governor of Virginia and reelecting Senators Brown and Kaine in Ohio and Virginia, respectively.

In addition to voting behavior, black women have made significant strides in income and education over the last couple of decades, showing their importance to the strength of the economy. They outpace their male counterparts in earning high school and college degrees, and the report cites that black women are the primary breadwinners in black American households, which hold over one trillion dollar in annual spending power. 

These things taken together mean that the heart of black American politics and economics is increasingly female -- and that these women are centrally important to Democrats. But the report also shows that despite this truism, black women face barriers to representation in elected office.

In spite of their large electoral participation, black women only constitute 2.6% of Congress, 3.3% of state legislatures, and only two hold statewide executive offices. It is not a lack of interest in political issues or running for office that keeps the numbers so low, but instead an unwillingness of others to invest in them. The report states that black women are more likely to be discouraged from running, receive less fundraising support, and are seen as less electable than other minority or female candidates. As such, they are less likely to be recruited by political parties for office or mentored by past or current officeholders. These factors conspire to keep the pool of potential black women candidates thin.

The most paradoxical finding is that the very quality that saddles black women with the perception of being unelectable is the same as that which makes them exceptional candidates for office – their intersection of race and gender. Studies have shown their experiences make them more capable of engaging and empathizing with varied voter subgroups, while influencing their policy positions to support initiatives that will serve the larger good.

Moreover, education, healthcare, and unemployment are the most pressing concerns for black women – issues that are not gender or race-specific, and reflect the concerns of many Americans today.

The “Status of Black Women in American Politics” makes it plain that the only way to change this course of de facto exclusion of black women from political leadership is through a “concerted and informed effort to recruit, support, and elect Black women at all levels of political office.”

An Executive Summary and the full report are available for download. 

Theodore R. Johnson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. who explores issues centered on race and politics. A former White House Fellow, he is a public policy doctoral candidate who holds degrees from Hampton and Harvard Universities.