These women's accomplishments tell another story of America
- Representatives react at a press conference © AFP
Two American Democrat representatives have been forbidden to enter Israel: “What are Trump and Netanyahu afraid of?” questioned the New York Times in an op-ed stating that such a decision “shows weakness and intolerance, not strength”.
The two Democratic representatives are Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. Together with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York’s 14th congressional district) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts’ 7th district) they form what is known as “The Squad”. They are today among the most visible rising stars of a new multicultural and feminized generation of American politicians – one which will be a driver of the 2020 elections and beyond.
Trump’s new favorite target
Trump understands this and seems to be openly inciting his base for electoral gains.
In July 2019, Donald Trump’s rally in North Carolina marked a particularly ugly turn in American politics. He was caught on film at a rally approving the crowd’s chant of “Send her back!”, an old racist trope this time directed at Omar, one of the country’s first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Omar, an American citizen of Somalian origin, replied through the media that Trump was a “fascist,” “threatened because we are inspiring”. She was referring to herself and the Squad, but could easily have been speaking for the rise of many other women politicians from minority communities.
By characterizing four progressive Democratic congresswomen of color as being un-American and later exhorting them to return to the places from “where they came,” Trump has doubled down on the hateful behavior that his hard-core supporters have come to expect.
“The Squad” refuses to cave to the threats. The women claim the moral high ground and the defense of American values like inclusion and diversity. But will they be able to win support for a longer term political vision that resonates beyond progressives, one rooted in principles beyond opposition for the president ? And can they and those who support them succeed in crafting and passing a legislative agenda that provides solutions to the considerable obstacles that made their rise so improbable in the first place?
A long history of marginalization
Women have long been on the margins of power in the United States, particularly women of color. The deeply embedded discrimination they face is structural. Black women are two times more likely to be arrested and spend time in prison than white women. They’re three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than white women – with odds “comparable to those of women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan.” reports a recent study.
Income inequality is the biggest contributor to poverty. In the workforce for every dollar earned by a white man, Latina women earn $0.53, Native American women earn $0.58, black women $0.61, white women $0.77, and Asian women $0.85. Among those living in poverty, black Americans account for 27%, Hispanics count for about 27% as well, and 14% are white. About 14.5% of children living in poverty are white, versus 46% of black children.
Black women are overwhelmingly the group most likely to remain their entire lives in poverty, with thus the least access to upward mobility.
Politics has been no friendlier a domain. In its 230-year history, the 435-seat United States Congress has counted just 80 Congresswomen of color: 47 black, 20 Hispanic and 13 Asian-American.
And the 100-seat United States Senate, also founded 230 years ago, has seen just five nonwhite women senators: Carol Moseley Braun, Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Hirono Mazie, Catherine Marie Cortez Masto, the last four being in office only within the last decade.
Finally, only 44 women have occupied the post of governor, and two of them have been nonwhite.
Minority women lead the way on the streets
Despite being largely excluded from the halls of power and privilege – or perhaps because of this – minority women have played an important role in the fight for social justice.
Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, voter equality and voter registration, police violence, gun control, and sexual violence are only some areas where minority women have done much of the essential, often invisible, work on which larger social movements were built.
The #MeToo movement (founded by Tarana Burke), and Black Lives Matter (co-founded by Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, Opal Tometi) are just two recent examples of prominent social-justice movements led by minority women.
The organizers of the Women’s March, held in January each year since 2017, are diverse coalition of women having chosen to amplify the voices of minorities by granting them top leadership positions.
In mainstream politics, the Democratic Party in particular has readily benefited from the reliability of minority women’s votes – especially those of black women – it has traditionally left little place for minority women to lead. They have indeed been unquestionably loyal to the party over the last several decades.
2018: the shift
The 2018 midterms brought about a distinct shift. No longer willing to deliver victories in support of a longstanding elite political class, minority women decided instead to run for office themselves.
Historic candidacies seemed to be at every level of government and everywhere around the country, victory within reach. Stacey Abrams ran – and almost won – in Georgia, coming exceedingly close to becoming the first black woman governor in American history, blocked only by what many consider widespread vote suppression.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former Bronx bartender whose mother was a cleaner, was more successful. She ran and went on to become the youngest person ever elected to Congress. Kyrsten Sinema became Arizona’s first woman senator and the first openly bisexual person elected to the US Senate.
Several months later, Lori Lightfoot won her race for mayor of Chicago, the first black woman to hold that job in the city’s history and the first lesbian. She successfully ran with no previous political connections in a city whose Democratic apparatus is legendary and was, until her election, unavoidable.
Deep divisions within US society
Yet the elections of minority women in the 2018 midterms and in their wake, do not reconcile the deep divisions in US society. Much as the election of Barack Obama 10 years earlier did not signal the end of the country’s race problem. Instead, both signaled a deep social transformation already afoot and made more visible tensions already bubbling deep.
The main divisions seem to be drawn along the lines of two distinct conceptions of the American promise and of the people who should – and should not – have access to them. The public confrontation between these Americas – exemplified by Trump’s open conflict with the Squad – is underway. The president is not new to race-baiting, nor is he ashamed to use the bully pulpit to signify the acceptability of hateful speech.
Even within the Left, a serious debate is underway between moderate Democrats such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Squad, which is seeking to move the party to the left.
Democrats like Speaker Pelosi feel that defeating Trump is the first priority and to do so, the party must coalesce around a united legislative agenda and use their solidarity as a source of electoral strength. This position recognizes that not all districts are firmly blue, and defending the seats of conservative Blue Dog Democrats is necessary. The Squad, among the Leftmost members of the Democratic Party, and their supporters seem to understand the admonitions of more moderate Democrats as a generational break and an attempt to put them “back in their place.”
Insisting that their duty is to advocate for the progressive liberal ideas on which their constituents elected them, the Squad may even find a very public fight with the president as a moment to defend their political and social ideology. They did not seek to be bullied, but shining a light on their values on the national stage may be one positive gain. But again, can their vision find broader footing and remake the Party?
And more deeply, what place is the American politic willing to make for minority women, across the entire ideological spectrum? The challenge is not small, and success does not depend entirely on the excellence of women of color. Indeed, as the American public elects more and more minority women leaders, will it also understand the structural hostilities facing those very women and follow their lead to a more just future?