Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at an SEIU event before the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention. Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate.
( Jeff Chiu
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're just one year out from the midterms and according to a new report from the Higher Heights Leadership Fund and the Center for America Women in Politics, there are both promising and troubling realities for Black women in elected office. In 2021, there are a record number of Black women serving in state legislatures, and more Black women than ever before contested and won Congressional seats in 2020. After the governor of California appointed a man to fill the former Senate seat of now Vice President Kamala Harris, there's not a single Black woman in the US Senate.
Indeed Black women make up less than 5% of those elected to Congress, statewide executive offices, and legislators. When it comes to statewide executive offices, Black women are severely underrepresented. No Black woman has ever been elected governor. For more in all of this, we spoke to Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at the Center for America Women in Politics at Rutgers University. She's also Co-founder of Higher Heights, a group focused on Black women's political power as voters and elected representatives.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen: Well, what we have seen continuously grow over the last several years is that we are growing in our state legislatures. Our representation is growing there and we are now at eight Black women leading our top 100 cities which is a record. We are at parody because Black women are just about 8% of the national population. To have eight Black women leading our major metropolises it's really a great opportunity there. We're growing in Congress as well, but there are still challenges.
We don't have a Black woman in the US Senate and we have yet to elect a Black woman governor. There's still a lot to be done, but we're definitely making strides in many places all across the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we think about the very few black women who have been elected to statewide office, there's obviously the few Black women who we've had serve in the US Senate, including Carol Moseley Braun, and of course, our current Vice President Kamala Harris, who was elected to statewide office both as the California Attorney General and then as a US Senator. What are some of the unique challenges Black women face in terms of statewide office holding?
Kimberly Peeler-Allen: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges, particularly when it comes to statewide executive office, and I think there is promise there because of all of these women who have become mayors is the role of the executive and what the electorate sees as leadership qualities. Black women and women, in general, have been seen as coalition builders and parts of a legislative body.
That's where we have really made a lot of our strides, but to have a Black woman as the final decision maker, as the executive, that has taken a lot of challenge and a lot of work shifting what leadership looks like, shifting our expectations of leadership traits. I think that is where we are seeing some opportunity and we have already seen quite a few women step out off the sidelines to say that they are running for statewide executive office for 2021.
We have just, in a couple of days, in the state of Virginia, we have two black women who are running for Lieutenant governor. Regardless of who wins that race, we will be adding to this list and we have 17 Black women in the history of this country who have been elected to statewide executive office, and come next Tuesday that number will grow to 18, whether it is Hala Ayala, or Winston Sears, in the state of Virginia. There's tremendous opportunity there, but there is also the grappling with what is the role for women? What is the role for Black women and how do we disrupt what has been the norm in almost 250 years that the majority of these positions have been held by white men.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are the barriers about what voters think Black women are capable of and the kinds of offices that Black women should hold, or is it about what probably primarily the democratic party and democratic party contributors think that Black women should be doing?
Kimberly Peeler-Allen: I think it's a combination of both. I think there is definitely that initial primary of being able to garner the resources that you need. I think the press is also part of the conversation and how they cover or not cover and completely ignore Black women candidates. It is all about the exposure and a Black woman's ability to really control her narrative and reach her voters. Whether that is determined by that first hurdle of having some validators and amplifiers to support the candidacy through endorsements and financial support to getting covered by the press and how that coverage is unbiased.
Whether or not that coverage is unbiased, and then being able to message to the electorate to really be able to say this is why you should elect me, not just because I am a Black woman, but because I am also a small business owner, I am also a veteran. I'm also all of the multifacetedness of a Black woman's life experience in this country. We have seen in the example of, particularly, I think the example that everyone immediately goes to is Stacy Abrams.
Though she was not successful in 2018, she ran with the totality of her life experience. She talked about her family and how she grew up. She talked about all of the challenges in her life as well as all of the successes and people really gravitated towards that. Again, that also came down to the ability for the electorate in a highly partisan state of Georgia to shift their mindset about what their leadership, what their governor would look like. There is a tremendous opportunity there.
There are a lot of hurdles just that you have to continuously to be able to be successful. I think as we have seen with Vice President Harris and Stacy Abrams and people like Warren Underwood in Illinois, a Congressional representative who represents a district that is predominantly white. We're seeing that there is a broader playbook of how this can be done. I think Black women are really drawing on that and saying, I don't have to run in a majority-Black district to be successful.
I don't have to hide parts of my identity or parts of my life experience. I can bring my full self to the table. We have seen the amazing work that happens when you are bringing your full self to the table. Thinking about Cori Bush and the protests that she led on the steps of the capital and how that was able to really move legislation forward because she was able to really draw on her life experience, which ultimately, makes for better policy when you have a wider variety of life experiences around decision-making table. I think it is a continuous progression of obstacles, but also a continuous progression of tremendous opportunity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kimberly Peeler-Allen is a visiting practitioner at the Center for America Women in Politics at Rutgers University and the Co-founder of Higher Heights. Kimberly, if you end up working with a candidate for any of these kinds of offices who wants to come talk with us, we'd be happy to have her.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen: Absolutely. We'll definitely keep that in mind.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Thank you so much, Kimberly.
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