The Dual Consciousness of Democracy
As Black women continue to be at the epicenter of preserving democracy, where is their representation in state legislatures across the country?
Coming off the rise in voter turnout from the 2020 election cycle, it is without question that Black women have been at the forefront of the conversation within a shifting political landscape. In the span of four years, we have seen growing highlights of grassroots organizers, executive directors, and political action committees that have led more Black communities to the ballot box, mostly led by Black women. What came next was a showering of thank-yous, accolades, and the sudden notoriety of the efforts of Black women leaders that have been ongoing for years. What was witnessed across America was Black women doing what we have always done: be the backbone of a system never designed to protect us, but to give us a pat on the same back that carries the weight of everyone else’s leadership opportunities but our own.
Year after year, Black women have consistently turned out in high numbers to vote and make our democracy work. And despite our numbers, we are still underrepresented in some of the most important democratic institutions in the nation: state legislatures. We see no return on investment for being the matriarchs of our communities or as matriarchs of democracy. The largest public health crisis in our country’s history put this in plain view. To ask a demographic that was a large percentage of the death toll during this pandemic to also be the most reliable voting block without recognizing the sacrifice that it requires of our personal and professional lives demands Black women have dual consciousness. To place us in supporting actor roles as voters and campaign organizers, but rarely as the people in power, is to ignore the turmoil and internal conflict that secondarily marginalized groups face when preserving systems while living with inequity. This has led to the following public service announcement: THE THANK YOU ERA IS OVER.
It’s time to support and elect Black women at every level of power. A new, 50-state analysis by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and NOBEL Women shows that specifically Black women are underrepresented in state legislatures across the country. When we don’t have seats at the table in legislatures, especially in leadership positions, Black women are shut off from making key policy decisions that impact us—from reproductive health care to education, to wages and worker rights, to food and agriculture, to criminal justice and how we vote—-all of these policies are impacted at the state level. Right now, with too few Black women in the committee rooms where decisions are made, we are limited in how we center movement politics, push for more equitable policy and move Black-women-led communities forward.
But when we are in power, we do the hard work for our communities. Look to Kentucky State Rep. Attica Scott, one of just two Black women in her state’s legislature, who introduced and is fighting for Breonna’s Law-—both in the streets and in the capitol. Look to Georgia State Rep. Sandra Scott who introduced a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. Look to Maryland Speaker Adrienne Jones, the first Black and first female speaker of the Maryland House, who has rolled out the state’s first “Black Agenda,” aimed at eliminating racial gaps in health, wealth, and housing. Our challenge is two-fold: we must push for reform and representation. This is why organizations like the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women are so important. NOBEL Women has leveraged several Black women legislators to the forefront through leadership and public policy support. As Krystal Leaphart, Operations and Policy Associate of NOBEL Women, stated, “One way that people can support Black women is by supporting them after they win public office. This is important because Black women subconsciously see themselves in supporting roles before they see themselves in leadership positions due to their historical position in politics and policy. That, coupled with imposter syndrome and misogynoir in electoral politics, makes it hard for Black women to consider life after the win. Those that are in community with Black women leaders should attend their coffee hours, support their town hall meetings, and meet them halfway.”
This realization about underrepresentation is a call to action—not just to Black women, but to all who believe that we need a functioning, representative democracy in this country. Without proper awareness, investments, and commitment, Black women will continue to be underrepresented in government. Our states and our country will be better when we have Black women in power from the statehouse to the white house. The Black women state legislators on this list are providing the kind of visionary leadership we need to build an equitable, prosperous, and resilient future—-learn their names, support their work, and consider how you can add to their ranks.
Lauren Bealore is the Democracy Director at the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), where she helps state legislators nationwide champion reforms for an equitable, inclusive, and participatory democracy. She is also a former two-term City Commissioner and Precinct Delegate.
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