In a recently published Rolling Stone article, recording artist Janelle Monáe exposes a disconcerting, yet largely universal, awareness shared by Black women seeking to exercise power: When we reveal ourselves to be human and inevitably imperfect, we are too often labeled unworthy and incapable of leading. It’s why, Monáe says, she spent the better part of a decade masking herself behind the persona of an android named Cindi Mayweather.
Monáe’s unusual response to coping with this awareness may be unique to entertainment, but her acknowledgment speaks broadly to the harsh, extraneous judgments that women—particularly Black women—face when they attempt to lead. These judgments were on full display in a recent New York magazine article that ostensibly explored the campaigns of the two women—Stacey Abrams, who is Black, and Stacey Evans, who is white—running to become Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate. What the article offers, however, is a litany of demeaning characterizations of Abrams, including suggestions that she is “uppity,” financially ill-equipped, unmarriageable, and someone who plays the so-called race card. In short, the article is a regurgitation of some of the most demeaning and hostile labels that Black women come up against whenever they attempt to claim seats of power.
Politics is inherently a word war between competitors, but the tenor of the criticisms hurled at Abrams reads especially personal and especially coded. Left unchecked, there is a real risk that these immaterial characterizations will overshadow the strength of her qualifications. Abrams, who served the state legislature starting in 2007 before stepping down to run for governor, is by far the most accomplished of the candidates vying for the top of Georgia’s Democratic ticket. As house minority leader, the Ivy League-educated attorney blocked efforts to raise taxes on the poor and working families; protected access to reproductive health care; and passed legislation in support of grandparents and other kin raising children. Abrams also started the New Georgia Project, which she says registered more than 200,000 voters over two years. Her vision for Georgia includes universal pre-K, living-wage jobs and criminal-justice reforms that level the field for all the state’s residents.
While many of these accomplishments were mentioned in the New York story, they weren’t afforded nearly as much ink, so to speak, as the derisive details. This doesn’t bode well for U.S. democracy, because Abrams has the kind of leadership experience, legislative track record, relatable story and vision for the state that voters across the board should be eager to support. But with the May 22 primary just weeks away, she has had to spend a good deal of time talking about her debt—a situation wrought largely by her desire to support family members in need—instead of her vision for a new Georgia. The distraction is vexing for many reasons, including that debt is not a disqualifier for holding office. If it were, many of our elected officials—especially our current president—would never have been elected.
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The irrelevant scrutiny experienced by Abrams is hardly isolated. Black women candidates and elected officials face a litany of race- and gender-coded criticism about perceived shortcomings that are rarely mentioned in examining the qualifications of other candidates.
Too often, Black women seeking leadership are labeled with false narratives that paint them as angry instead of impassioned, financially irresponsible instead of willing to stretch their resources to help others, or young and inexperienced instead of ambitious and trailblazing. Recent examples of this are plentiful. When Tishaura Jones, city treasurer of St. Louis, Missouri, lost her 2017 bid for mayor by just 888 votes against an establishment candidate with much deeper pockets, the city paper’s editorial board wrote that “a dose of humility” might have made voters more supportive of Jones’ candidacy. And when Lauren Underwood announced her candidacy for the Illinois 14th Congressional District seat, many in the Democratic power structure initially wrote her off as non-viable, even though she grew up in the district and previously served as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama. In March, Underwood took 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote to beat out her six opponents—all men.
In November, Underwood, Abrams and hundreds of other Black women running for office across the country will face off against their opponents for local, state, and national offices. Many of these women exemplify the kind of promising, proven leadership that progressives say they want. But if we refuse to challenge and correct damaging, false narratives about Black women’s leadership abilities—and records—we will ultimately deprive our towns, cities, states and country of the elected officials who are most connected, committed, and able to address the inequities and divisions chipping away at our democracy.
There’s a lot on the line in 2018. If creating a fair, equitable, and tolerant country is truly our goal, then we must put our resources behind candidates who embody these principals. Progressives need to pay attention, and to check and challenge false narratives about the character and viability of Black women candidates seeking to serve at all levels of government in all types of communities.