Black Women Are Seizing the Political Stage

Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama
Left to right: Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris, and Michelle Obama. Photo credit: © Alowe/Globe Photos via ZUMA Wire, © Faye Sadou/AdMedia via ZUMA Wire, and DoD News / Flickr.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

This week, a black woman became a credible candidate for President of the United States. Regardless of what you might think of the politics of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), her candidacy is historic. When Shirley Chisholm became the first such black woman, no one took that campaign seriously.

Today, in an era of Black Lives Matter, African American feminists have helped define both our cultural politics and Democratic party politics. The blue wave of the November midterms would not have been even remotely possible without black woman voters.

Jeff Schechtman’s guest for this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast is a professor and historian of black feminist politics, Duchess Harris. In her book Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump, she explains how black women have taken control of the mainstream progressive agenda, and why this should come as no surprise given the history of women like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks. Harris points to the multiplier effect that social media has given to black women today, and how they have used it in transformative ways.

In her conversation she explains how the mass incarceration of black men was at first a driver of black feminist politics, which has now evolved into a strong support for the larger agenda of the African American community.

She also talks about the impact of Donald Trump. Though black feminist politics began gaining visibility before Trump came along, the policies and rhetoric of this administration have galvanized a movement whose power on the national stage can no longer be denied.


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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Regardless of what you think of her politics, a black woman is a credible candidate for President of the United States. The blue wave of November’s election would not have been possible without black women voters. The election of Doug Jones in Alabama would not have been possible without the turnout of black women. The recent focus on Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Maxine Waters, Oprah, and even Michelle Obama, speak to the fact that democratic and progressive politics today, as well as our cultural politics, is being defined and even redefined by black feminist politics. When we look back at the history of black women and racial progress, women like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and even Rosa Parks, all of this should be no surprise.

Today, coupled with the #MeToo movement and resistance to Trump, this change in our politics has the makings of a lasting, permanent, and far-reaching change. No one understands this better, both historically and contemporaneously, than my guest, Duchess Harris. Professor Harris was a Mellon Mays fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She did postdoctoral fellowships at the Institute of Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School and at the Women Studies Consortium at the University of Georgia. She’s currently a member of the faculty at Macalester College, where she became the first chair of the American Studies Department. Professor Harris is a scholar of contemporary African American history and political theory. She’s the author of numerous books, both popular and academic, and it is my pleasure to welcome Duchess Harris here to talk about her new work Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump. Professor Harris, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Duchess Harris: Oh my goodness. Thank you so much for having me. What a lovely introduction.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, thank you. A delight to have you here. Black women have been involved in politics for a long time. They were leaders in the civil rights movement. Certainly some of the people like Fannie Lou Hamer left a lasting impression on the movement. What’s different now? What’s happened in the 21st century that really has changed this in a profound way?
Duchess Harris: One of the things that’s happened in the 21st century is, of course, the creation of social media. Something that I think a lot of people forget about the Black Lives Matter movement is that it didn’t start on the ground. It started in cyberspace. It started as a hashtag. That is something that has helped mobilize particularly a younger generation of black women in politics.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do those younger black women understand the legacy, the shoulders that they’re standing on?
Duchess Harris: I think that these women really understood the legacy because we continue to inherit what the women have done before us. One thing that people might not know about congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has represented a district in California for decades now, is that she was a legislative aide for congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who, of course, was the first black woman in Congress and the first black woman to run for president. There are people that are walking in the shoes of Barbara Lee’s tradition, just doing it somewhat differently.
Jeff Schechtman: In doing it somewhat differently, did they understand that really what’s required today is, arguably, different than what might have been required 40, 50, 60 years ago?
Duchess Harris: Well, I think what’s required is similar. What’s required is getting the word out. It’s just that we get the word out differently now, and so the savvy that you have with the younger women is understanding that people are on the move. They have their devices, and it’s a quick way to get the information disseminated. If you’re talking about Shirley Chisholm in the 1970s, people back then were using mimeograph machines. Right? This is how copies were made. Then they were giving out flyers. We don’t do that anymore.
Jeff Schechtman: The amount of power that black women have particularly in politics, particularly in the South today… Talk a little bit about that and what you’ve seen, in terms of its increasing relevance.
Duchess Harris: One of the reasons why black women have so much influence is based on the unfortunate fact of the incarceration rates of black men. When black people were first getting involved in politics when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965… a lot of people don’t realize how recent that was. Then you got contemporary elected officials. Black men actually dominated the political space. What started happening in the 1980s was mass incarceration, which meant that men who were detained could not vote, and even in some states, once you were released, still couldn’t vote. This left, disproportionately, women in a position to then change the face of electoral politics.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about how they did that. Talk about the evolution of that, what you’ve seen, historically.
Duchess Harris: What I’ve seen, historically, is both an involvement within government and grassroots organizing around it, which is one of the things that I think is fascinating, and particular, to the African American community. When we talk about politics we’re not just talking about Stacey Abrams running for governor. We’re talking about the work that happens around it and also the positions that people are trying to make gains in that might not even have to do with elected positions. I think that’s what makes African American involvement so effective, is that we’re trying to be everywhere at the same time.
Jeff Schechtman: How have men in the black community responded to this?
Duchess Harris: I think that there has been a lot of support for this because what a lot of people don’t understand about black feminism is that black feminism champions black manhood. I think that there has been a lot of respect and admiration for people like Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, and the founders of Black Lives Matter because they were championing black men who were being shot by the police.
Jeff Schechtman: Tell us a little bit about the impact that Obama, and the Obama administration, had on all of this.
Duchess Harris: The Obama administration had a tremendous impact on galvanizing the black community because the highest turnout that African Americans have ever had in a presidential election was when he ran for president the first time in 2008. It really invigorated the community. Then, once again, in 2012 the turnout was tremendous. What was fascinating, however, is that for African Americans who weren’t particularly charmed by some of his leadership choices, they ended up starting their own movements going on simultaneously with the Obama administration. You had all of it happening.
Jeff Schechtman: What has been the ongoing impact within the Democratic Party over the past several years? I mean, we’ve certainly seen it in terms of this last election, but talk about what you’ve seen in terms of the policy impact and the way it has shifted positions on several issues.
Duchess Harris: I think the way that it has shifted positions is that the struggle within the Democratic Party right now is the question of how moderate the Democrats will be. It went without saying that the Democrats were going to be pretty centrist and moderate when you were dealing with, let’s say, the Bill Clinton administration. That is who he was as a president, and African Americans didn’t have enough influence at the time to push President Clinton further to the left. Now there is enough influence that African Americans are trying to get the Democratic Party to move further left.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent will they be successful in that do you think, and is there some pushback? Is there a more moderate side to black women in politics in the Democratic Party?
Duchess Harris: I think that’s an excellent question because I think there’s a difference when you are supporting a candidate and when you actually are the candidate. Someone like Kamala Harris, she will be moderate, of course, because if you’re running for president you will have to be moderate. There will be people around her that will push her not to be. The same goes for someone like Cory Booker. Anyone who is in the Senate, because the African American community hasn’t had a long tradition of having representation in the Senate, really isn’t in a position to be very much left-of-center.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about Kamala Harris because she’s an interesting example, because she would be more moderate but also has a long record of, I guess, law and order, for lack of a better description, when she was Attorney General in California.
Duchess Harris: Yes, I mean, Kamala Harris is fascinating partly because she stands alone. There aren’t many black women in America that you can compare her to. She has had an interesting background with positions that most black women haven’t had access to. She’s only the second black woman to become a United States Senator. The first black woman was, of course, Carol Moseley Braun, who only served one term. So she is really inventing herself.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the reaction, and I suppose the Doug Jones election was maybe the penultimate example of this recently, how black women that are actively involved in the political process are responding to white male candidates.
Duchess Harris: I think that the Doug Jones election is a wonderful way to look at the involvement of black women acting as participants in democracy. Once he was elected, one of the things that I thought was so important is that he made sure that his chief of staff was African-American. That’s another aspect that a lot of people don’t look at on the Hill. People look at who is in the position and not necessarily who their staff are. I don’t think there have ever been more than two African American chief of staff for congressional representatives at one time ever in the history of the nation. I worked for Senator Paul Wellstone in the early 90s. I was young at the time. I was not a high-ranking staffer, but I was one of the only African American staffers in the nation.
Jeff Schechtman: To that point, is there a bench being built up? Is it happening by accident or is there a concerted effort to build up the potential members of those staffs?
Duchess Harris: I think that there is a concerted effort, but one of the things that many people don’t understand is that the effort has to happen as early as preschool. You can’t go to a university undergraduate program or graduate program and look for talent of color if there aren’t many students who are of color in those programs. What we need to do is work on the pipeline to make sure that the talent pool is there.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s being done in that regard? What can be done?
Duchess Harris: What can be done is, a perfect example is an initiative from the Mellon Foundation. What the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has done is tapped into academic talent as early as a sophomore year of college. They have tried to provide mentoring so that people can successfully go on to academic training that will put you in a position where you could do something like this.
Jeff Schechtman: Arguably, all of this was happening and would have continued to happen, perhaps at a different pace, before Trump came along. What impact directly has Trump had on all of the things that we’re talking about?
Duchess Harris: Well, in many ways, Trump has galvanized people to do it even more. I mean, if you look at someone like Ayanna Pressley, who ends up becoming the first black woman to represent Congress for the State of Massachusetts, I think she would say that part of her motivation to run for this office would be the political moment that was created in 2016. I would argue that just because Trump has been elected president, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a complete setback for black politics.
Jeff Schechtman: You talk about the degree to which it has galvanized a lot of efforts. Talk a little more about that, in terms of what you’ve seen, that might not have happened if it wasn’t for that push back to Trump and what he represents.
Duchess Harris: I mean, I think what might not have happened would have been the fervor of #MeToo. #MeToo has actually been going on since 2006. That’s when the founder, Tarana Burke, came up with an action plan for #MeToo. So the action did not come out of Hollywood, but I think that some of the things that Trump has been accused of, and some of the things that were going on with the last confirmation proceedings for the most recent Supreme Court Justice have made a lot of women, but particularly women of color, insist upon pushing back against these transgressions.
Jeff Schechtman: What has been the nexus between black feminist politics, as we’ve been talking about, and the #MeToo movement?
Duchess Harris: The nexus really has been socioeconomic status, because one of the things that has been missing from this conversation, is what happens when you say #MeToo, and you are not a part of the elite class? Because, unfortunately, the track record is someone like Anita Hill, who was a part of the elite class. She was Yale-educated law professor who actually was a part of the Bush administration tangentially, because she had worked for Clarence Thomas. Then you take Dr. Ford Blasey, who is a physician, and she was respected. For them to come forward, and for the nation not to respond and galvanize around them, and for the Senate to not hear them, that says a lot to someone who is just an everyday woman. The nexus for #MeToo is to say that it’s not just about womanhood, it’s also at the intersection of not being high-income, not having a lot of formal education. What happens if that’s who you are, and you say #MeToo?
Jeff Schechtman: What is the expectation of the movement going forward, in terms of candidates running for president or vice president, in 2020?
Duchess Harris: I think the expectation of the movement would be that we do not need elected officials who have track records of sexual assault, which seems unfortunate that that has to be spoken out loud, that that should have been an expectation for hundreds of years, but it just isn’t. That’s not a very high bar, but it’s a standard that we need to have.
Jeff Schechtman: What about in terms of the black community? What is the expectation?
Duchess Harris: For the black community, the expectation, I would say, is that there be representation for working-class people, blue-collar people, disabled people, people who are gender non-conforming, people that don’t have a voice. I would never posit that I could speak on behalf of 14 million black people, but I think that representation is always the goal and what we’ve often had in electoral politics is just a reflection of the elite class.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s next for the movement, for black feminist politics, for Black Lives Matter? What are the objectives for the next five years, let’s say?
Duchess Harris: I also am not sure if I can speak on movements that I’m not formally involved with, but what I would say is that it’s important to be at the table. That is what the leaders in the Black Lives movement wanted when Hillary Clinton was running for president. She was resistant early on. It wasn’t really until the eleventh hour that she had Mothers of the Movement, and that would be someone like Trayvon Martin’s mother. There were like nine women that joined her at the Democratic National Convention, that stood with her. All of their children had been killed by police officers. I think that that might be a beginning toward people in Black Lives Matter and #MeToo want a seat at the table.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the geography of the movement. We’ve talked a lot about the South certainly, and Doug Jones, and Stacey Abrams. There’s a great deal of this movement in urban centers. What about the rest of the country?
Duchess Harris: Urban politics and rural politics have always been very different, regardless of the racial backdrop. The industries are different. People earn their incomes differently. I live in Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Black politics here is very different because we have such a large African immigrant population. We just elected a Somali woman who’s Muslim to Congress in the Twin Cities. That reflects the demographic of the 5th District in Minneapolis. That’s not the kind of politics you might get in, say, Memphis, Tennessee.
Jeff Schechtman: Will the politics be different? We hear so much these days about Midwest politics versus politics in California or the South. Talk about it in terms of the things that are absolute common themes across the country.
Duchess Harris: I mean, I think common themes are employment. I mean basic existence in the United States is really about having a living wage, and decent housing, and education for people’s children. That’s at the core. Everything after that is just a geographical nuance.
Jeff Schechtman: Professor Duchess Harris. Her book is Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump. Duchess, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Duchess Harris: This was an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit:  Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ida B. Wells (Barnett / Wikimedia), Fannie Lou Hamer (Library of Congress / Wikimedia), and Rosa Parks (National Archives / Wikimedia).

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