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— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) September 7, 2021
Black women in politics face a harrowing reality: Harassment, abuse and death threats for doing their jobs as Black women. To better understand their experiences, the PBS NewsHour requested interviews with more than 61 Black women who have held office or run for office at various levels of government and across the political spectrum Eighteen women, 16 of them Democrats, shared their stories. Here’s what they described.
Black women are harassed differently than their white or male colleagues. Moya Bailey of Northeastern University coined the term “misogynoir” to describe the anti-Black misogyny that Black women face. Women in public-facing roles are more likely to receive physical threats, said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Law, and these threats often are charged with racism and sexism.
Black women largely see racism and misogyny on the job as an unchangeable reality. The majority of the women interviewed by the NewsHour experienced some form of racist or sexist targeted hate while serving in or running for office at various levels of government, from school board races to Congress. Several of the women NewsHour interviewed commented that the harassment they experienced, though shocking in its aggressiveness and vulgarity, was something they had ultimately come to expect as “part of the job.” Some said they were discouraged — either by colleagues or people in their personal lives — from speaking publicly about the harassment they face.
Harassment increases after women publicly address racial injustice. Often, the women said, policy disagreements turn into violent behavior. Bailey, the professor from Northeastern, said society punishes Black women for speaking out against racial injustice because it does not want to deal with its racist and sexist oppression. Experts fear this abuse could scare women into silence or out of politics entirely, but many women are determined to continue running for office despite the abuse and threats.
There is hesitancy — and sometimes a lack of clarity — about whether or how to involve police. There is no federal step-by-step mandate for elected officials to report harassment, especially if it occurs online. While some of the women we spoke to did have more positive outcomes after choosing to involve police, others, like U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., and Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, were reluctant to do so after facing unfair treatment from police themselves. Hesitancy to involve police may stem from a fear of police brutality or retaliation, or simply the belief that police won’t be able to help given the lack of legal precedent for punishing speech, especially speech targeting public officials.
Prosecuting online abuse and threats is extremely difficult. Current legislation on harassment does not keep up with how the internet and social media has changed. While some legislation has been deliberated regarding revenge porn and cyberbullying, defining what is harassment and what isn’t can be blurry because of the First Amendment. Public officials are also generally awarded less protection. Kiah Morris, a former Vermont state representative, said her lawyer told her he could better protect her if she were a private citizen, which ultimately contributed to her resignation from office..
Women don’t feel safe in their workplaces. Many of these Black women are the first, or only, Black people to serve in their roles. They work alongside colleagues they feel may be hostile toward them, either because of racial prejudice or in response to their politics. Scott said she often thinks about escape routes while working at the Kentucky state capitol. These worries have increased since the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The U.S. Capitol Police chief testified to Congress in April that there was an 119 percent increase in violent threats against members of Congress from 2017 to 2020.
Little data exists. While most of the women who talked to NewsHour said they had experienced abuse and threats, little data is available to accurately track the problem. A 2017 Amnesty International report found that Black women politicians and journalists in the U.K. and the U.S. were 84 percent “more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets.” But the report does not address other means by which Black women politicians have been harrassed, including phone calls, emails, letters and physical intimidation. Accurate and timely data helps push policy change and better define the scope of the issue, experts say.
Candice Norwood reported for this story.