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For Black women in government, highlighting threats and abuse can make it worse

2021 has seen Black women reach new heights in the halls of U.S. Government — from Kamala Harris as vice president, to a record-setting number of Black women in Congress and in mayor's offices. While many celebrate the increase in representation, many of these elected leaders also face harassment and threats. Amna Nawaz has their story as part of our "Race Matters" series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    2021 has seen Black women reach new heights in the halls of U.S. government, from Kamala Harris as vice president, to a record-setting number of Black women in Congress and in mayor's offices.

    While many celebrate the increase in representation, many of these elected leaders also, it turns out, face harassment and threats.

    Amna Nawaz has their story as part of our Race Matters series.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Many of these politicians have told the "NewsHour" their stories of fear and concern while trying to do their jobs.

    Candice Norwood is the digital politics reporter who led the reporting effort for "NewsHour," and she joins me now.

    Candice, welcome to you. Thanks for being here.

  • Candice Norwood:

    Hi, Amna. Thanks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we want to unpack a little bit more about some of this remarkable reporting you have spent months pulling together.

    But, first, let's just take a quick listen to some of the women you spoke to.

  • Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn.:

    I remember, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, when we were just spotlighting and highlighting the beautiful diversity of this incoming Congress, but then, on every caucus call, we had members who were getting death threats on a daily basis.

  • Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga.:

    Early on, when we were getting the list of, like, credible threats coming in for members of Congress, they were centered around members of color.

    And there are only 25 Black women that serve in the United States Congress. So it's not like I can blend in with my colleagues, because there's not that many of us.

  • Rep. Attica Scott, D-Ky.:

    I am always thinking, wow, OK, if somebody came in to the Capitol Building right now and they wanted to shoot all the Black people here, what's my plan? How do I escape? How do I get out of here?

  • Desiree Tims:

    One of the turning points for me and my campaign was during the George Floyd protests when someone — we still don't know who — drove by one of the Democratic Party offices in my district, where my sign was in the window, there were Black Lives Matter signs in the window, and someone shot bullet holes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Candice, it is incredibly disturbing to hear those fears and concerns from those four women.

    You spoke to a number of women, though, right? How common were those experiences?

  • Candice Norwood:

    I and my reporting partners, Chloe Jones and Lizz Bolaji, spoke with 18 women in politics, Black women in politics at all levels of government, and 17 of them recounted similar experiences with verbal abuse and physical threats.

    Kiah Morris is a former Vermont legislator who suffered years of harassment and finally resigned in 2018. At the time, she and her husband lived in his childhood home and decided to move for safety concerns to a different city. But even in that new city and that new home, their now 10-year-old son built a panic room-type space, remembering the kind of the experiences they had back in their previous city.

    And it's not just physical threats. It's also verbal abuse. And these women recounted experiencing a daily barrage of these verbal attacks.

    Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby recounted an experience listening to a voice-mail that was sent to her that was laced with expletives and racial slurs. And we actually have a clip that we're going to play now.

    And a warning to our viewers: It does contain strong language.

  • Caller:

    If we'd known you all were going to be this much trouble, we would have picked our own (EXPLETIVE DELETED) cotton.

  • Candice Norwood:

    And I should also note that, though we spoke with 18 women, we did receive some hesitation and some reluctance to speak with us.

    And we heard not only from academic experts we spoke with, but also the women themselves that, when they do speak out on these issues, they often see a rise in the abusive treatment, the attacks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also asked many of these women what it's like to carry that fear and concern through their days as they're doing this job. Let's take a listen to what some of them had to say.

    California Secretary of State, Shirley Weber: You have a heavier responsibility. Your community's looking at you to represent them well. The rest of the world thinks, when you open your mouth, you represent all Black people.

    And so it does become one of these situations where you really are carrying the weight of the world.

  • Rep. Jahana Hayes:

    I used the line, "When Congress starts to look like us."

    If Congress starts to look like us, no one can stop us.

    And there was an onslaught of just backlash. What so many people were hearing was, when Congress is all Black women, if that's all you see when you look at me, then you forget the fact that I'm a mother and a teacher and a community member a Christian. All these different things that I am are lost.

  • Rep. Attica Scott:

    I intentionally came here knowing I was going to be the only Black woman and that I have natural hair. And so I speak a very even tone, just monotone, every time I'm speaking in committee or on the floor, because I don't get the right to do like the white men do and slam books down and yell and be — use my outside voice all the time.

    I don't have that privilege.

  • Kia Morris:

    This is an incredibly crushing weight to carry on a daily basis. It is mentally exhausting to live in constant fear, feeling like you're in a state of constant fight or flight, and not knowing who to trust.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's so revealing, Candice, to hear them talking about the pressure that they face every day in the job.

    But you asked them about what it took to get to that job in the first place. What did they share with you?

  • Candice Norwood:


    So, we know that, in speaking with women broadly, but also women from underrepresented backgrounds, including Black women, that just to get them to run for office, they often have to be asked. And so the women we spoke with described going through a series of mental steps to even enter that race.

    That includes things like childcare, things like what a political campaign, what that strain would put on their families, and also the safety measures. Black women tend to think about the legacy that they're leaving and the doors that they're opening for other people. So they feel that pressure.

    And we also know that women broadly and also Black women are less likely to run for office again than white men if they don't succeed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what did they tell you about how all of this impacts the work that they do, the issues that they prioritize once they're in office?

  • Candice Norwood:

    Black women feel deeply connected to their communities that they are being elected to represent.

    And research indicates that Black legislators broadly really champion issues that center the needs of different Black communities. And so they're promoting things based on their diverse backgrounds. They're often coming from backgrounds that are underrepresented in different institutions of power.

    So, someone who's connected to immigration, someone who comes from a life of poverty or a single parent household holds, that informs the work that they do and the bills that they're sponsoring.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amid all this pressure and amid all this barrier-breaking in many cases, even the fear of death threats in many cases, you asked them about what it is that keeps them going.

    Let's take a listen to what some of them had to say.

  • Brenda Thiam:

    I chose this road. No one forced me. No one tied me up and said, do it, and if you don't — I chose this path.

  • Rep. Nikema Williams:

    When things are happening, especially around issues of civil rights and voting rights, I have an obligation to speak up and stand up for my community.

  • Shirely Weber:

    There's no way I can erase being Black or female. And I wouldn't if I could. So, I just have to keep moving forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Candice, when you spoke to all these women, heard all of their stories, what is it that stood out to you about all their experiences?

  • Candice Norwood:

    The weight of being one of a few to be in these positions of power and what that means, and this idea of: If I'm not the one to champion these issues, who will be, but also the idea some women want to stay in power to push back against a common response that they hear that, you're a public official, you have chosen this life, this life, meaning a life of threats and things like that.

    And they are saying, no, right? And staying in power is a way to refute that. But then we also spoke to women who have hard lines. Congresswoman Lauren Underwood from Illinois was very candid about her feelings on being in public office and saying that she is not willing to die to do this work. There are other ways to serve her community.

    And if the threats grow, if they become worse, she's willing to walk away.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is a remarkable piece of reporting. It lives online at the "NewsHour"'s Web site.

    And I know you led your team for months to pull it together.

    Candice Norwood, thank you so much for being here.

  • Candice Norwood:

    Thank you.

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