Why Black women candidates had mixed results in the midterm elections

A record number of Black women ran for office this year for U.S. House, Senate and governor. And while some made history with their wins, Black women are still underrepresented in public office. Nadia Brown, the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University, joined Lisa Desjardins to discuss the issue.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A record number of Black women ran for office this year for U.S. House, Senate and governor. And while some made history with their wins, Black women are still underrepresented in public office.

    Lisa Desjardins reports.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's not the first time mayor-elect Karen Bass has made history.

    Karen Bass (D), Los Angeles Mayor-Elect: Good morning everyone.

  • CROWD:

    Good morning.

  • Karen Bass:

    What a morning it is.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    First elected to the California State Assembly in 2004, she entered as the only Black woman in the chamber. She went on to become the first Black woman speaker in any statehouse. And, 18 years later, she breaks another barrier as the first woman elected mayor of Los Angeles.

  • Karen Bass:

    It is with a special feeling in my heart and with the thoughts of my mother and my daughters and all of the women in this city that I stand before you in this place as the next mayor of Los Angeles.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Her win is a bright spot for Black women candidates in a year of mixed and, for many, disappointing results. At the Capitol, five Black women, all Democrats, enter what could be the most diverse House ever including, member-elect Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, the first Black woman to represent that state.

    Republicans, meanwhile, ran their most diverse slate of candidates to date, but no Black women won their races.

    Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), Senatorial Candidate: I want to thank you all so much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the Senate, losses for Democrats Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina mean the chamber remains without a single Black female senator. Only two have ever served there.

    Stacey Abrams (D), Georgia Gubernatorial Candidate: I got into this race for one reason and one reason only, to fight, and not just any fight, a fight to save Georgia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And Stacey Abrams' defeat in Georgia leaves one glass ceiling intact. There has never been a Black woman governor in any state.

  • Stacey Abrams:

    I know the results are not what we hoped for tonight. And I understand that you are hurting and you are disappointed. I am too. We may not have made it to the finish line, but we ran that race.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A disheartening outcome for a group that votes in high numbers, still waiting for equal representation in politics.

    Joining us to discuss this is Nadia Brown, the director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University.

    Nadia, a big year for Black women, wins and losses, but why, big picture, do you think this was a significant year?

  • Nadia Brown, Georgetown University:

    This was a significant year because Black women continue to run and — for elected office, but not win all the time, and because Black women are a steadfast voting bloc and Black women have been forcing themselves to be heard in American politics, right?

    So, we see this with grassroots activists. We see this with local elected officials and the federal government. But we're not seeing them always end up in the positions that they run for. So the big picture is that these women are the stalwarts of American democracy, but then don't always have the payouts that we would like to see.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Doing the work, but not always getting into office.

  • Nadia Brown:

    Exactly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Looking at the numbers, our team during the research, we noticed something about this year's election. Let's take a look at who was elected, who will be taking office next year, what offices people will hold.

    Black women in office next year, 27 Black women in the U.S. House. As we said, that's a record, but zero in the U.S. Senate, zero in governor's mansion across the country. Why, in particular, do you think we see this ceiling, some kind of concrete ceiling for statewide offices for Black women?

  • Nadia Brown:

    So, the governor's office and the Senate are both statewide elected office. So that means that you have to be elected with a plurality of people in that state to win.

    We see that Black women do a much better job winning in smaller locations, right, so if they're representing someone in a smaller district than they are having to represent the entire state.

    And so my research shows that sometimes voters and the media have different perspectives of Black women candidates, that they can only do very niche, small things. They're only experts in much smaller issues around Black women's health or issues that are affecting women or issues that are affecting Black people, not big issues like taxes, not big issues like immigration, right?

    And so they're kind of weeded out of these big roles, because we're not seen in that light.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How much of this do you think is systemic? I read one Democratic strategist in Georgia said, Stacey Abrams needs to own some of her loss, that she didn't spend enough time in a state, that strategist said.

    How much of this is systemic? How much of this is candidates?

  • Nadia Brown:

    That's a really great question, because, this year, there were really great candidates, right?

    So I think this would be a different question that we can go back and nitpick on what candidates didn't do that they could have done better. But, really, these were quality candidates all around. The second part is that, yes, we have to own the fact that the United States is still a racist, sexist culture, where women are held to higher standards and are not perceived to be as capable leaders in other standards, right?

    And there's also just bigger issues around donations of who is seen by the political parties as viable candidates. There are messaging issues, again, which the media wants to try to hamstring women to say that these are sort of issues that we're going to come to you to talk about as experts and others that were not, right?

    So, they can kind of…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Maybe family, but not the economy?

  • Nadia Brown:

    Family, not the economy, right, or feminized issues, not these masculinized issues, right, again, family, not the economy, or racialized issues. I'm going to talk to you about civil rights. I'm not going to talk to you about something that is seen as more universal.

    Maybe it's tax policy, right? But things that affect Black women, they shouldn't be experts on talking about, right? But they don't get framed as such.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We mentioned that Republicans had this record year, though none of their candidates for Congress won among Black women.

    But your research focuses especially among Democrats.

  • Nadia Brown:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I wonder, where do you see the landscape for Black women who aspire to lead in the Democratic Party right now?

  • Nadia Brown:

    So, the women that I speak with in my research have really hurt feelings around the Democratic Party.

    And some of that is just listening to them and believing them. So that's number one, right? So, their policies and issues, they're the best people to speak about those, as opposed to having a proxy person who might be progressive, but who doesn't share their background, their culture, their understanding of political issues.

    The second is that there really has to be a different kind of consideration around how the party supports candidates. So, if the party were to get involved in primary elections, where we know, for a lot of Black women, particularly those that are running in majority-minority districts, that's where the real race is, right?

    It's not at the general. And so putting money into the primary is really where we could see women having much more of a chance. The other thing is being told to wait their turn, right? And so there's a hierarchy of, wait your turn, this person is next, and then maybe you, who might be 40, or 30, or 20. You would have to get past the 80-, the 70-, the 60-year-olds, right, for your turn to run.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As we wrap up, this — I'm sorry to ask this in such a brief way, but why does it matter if Black women are represented equally?

  • Nadia Brown:

    So, I think for democracy to work, all voices have to be heard at the table. And if some people aren't at the table, we don't get the fullness, the richness of their views, of their opinions, and actually how politics and policies might be hurting them.

    So, my own research, for example, shows, when Black women are left out, there are more very well-intentioned policies that see them as an afterthought. So, an example, minority business enterprises, which might look at women separately and minorities separately in order to do contracts with the state, and be a quota system to do contracts with the state, well, where do minority women go?

    Do they get to apply as a woman? Do they get to apply as a racialized minority? And so it was Black women who came to the table and said, this policy doesn't make any sense for us, right? So, that's a very easy, well-intentioned policy that I think both white women and Black men had thought, we are doing something great here policy-wise, but they were leaving out minoritized women.

    And it was having those voices at the table that said, wait a minute, right? Like, there's something that's wrong here. And so it's not just Black women that I'm advocating for. This is what my research says, but everyone needs a seat at the table, because those kinds of issues are up. And we don't know that they're there, unless other people who are hurt and affected by those are there at the table to talk about it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Nadia Brown of Georgetown University, thank you so much.

  • Nadia Brown:

    Thank you for having me.

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