Women of colour shouldn’t be pawns in your politics

Op-eds Opinions

How Elizabeth Warren should be proposing to protect Black mothers in the US government

Stock photo by mdfriendofhillary

United States Senator Elizabeth Warren is once again attempting to define her presidential platform through race, this time by targeting women of colour to gain campaign momentum for the 2020 Democratic nomination. In the essay “Valuing the Work of Women of Colour”, released by her team on Medium last month, Warren invokes an intersectional argument on why and how she will narrow the gender racial pay gap, starting on day one of her administration. However, Warren’s initiative could hurt the women she proposes to help.

Warren begins the essay by stating that more than 70 percent of Black mothers are sole breadwinners, compared to less than a quarter of white mothers. Even though Black women participate in the labour force in greater numbers, Warren explains that “the gap in weekly earnings between white and Black women is higher today than it was 40 years ago.”

By presenting these statistics, Warren manages to reassure the mainstream public that helping women of colour will help the economy, because women of colour are significant contributors to the economy. However, even though Warren highlights intersectionality, she fails to convey to her audience the “multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression [are] experienced,” which places her initiative at risk of being perceived as a plan that supports preferential treatment. 

If Black women are perceived as benefitting from preferential treatment, it also may place Black women at greater risk for violence. With white nationalism on the rise, in the U.S and around the world, this violence could be fatal. Thus, it is imperative to elaborate how inclusivity and diversity in the workplace should also consider the safety of women of colour in and outside of the workplace.

Warren goes on to strengthen her argument by promising the creation of executive orders that would impose new requirements and bans on companies who do not comply with these new policies. One new requirement for federal contractors will be to “extend a $15 minimum wage and benefits … to all employees.” Along with holding the private sector accountable, Warren also proposes leadership roles for women of colour in the federal government through what she terms “the Equal Opportunity Executive Order.”

But these proposed executive orders are a short-term solution and could be overturned. Instead of focusing on narrowing the gendered racial pay gap and placing diverse leadership roles within the government , Warren should actively encourage, recruit, and nominate Black mothers to political office and work hard to ensure they get elected. 

Warren’s efforts to get more Black mothers elected could trigger a contagion effect  — a situation where a very competitive woman candidate could compel the other parties to consider nominating Black mothers. And, it could help transform how Black youth engage with politics, especially those whose mothers, aunties and grandmothers are involved in political leadership.

However, having more Black mothers in political leadership roles will not subvert sexism. For example, although Michelle Obama served her country as First Lady, dedicating eight years to the political role, her work is undermined every time she is asked to serve as President.  Yet, even after she has said she has zero interest in politics, her decision continues to be dismissed every time this question — and the sacrifice that the role entails — is asked of her. 

Nominating and electing Black mothers will not subvert racism either. Donald Trump’s tweets that explicitly told four Congresswomen to go back to the country they  originally came from is one example of racism more women of colour could face. 

Still, there are institutional measures that should be considered within political parties to ensure that women of colour aren’t being nominated and elected in ways that encourage sexism and racism. 

One political party measure that could be taken to subvert sexism and racism is by ensuring Black mothers aren’t being nominated as sacrificial lambs — situations that place nominated women in ridings and jurisdictions where their chances of winning are low. This could be done by nominating women into winnable ridings and jurisdictions. Another measure that could be considered is to ensure women aren’t being elected into leadership roles to save their political party from a crisis — a phenomenon known as the glass cliff,  which also ends up disposing the women from leadership positions if they are perceived of failing to save the political party. 

Securing these institutional measures will help subvert sexist tropes of women as mothers who either sacrifice for the nation or fix problems for it  (as they would for their children). Moreover, these measures will also protect Black mothers from racist “mammy” caricatures, which sustain ideas of Black women as subservient caregivers to the white nation. Gaining the power of elected office could also prevent politicians like Warren from using Black mothers as political pawns.

If Warren, indeed, wants to support women of colour, instead of inserting Black mothers into a political agenda that could potentially lead to violence against women of colour, she should encourage, recruit, nominate, work hard to elect their leadership. 

But most importantly, she should use her platform to support and protect the political leadership from women of colour that already exists.