Misrepresentation and Marginalization
How representative politics ignores Black women's well-being
In 2020, when Kamala Harris became vice president-elect, and the first African American woman to reach the vice presidency, I was interviewed by the newspaper on my thoughts about the historical moment. For the first time in our nation's history, Black women would have "representation" in the White House. In my interview, I told the reporter that without centering on the political issues of Black women in America, Kamala Harris' win would be meaningless to their everyday lives.
Representative politics has failed Black Americans, and especially Black women. What "representation" has given us, is decades of electing people who look like us, or share our gender, into office who rubber stamp the unending targeting and oppression of our people and other people of color. African American women suffer from higher rates of gendered violence, job discrimination, and food insecurity and only a few people in government care about our issues.
Misogynoir, "[the] hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against Black women," is an endemic American problem that creates a quality of life crisis for African American women. We wither away as institutions and the people behind them create policies that assault Black liberties, while touting racially destructive stereotypes. As one of the most marginalized groups in America, representative politics has failed to protect Black women's mental health, healthcare, and wages. Black women are no longer tolerating our self-interests and political power being ignored.
For almost 60 years, Black women voters have shown up for the Democratic party and we have little material good to show for it. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, the Democratic party has relied on Black women voters as a reliable base. In 2020, African American women were lauded online for "saving America" when post-election polling was published. In that election, around 46 percent of white women voted for former President Trump, whereas almost 90 percent of Black women voted for President Biden (Chapin, 2020). The Biden and Harris re-election campaign are expecting African American women to hold the line this November. We are not a monolith, and they should not be so confident.
Black women are not going to "save" America this election year. We have to focus on saving ourselves, because we're tired of voting for the illusions of progress. The lack of political and economic security for African American women is making us reevaluate our relationships to academia, the workforce, and the two-party political system. For us, the personal is political, because our lives depend on it.
On Jan. 8, 2024, after months of disregarded complaints of alleged harassment at the hands of her university president, Dr. Antoinette Bailey, vice president at Lincoln University of Missouri (a historically Black university) took her own life. Just days before, Harvard University President Claudine Gay, Harvard's first African American female president, resigned from her position. Stories like these, family histories, and personal experiences inform the world view of young Black women like myself who are disenchanted by local and national policy choices because we see that even the most decorated of us can be assaulted and no one but ourselves will care.
Society's neglect of Black women's issues have deadly consequences, "CDC data show that Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, with most maternal deaths being preventable. The heightened risk spans all income and education levels" (Bervell, 2023). This dissonance of care causes mental distress in Black women and allows undetected medical issues to persist to the point of irreversible damage or death. If we lived in a society that took Black women's mortality rates and mental health seriously, women like Dr. Antoinette Bailey would still be alive today.
With the Biden administration seemingly ignoring the calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and underwhelming in their efforts to restore abortion care access and Affirmative Action, African American women are receiving the message that Democratic (and Republican) policy interests reflect an investment in maintaining America's racial capitalist caste system. A caste system where Black Americans sit at the bottom: "Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things" (Wilkerson, 2020).
All Americans are taught to observe, maintain, and protect the American racial caste system, and it starts when we're small children. A recent law study found that, "adults believe Black girls ages five to 19 need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort than white girls of the same age, and that Black girls are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls" (Research Confirms that Black Girls Feel the Sting of Adultification Bias Identified in Earlier Georgetown Law Study, 2019). These racist notions follow Black girls all their lives from the classroom to the workroom.
America's unaddressed racist and genocidal roots show up everyday for African American women. For us the Civil Rights Movement never ended. "Median wages for Black women in the United States are $36,303 per year, compared to the median wages of $57,005 annually for White, non-Hispanic men. This amounts to the difference of $20,702 each year" (Heckstall, 2023). No matter how well-behaved we are, now matter what heights we raise ourselves to, Black women remain second-class citizens. The long existing wage gap is characteristic of our abandonment and tokenization. Instead of tangible material change and resources, African Americans are expected to be content with electing Democrats, or people who look like us regardless of party, into office while receiving no benefits. The era of representative politics, where African Americans tolerate the lack of substantive change and policies is ending.
For decades, neo-liberal politics have pivoted Black liberation efforts away from empowerment and mutual aid, towards identity politics and electoral cycles. Instead of addressing the economic and political wealth chasm caused by wealthy elites, politicians from both major parties focus public attention away from the profiteering of their corporate sponsors, toward the labels, or identities, of the people allegedly running this country into the ground. It is a farce in a country where anyone can be bought, to care if the person robbing you blind is white or Black.
African Americans recognize that representative politics is performative and does nothing to protect their livelihoods. Young Black women like myself are leaving the Democratic party, and as long as the racial wealth gap exists, our mental health crisis is ignored, and medical racism exacerbates our health problems, Black women will continue to look for ways to build ourselves and our community outside of white party politics, government, academia, and business institutions. We will not sit in quiet reverie this Black History Month. We will not indiscriminately give our votes away to any party or candidate, no matter their race or gender. This month, and for the rest of the year, we will be actively raising our voices and doing the work to uplift ourselves and our communities. It's time for a new way of doing politics, one that does not abandon Black women's well-being.
"The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman."
— Malcolm X
Marty Nwachukwu is a community organizer and chapter director for Erie County United. She can be reached at email@example.com