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Women of Color Are Making History Ahead of Midterms

While the more important battles will come in November’s general elections, the primary races have already indicated that we are witnessing a game-changing moment in the nation’s political landscape.

Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, speaks at a 2013 event at Boston's Reggie Lewis Center. (Photo: Ktr101/ Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

It has been a banner year for women running in elections across the country in statehouse, gubernatorial and congressional races. But women of color, who have been so dramatically underrepresented in the halls of power for so long, are making particularly significant gains. What’s even more exciting is that many of them are going beyond standard identity politics and espousing strongly progressive positions. While the more important battles will come in November’s general elections, the primary races have already indicated that we are witnessing a game-changing moment in the nation’s political landscape.

Much has been written about the breakout star of the New York primary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned the nation in an overwhelming victory against top Democrat Joe Crowley in the Bronx and Queens for a House seat. The 28-year-old self-identified democratic socialist of Puerto Rican heritage, who is expected to handily beat her little-known Republican opponent in November, is slated to become the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.

Two progressive Muslim women—Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Somali-American Ilhan Omar in Minnesota—recently won their respective Democratic Party primaries for seats in the House. Both women are running in strongly Democratic districts, with Tlaib poised to win the seat vacated by John Conyers and Omar appearing likely to replace Rep. Keith Ellison (who has stepped down to run for another office). Together, they would lead the way as the first Muslim women to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. Even more significantly, both women espouse core progressive demands such as “Medicare for all,” abolishing ICE, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

New Mexico’s Deb Haaland could also make history in November, if she beats her Republican opponent, Janice Arnold-Jones, by becoming the nation’s first Native American woman to serve in Congress. A new poll showed her with a small but significant lead against Arnold-Jones, who is a Trumpian Republican. Haaland is also progressive, especially on issues of women’s reproductive rights. She could be joined in Congress by Sharice Davids, another Native American woman, who won a Democratic primary in Kansas. If Davids wins her House race in November, she would break an additional record—becoming the first openly gay congresswoman from Kansas, as well as the first member of the indigenous LGBT community to hold federal office. If Davids and Haaland both win, they would be the first two Native American women to become members of Congress.

Black women are also making their voices heard in this year’s elections. Jahana Hayes just won Connecticut’s Democratic primary race for a House seat, backing Medicare for all, abortion rights and other progressive policies. If she wins in November, Hayes would become Connecticut’s first-ever black female congressional representative. Journalist and activist Shaun King celebrated that primary win, writing that Hayes would “likely become the only black leader serving in the U.S. House or Senate from all of New England. She would also become one of only a few black members of Congress serving a district where white people make up a majority of the voting population.” Another black woman, Ayanna Pressley, is challenging an incumbent white male House representative, Michael Capuano, in Massachusetts’ Sept. 4 primary.

Women are also running for governor in states across the nation. A record number, 11, have already won their primary races to become major-party nominees. Among them is Stacey Abrams, who’s running for governor of Georgia. If Abrams beats President Trump’s favored candidate, Republican nominee Brian Kemp, she would become the nation’s first black female governor—an all the more impressive feat in a Deep South state like Georgia. Her opponent, Kemp, is so virulently right-wing that a New York Times opinion writer labeled him an “Enemy of Democracy.” Meanwhile, Abrams is running on a leftist platform, having won support from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Even if some of these women don’t win their races against Republicans in November, they have already achieved much. Aimee Allison, president of the advocacy group Democracy in Color, told me in an interview that “women of color largely are Democrats, and they’re the most likely to face challenges by other Democrats in their own party. So as the most ‘primaried’ group of people, getting through the primary process is quite something.”

“These women did not get party support,” Allison said. “They didn’t get the typical validators, donors, people that are typically considered gate keepers. And yet, they’re being very, very successful.”

These progressive women of color embody in a tangible manner the worst fears of white supremacists like Trump, his supporters and advisers. They are the demographic opposite of the Republican base, which is dominated by white males.

A decade ago, when Barack Obama won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, the backlash against people of color assuming higher political office ramped up, with Obama’s skin tone and ethnic background provoking an irrational hatred among extremist conservatives. Trump was part of that group with his unrelenting “birther” allegations claiming that Obama was born outside the U.S. Today, the Republican Party is seeing the natural outcome of its constant flirtation with racist policies, all the way from the Nazi-sympathizing Republican House nominee Steve West in Missouri to the white supremacist in the White House.

Sadly, as Allison implied, the Democratic Party isn’t living up to expectations either. It resists fully embracing the progressive women of color running this November, even as it has long relied on nonwhite voters to faithfully and uncritically back the party. Subsequently, candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and others have found new ways to win elections, relying on clearly defined progressive policy positions and working hard to increase voter turnout through grassroots efforts. Allison put it this way: “They’re creating a new path to being at the table, winning their primaries, and ultimately having a good shot of getting into office in November.”

“Something’s happening that’s coming up from underground,” concluded Allison about the groundswell of support for female candidates of color. “For generations, women of color have been part of expanding democracy, fighting for civil and human rights.” Indeed, since the nation’s founding, women of color have had the least political representation—with 90 percent of elected positions at all levels of government being white and mostly male. The importance of incumbency—holding office makes you more likely to win re-election and stay in office—keeps that political power concentrated in the same hands year after year.

But in a few decades, women of color will outnumber white women in America, and Allison is hopeful that the recent wave of primary successes is just the beginning. “Running for office is the latest iteration of insisting that we have the representation, people power, and a social, economic and racial justice agenda that can transform our country,” she said.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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