Lack Of Black Women In Congress Is A Huge Problem

As we spend the coming days engaging in endless analysis of the results of the 2014 Midterm Elections, there is one stark fact that will remain unchanged regardless of who comes out victorious: Congress has an undeniable diversity problem. And while all people of color are dramatically underrepresented on Capitol Hill, the problem is especially egregious when it comes to black women. Simply put, there are not nearly enough of them in Congress.

Going into this year's Midterm Elections, there were 16 seats in Congress held by black women (two of which are non-voting seats). Among all of the candidates running for the 43 House seats up for grabs in this election, only two were black females: Mia Love, a Republican who won representation of the 4th Congressional district in Utah against Doug Owens, a white male Democrat, and Democrat Joyce Dickerson, who lost the Senate seat in South Carolina to incumbent Tim Scott, a black male Republican.

Throughout the entirely of American history, Mia Love makes a total of 52 women of color to hold Congressional seats. Fifty-two. Out of the thousands of people who have served in these elected positions. Here are some other staggering (but sadly, not too surprising) facts about black women in elected U.S. political offices:

  • Out of the 99 women in our current Congress, only 16 are African American (including two non-voting delegates serve who represent the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.)
  • Two out of 72 women serving in statewide elected executive offices are African American.
  • 241 of the 1,789 women state legislators serving nationwide are African American.
  • Only one of the mayors of the 100 largest U.S. cities is African American.

And most of those are just the start ratios of representation compared to other women. To view black women's inclusion in political offices against men would, naturally, show even more extreme disparities. And it's not like there are sky-high numbers of black men in Congress either; there are only 44 total African American members of the 113th Congress before today's election.

So what's the deal? Do black women simply not care to be involved in political matters? The numbers show that is patently untrue: Black women had the highest voter turn-out of any segment of the population in 2008 and 2012, but currently make up less than 3 percent of the representatives in Congress. Clearly, black women are more engaged with politics than most other demographics, but they are still woefully absent from candidacy, meaning this inequity in representation must have roots elsewhere. Unfortunately, it's a place we know all too well. The 2014 Midterm Elections, in addition to all the other things it helps illuminate about where our country is and where it's heading, are reinforcing the fact that the role of black women in this country is still infuriatingly restricted.

Here are some facts about black women in the U.S., courtesy of an awesome report from the Washington Post:

What these facts — and honestly, so many more — come together to express is the complex, multi-faceted reality that exists when millions of black women live in a country where they are more likely to be paid less, have access only to drastically lower quality education and healthcare, and be infinitely more likely to be incarcerated more often and punished more severely than their white counterparts. Which is to say: You can't examine why there are so few black women holding Congressional seats, despite quantifiable evidence to their incredibly high degree of political engagement, without finding the answer lies in the many ways that black women in the U.S. are systemically underserved, disempowered, and largely burdened with a hell of a harder fight to get to somewhere like Congress than anyone else.

Hopefully, we pay attention to this lack of equal representation in Congress, especially since it feels especially and uncomfortably stark this year. Hopefully, we can understand — and encourage our elected officials to understand — that when white and/or male lawmakers exclusively advocate for the needs of themselves and constituents with racial and socio-economic backgrounds similar to their own, they are actively (not passively or incidentally) oppressing huge portions of the American population. Hopefully, the near-absence of black women from Capitol Hill will remind the rest of us that we have a pressing obligation to start focusing much more on the needs of black women that they might be granted the same tools and opportunities as other segments of the population.

Below are the names of the 16 black women currently serving in Congress. Mostly, I'm including their names because you should click on them and read their bios because they are a bunch of insanely impressive people.

Joyce Beatty

Frederica Wilson

Terri Sewell

Karen Bass

Marcia L. Fudge

Donna F. Edwards

Laura Richardson

Yvette Clarke

Gwendolynne Moore

Barbara Lee

Donna M. Christensen

Sheila Jackson Lee

Eddie Bernice Johnson

Corrine Brown

Maxine Waters

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Image: Getty Images