Making Black Women Visible in Presidential Politics: A Conversation About Race, Gender, and Running for the Oval Office

Presidential Gender Watch asked Dr. Niambi Carter, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Howard University and co-author of “Gender and Black Presidential Politics: From Chisholm to Moseley-Braun” (with Paula D. McClain and Michael C. Brady), to weigh in on race, gender, and presidential politics historically and in the 2016 campaign. See our conversation here and share your thoughts in the comments section or on social media.

1. Some of your previous work investigated the distinct challenges facing and experiences of the two Black women who have run for president – Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun. Do you think the women running in 2016 can learn from either of their candidacies? How have their campaigns benefited from those historic candidacies?

I think the women running in 2016 could definitely learn a lesson from Shirley Chisholm’s candidacy.  There is scant reference to Chisholm, however, in discussions of presidential politics.  When she is discussed, it is often with respect to race and not gender.  I think Chisholm demonstrated the power of a grassroots campaign.  With virtually no support from the Democratic Party and little in the way of organization, Chisholm put together a “serious” campaign that challenged her contemporaries in ways they didn’t expect.  She also was unafraid to challenge the Democratic Party structure.  Chisholm invoked her right to “equal time” via the FCC when she was being (intentionally) excluded from debates.  Moreover, she used her delegates at the Miami convention to try and leverage the Democratic Party to take seriously the issues she and her constituents cared about and make them part of the Democratic Party platform for the general election (e.g. equal pay for women, pro-choice, racial equality).   This was a strategy invoked by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.

The virtual ignorance of Chisholm, I think, speaks to the continuing invisibility of Black women in American politics.  As a candidate, Chisholm had to respond to questions about whether she could appeal to white voters and if Black people would support her.  Unfortunately, we still live in a world where it seems that all the women are white and all the Blacks are men.

In some ways, the women in this race – because they are white – do not have the same challenges as Chisholm because their whiteness allows them access to the mainstream in ways for which Chisholm could not hope.  While they still have to answer questions about their gender, the women in this race are better resourced than Chisholm ever was, especially Hillary Clinton.  These women benefit from Chisholm because her candidacy exposed the failures of mainstream party politics for candidates who do not have the benefit of being white, male, or wealthy.  Whether these women will take heed to the Chisholm candidacy is another issue entirely.  My guess is they will not and neither will popular media because the focus will be on Geraldine Ferraro and/or Sarah Palin because they actually made it on the presidential ticket.

2. Black women voted at the highest rates of all race-gender cohorts in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Do you think that enthusiasm will continue in 2016? Why or why not?

I think the enthusiasm will drop in 2016 because Barack Obama is not running.  While Black women will not become non-voters, there is not a candidate that will replicate the enthusiasm Obama created among Black women voters in 2008 and 2012.  This is partly due to what Michael Dawson calls “linked fate,” where Blacks think that what happens to other Black people matters in their lives.  This sense of linked fate manifests politically in the choices Black people make at the polls, particularly where there is a Black (Democratic) candidate.  We saw similar upticks in Black voting when Jesse Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988.  There is something about having the ability to vote for someone who looks like you that compels voters of all stripes.  Barack Obama’s candidacy represented the first time Black people had the opportunity to vote for a candidate who was Black and could win white votes.

Lastly, while I have no empirical evidence, we cannot understate how much Michelle Obama factors into the outpouring of support in 2008 and 2012.  Black women appreciate Michelle Obama because she is unapologetically Black.  She has not backed away from Black people and Black women, appearing at HBCU commencements and Black Girls Rock!  The fact that Barack Obama loves a woman like Michelle Obama, who is intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, and unambiguously Black, suggests something about how Obama feels about Black women. This is not a small thing.  It is rare that Black women are affirmed in the political landscape.  The fact that we see a Black woman who looks like “us” in the White House cannot be under-appreciated.  His personal relationships to the Black women in his life (Michelle Obama, his daughters, and Mrs. Robinson, his mother-in-law) makes him a man “worthy” of Black women’s continued support.

Black women will continue to vote in high numbers for Democrats, but no candidate can replicate the Obama momentum of 2008 and 2012 among this population of voters.

3. Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have addressed current events and issues around race relations in different ways, with some facing backlash for their attentiveness, language, or policy proposals. In what ways do you think the repeated instances of police violence against Black men and women and the fallout from the murders in South Carolina (and subsequent debate over the Confederate flag) might influence the remainder of the presidential election? How do you think these events will influence voters’ enthusiasm, engagement, or expectations for candidates? How will – or should – candidates respond?

I believe this is an important moment for candidates to intervene in the discussions that communities of color are having all of the time with regard to their abuse, mistreatment, imprisonment, and outright murder at the hands of state-sponsored institutions.  Indeed, what we are seeing is the result of bad policy decisions made by some of these very same candidates.  For example, Martin O’Malley’s (D-MD) so-called “zero-tolerance” policy when he was mayor of Baltimore is credited with increasing the number of young, Black men’s interactions with law enforcement and creating a cadre of young people with criminal records.  Therefore, in light of the deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Sam DuBose, Tamir Rice, the Charleston Nine and the many other Black people who have lost their lives, the candidates have to, at the very least, acknowledge the legacy of racism.  Moreover, like many in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and those associated with similar causes like “Ban the Box” have demonstrated, we should not solely focus on these deaths.  We should also be paying attention to the crushing poverty, inadequate education, lack of quality food and recreation, and incredible rates of incarceration and the implications for these arrest records on the long-term employability and success of returning citizens.  In short, institutional racism is real and destructive and no serious candidate can truly declare the “race problem” solved.

If candidates cannot bring themselves to condemn overt acts of racism when they see it or even say something as radical and simple as #BlackLivesMatter, then they should absolutely be prepared for the condemnation, protest, and criticism they rightfully deserve; all of these activities are, in fact, political engagement.  You cannot ask for Black votes if you cannot acknowledge and act on the pains and challenges of this community.  In fairness, Hillary Clinton did make a rather forceful statement about guns and race in the wake of Charleston, SC, as did Ben Carson, but neither she nor any other candidates should remain silent about race in this election.

4. Last week marked the first GOP presidential debate, where 7 white men and 3 men of color, but no women, were on the main debate stage. What difference – if any – does it make to have gender and racial diversity in presidential debates? What are the implications for policy discussions and/or voter engagement for Republicans and – as their debates begin – Democrats?

I’m unsure how much it matters.  The optics may be better if there is more diversity.  If there is no diversity of opinion, however, it does not really matter who is on stage.  I think a person’s identity is not always a good measure of their policy positions.  Yet, we do know symbolic and descriptive representation matter for making citizens who feel marginalized in the political process more engaged and efficacious.  At this stage, however, debates are really for the most engaged, most partisan voters.  Sure, if someone saw someone that looked like them they might be more willing to tune in, but I would not suggest anyone be discouraged at this point.  There is still time for newer voters to be brought into the fold.  While it may be disappointing, or even sad, that is 2015 and we have so little diversity in party politics, this has been going on for decades and will continue if there is no pipeline and these organizations are not held accountable.  This is why candidates like Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson were so important because they socialized a group of party operatives (e.g. Donna Brazile), future officeholders (e.g. Cong. Barbara Lee), and voters.


Carter-Niambi-7464Dr. Niambi Carter is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Howard University.  A proud Temple University alum earning her BA in African American studies with a minor in political science (1999). She received her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University (2007) working primarily in the area of American politics with a specific focus on race and ethnic politics.  Her work has appeared in numerous publications, such as the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology, Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy, Journal of African American Studies, and many others.  She is currently developing a book manuscript on African American public opinion on immigration. Prof. Carter’s other work examines the politics of lynching, the meaning of citizenship for African Americans, the nature of political ideology for African Americans.