The idea of government, whether big or small, and the role it plays in the individual and collective lives of Black people is a constant discussion in Black communities, even when government itself isn’t named. The prevailing notion that social problems are the direct result of programs, policies and directives of the existing governmental/legal structures is cultural fact. It is also borne of the undeniable presence of statistical circumstance. While most Black people know this anecdotally, the Sentencing Project affirms at every significant mark of the system, police activity, trials, assignment of defense counsel, prosecution, juries, trials, sentencing and capital punishment, African-American people are on the disproportionate negative end of systemic treatment. Such glaring disparities are, by their sheer volume, indicators of institutionalized oppression, which is firmly upheld with a foundation of cultural beliefs about the social behavior, beliefs and existence of the people at whom the weapon of the criminal legal system is aimed. In other words, the system is racist.
The representative republic constructed, by the people oft referred to as “the framers,” set out a system of government heralded by political scientists. Based on the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution is presented as a document designed to ensure the rights of the citizens of the new republic. Built into the platform were the cementing of founding ideals of civil liberties and civil rights and structures meant to guard against the reemergence of tyranny, such as the taxation without representation (think Washington, D.C.) characterized by the governance by King George IV, from whence “we” came. The one question that is rarely discussed, though, when the invocation of The Constitution is leveled as a weapon of rebuke, is this:
When we reference the coverage of the founding documents, who is the “we” of which we speak?
The Framers, to put it succinctly, were largely The Founding Owners. Their work was designed as a small umbrella under which the landed gentry were covered. Wealthy, white, land-owning men were the targets of the documents created to “begin” the nation, after colonization. When placed in this context, the light under which we view the structure of the founding documents begins to change from shadow to white-hot spotlight. With this in mind, it is important to ask how not how Black Americans fare from this perspective, but to examine the plausibility of using these same tools to break the very chains of oppression they created, specifically for the vast majority of oppressed communities. In the realms of political reality, Black women have been coming out of their communities for centuries, endeavoring to dismantle—at the very least reshape—the exact systems constructed to place the community in a subordinate status.
Poet Audre Lorde admonishes in her essay of the same title, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But as the history of Black people in the United States and Black women in politics indicates, there is a necessity to bend the structures to the will of a wronged people, whose very identity has been constructed by them. And so, in the modern era, they engage in the halls of power with men who help to maintain the status quo and shape the cultural narrative of oppression. In doing so, Black women enter these spaces in ways that create the discomfort necessary for change.
Senator Kamala Harris is one of the most readily identifiable Black women currently holding national office. A former prosecutor from California, she sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a key questioner in many of the hearings for Trump cabinet nominees as well as the Supreme Court nominees. Prior to becoming a senator, she made a name for herself as a tough prosecutor and once on Capitol Hill, it was clear those skills were, in fact, transferable. Her role as a woman has led her to receive a 100 percent rating from NARAL. A result of her support of women’s reproductive choice. She has also consistently voted for civil rights protections, in favor of environmental protections and health care. Overall, Sen. Harris has a track record that is mostly favorable to the Black community. By calling for reforms in drug laws and incarceration policy she is reversing some of the stigma attached to her and her work as a prosecuting attorney, which has placed her at odds with the community.
What is most interesting about Sen. Harris is the rapidity with which her rise to national prominence has stirred the discussion about a potential run for president in 2020. She often speaks of the cultural significance of immigrants in her speeches and what is most notable about it is that she diverts discussion from the prevailing narrative and addresses socio-historical facts rarely, if ever, addressed by people in public office. “We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are a Native American or your people were kidnapped and placed on a slave ship, your people are immigrants,” she says often in stump speeches, according to Perry Bacon Jr. in “What the Rise of Kamala Harris Tells Us About the Democratic Party.”
In this era of politics, patterns of truth-telling such as this are increasingly the domain of Black women. Sen. Harris, upon her win, was expected to take the role of a junior senator with virtually no power. She has, instead, become an outspoken advocate for the rights of the oppressed in ways that break the mold of “ordinary” politics. Additionally, Harris has been an important part of the vanguard of Democrats shifting the party to the left. Rarely has a newcomer had such a positive reception to their political work. The fact that Sen. Harris is a Black woman, with many of the characteristics expected therein, is likely the reason. She is an unwavering truthteller in a political sphere which sees little of it.
Her predecessor in the House of Representatives, Rep. Maxine Waters. Hails from the State of California’s 43rd District. She has served 14 terms in the House. She is also the ranking member of the Financial Services Committee and the Steering and Policy Committee, which also makes her a part of the House Democratic Leadership. Though well-known prior to the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, Rep. Waters has become a touchstone for many young women in the social movement to resist the repressive policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration. She is commonly referred to as “Auntie Maxine” by (mostly) young people who admire her consistent ability to speak knowledgeably, plainly and truthfully about any issue. The bulk of Rep. Waters’ work has placed her in positions in which she acts as an advocate for Black and brown people via larger work. For instance, she headed the Minority AIDS Initiative in 1998 to address the spread of the disease in those communities. This is particularly important because the problem was rarely addressed and, therefore, woefully, unrecognized with nonexistent or underfunded initiatives. Her work had a significant, positive impact. She also worked as the chair of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity and has authored legislation and policy on such issues as neighborhood stabilization, healthcare and ending apartheid in South Africa. Her work, in the House and for Black communities is direct and significant. But Rep. Waters has also become a symbol for something that is at, at once, at the heart of advocacy for Black communities in the halls of power and relevant to the role of Black women in public life. She is perceived as a strong Black woman.
In most arenas of social life in the United States, this identification comes with the pitfalls of race unique to life in this country. The descriptor, while common, can easily be defined as a negative, emasculating stereotype, even as the person identified as such, makes positive change for herself and those around her. It is in the best interests of a patriarchal society to redefine “strong” and “Black” and “woman” as negative attributes. In doing so, the moniker can be used to reify the concept of a Black woman as a threat to the status quo. President Trump has attempted to do just that by mocking Rep. Waters on many occasions. In this era of resistance politics, such attempts at re-labeling are having an unintended effect. Waters’ politics, advocacy, activism and resistance have become a wellspring for many women—Black and non-Black—and her work for Black communities, an example for others to follow. In the quest for Black liberation, her skilled knowledge of the intricacies of “the master’s house,” may, in fact, lead to a dismantling. Should the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives on November 6, Rep. Waters will ascend to the position of Chair of the Financial Services Committee, which has the power to oversee and investigate any alleged financial wrongdoing of the current President of the United States.
And yet, as they say, all politics is local.
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is the public face of a major southern, metropolitan city. With a relatively young population of just under 500,000, according to the US Census Bureau, and a growing economic center, Bottoms’ position as mayor, affords her the type of political power few in her position attain. She is the second woman to be elected to the position in the city, and her administration says its primary emphases are equity and affordable housing. This essentially means the mayor is focused upon the entire community of Atlanta. Some of her work has addressed historical problems inherent to criminal/legal systems that target Black communities. For example, with a substantial push from grassroots organizers, like Mary Hooks and the Atlanta-based organization she directs, Southerners on New Ground, Bottoms’ administration has worked to eliminate the cash bail bond citywide and while all other advocacy and policy change for her administration is important, none provides a more significant change to the stark disparities of institutionalized racism than the capitalist structure of this system.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice’s study “New Orleans: Who’s in Jail and Why?” Black men between the ages of 15-64 were more than twice as likely to be booked than their white counterparts. The rate is similar for women. A study of incarceration and bail patterns conducted in New Orleans found that 84 percent of the $6.3 million paid in bail is paid by Black people. Subsequent disparities build from that foundation. The acknowledgment of this and successive work of Mayor Bottoms and her administration has directly affected the lives of many of the people in Atlanta city who will benefit from the reduction of this portion of the matrix of oppression.
There are currently 19 Black women serving as mayors of municipalities in 2018. The Center for American Women and Politics reports that of the 1,365 mayors of U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 or above, 297 are women. This constitutes 21.8 percent. The leadership of Black women in formal local politics, because it is at this level that meaningful change can take place at the most rapid rates. Dismantling the most pervasive forms of institutionalized racism is most effectively completed with the tools of local government.
Another side of the political spectrum is a focus on the role of conservative thought in Black politics and the fight for institutional social change. Often the butt of jokes, Black conservatives are ever present in the discussion about politics, even if the numbers of conservative Black politicians don’t outweigh that of progressive. Among the ranks, there are far more men than there are women, but when women take on the mantle, they are often the recipients of a different kind of pressure than are men to address change within the community. This is largely due to the nature of gendered politics; however, the same focus on stereotypical patterns of behavior often follow their presence on the national stage. In addition, there is an unspoken belief that when Black women espouse ideologies of conservativism that it is because they are attention seeking. This opinion does not account for the variety of positions that come within any group and furthers the notion that the Black community is a monolith. There is a legitimate discussion in which the role of change, toward Black liberation, and conservatism must be adequately addressed.
In social movements, it is progressivism that is seen as the most direct route to institutional change and freedom, rather than the latter. In short, Black Republicans are something of a paradox. They are members of a party whose principle platform touts the benefits of a meritocratic society while upholding the structural institutions that prevent it, and yet, conservative Black politics has the same opportunities to affect change as do progressive. Black conservativism has its roots in the work of Booker T. Washington, who supported and worked toward a type of uplift that was predicated on self and community. Though today’s Black conservatives largely seem to deviate from this view.
Rep. Mia Love represents Utah from the 4th Congressional District. She was elected in 2012 and was a featured speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention convention. Since being in the House, Rep. Love has consistently worked to write and cosponsor bills and policy that are focused on “traditionally” conservative stances. For instance, she is a pro-life candidate, introduced the Small Bank Holding Company Relief Act, the Confirming State Land Grants for Education Act and focused on helping to curb online sex trafficking by co-sponsoring the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. She is a member of the House Financial Services Subcommittee, participates on the Monetary Policy and Trade, and Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit subcommittees. Additionally, she has served on the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. Little of her focus appears to be linked closely with advocacy and change within Black communities, but she does have an immigrant’s tale.
During her speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention Love recounts the family history of her parents immigrating to the country with $10 in their pockets. She went on to discuss the “America that I know,” the title of her speech, where she praised the American dream and reached into the foundational conservative ideology of hard work and meritocratic existence for inspiration. In 2015, Rep. Love gave remarks at a luncheon hosted by (then) Republican National Party Chair, Reince Priebus That was focused upon minority outreach. Speaking directly to potential Black converts to the Republican Party she said, “We need to remove ourselves from a different kind of slavery. What I’m talking about is a slavery that comes from being dependent on people in power.”.
While this rhetorical flourish is rife with emotive language and provocative in a room of people who are mostly white, it is not uncommon. Such metaphors are often used by Black conservatives to cast the Democratic Party in the light of plantations and modern slavery. Furthermore, Rep. Love’s discussions about support of the Black community tends to fall into the same stereotypical categories as do her white counterparts. For instance, she is quoted as saying. “The government is not your salvation. The government is not your road to prosperity. Hard work, education will take you far beyond what any government program can ever promise.” Thus, echoing the sentiments of Booker T. Washington. This difficult language is preceded and followed by policy and legislative work that does not support such civil rights staples as The Voting Rights Act and continue to cast Black conservatives as people who think as rarely of the Black community as do their white counterparts.
Similarly, conservative media commentators such as Candace Owens and Diamond and Silk regularly espouse the individualist, off the “gub’mint teat” rhetoric as well. This approach allows for the invocation of the Protestant Work Ethic within the Black community, while also conjuring images of Black people on welfare, waiting to be handed the basics, rather than working for them. This approach does little to support Black uplift while giving full-throated support to the institutionalized notions of lazy Black people.
While the institutions that make up social life are replete with examples of ideology that is meant to maintain thoroughly entrenched systems of stratification, the political can be a tool for reinvention. Black women in formal politics have steadily worked to change the system from within. Each day they invoke Lorde’s quote as a question, not a statement, “Can the master’s house be dismantled with the master’s tools?” The answer comes in “reclaiming my time.” It comes in the forceful questioning a flinching patriarch of the segregationist South. The answer comes in pointing questioning the veracity of a man credibly accused of rape before he is elevated to the highest court in the land, and it comes in solidarity with others who help to change the system, in ways large and small, for the benefit of the community.
Black women in formal politics are challenging The System to live up to its written promise of liberty and justice for all, even if equality and justice for all was not the original intent. They work every day to force the system into a working model for a modern, diverse society and they argue, that it is far too late to take it back now.