S&F Online
The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
BCRW: The Barnard Center for Research on Women
about contact subscribe archives links
Issue: 8.3: Summer 2010
Guest Edited by Mandy Van Deven and Julie Kubala
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert

The State of Black Women in Politics Under the First Black President

Duchess Harris

History was made in November 2008. Record breaking numbers of voters lined up to vote the first African-American President into office, with Barack Obama handily beating Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, winning 52% of the electoral vote, a clear mandate for change.[1] African-Americans made up 13% of the electorate, a two percent increase from the 2006 elections,[2] and approximately 95% of black voters cast their ballots in favor of Obama.[3] Within that 13%, black women had the highest voter turnout rate among all racial, gender, and ethnic groups.[4]

As the election results were posted, the media and the President-elect himself made grand proclamations about the significance of the election, as well as what it portended for the country's future. New York Times writer Adam Nagourney described voters' election of Obama as "sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics," continuing with a quote from Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.... It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.[5]

It would be nice to think that Obama's election was the positive end note to over four hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and institutionalized racism—that the promise stated by our founders, "All men are created equal," has finally been realized. And there is a certain quintessence that now a black family lives in the White House, a national monument primarily constructed with the use of slave labor. For a nation weary of its own racist history, the Obama administration is a historic marker that many, especially those on the Right, can point to and say, "See, it's over." In fact, many political commentators have gone so far as to say that America has entered a "post-racial" phase with President Obama, its first "post-racial" President.

Black women may beg to differ. And on closer examination, particularly with regards to the status of Black women in the political sphere, the past two years have been a dismal replay of the mistakes made by the much lauded Clinton (the "first black president") administration. That's not to dismiss the many accomplishments of President Obama. We have the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in history, the successful passage of a health care reform bill, and the military withdrawal from Iraq, all significant achievements. Nevertheless, President Obama and his administration continue to shy away from conversations about race, and seem almost alienated from, or ignorant of, the rich history of Civil Rights activism in general, and of Black women's organizing in particular.

While the Obama presidency began positively, with several positions within the administration offered to Black women during the initial wave of change, since then there have been two incidents comparable to Bill Clinton's betrayals of Lani Guinier and Dr. Joycelyn Elders. President Obama failed to stand up for Press Secretary Desiree Rogers; then, he left Shirley Sherrod (formerly of the USDA) to fend for herself in a crucial and very public incident in which his support could have changed the unfortunate course of events. And remarkably, given the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court Justices, not a single qualified Black woman moved from the nominee list to face-to-face interviews with the President in the nomination and review processes.

And this speaks to why this president has been a source of disappointment for black women. Yes, there are numerous African-American women in his administration, but few of them have been assigned to positions that have true power. And for those chosen few, the new President seems unwilling to defend them, even in the face of misconstrued or erroneous reports. It appears that the price of having the first African-American President is that he cannot, or will not, address issues of race beyond the vaguest allusions that construe slavery as just another immigrant story, in effect dismissing the context of his singular achievement, which was accomplished only through decades of political struggle by African-American men and women and organized anti-racist activism. Tellingly, even Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson noted then-candidate Obama's alienation from African-Americans, criticizing Obama in 2007 for not bringing more attention to the Jena 6 incident in Louisiana, and again stating in 2008 that Obama seemed to be "talking down to black people."

So it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that change has come to America in a meaningful way, especially for black women.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8                Next page

© 2010 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 8.3: Summer 2010 - Polyphonic Feminisms