When the data you present makes people cry, you know it captures something important. The event was in Raleigh, NC, and the people were local activists, funders, and candidates and officeholders. The Reflective Democracy Campaign had convened the meeting together with Blueprint North Carolina; it was one of seven regional strategy sessions aimed at bringing together local leaders concerned with the dramatic imbalance between who Americans really are and who represents us.
I began the session with an infographic showing how officeholders would break down by gender and race if they reflected the composition of our country: 51% female, and close to 40% people of color. Then I showed the actual demographic breakdown of America’s elected officials: 90% are white, and 71% are male. As always, the contrast elicited a gasp: even those who grapple with the consequences daily are shocked to realize that, when weighted by level of office, white men hold four times the political power of other groups.
Next, we moved the discussion to analyzing the numbers. The Campaign can now confidently dispense with several myths about the dominance of white men in politics. It’s not because voters are racist and sexist. When diverse candidates appear on the ballot, they’re voted in at the same rate as white men. The problem is, our candidates are no more diverse than our leaders.
And it’s not because of an “ambition gap.” If you attended our meetings in Raleigh, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Missoula, Chicago, and Seattle, you met remarkable, ambitious women seeking or holding elected office. In Chicago, Kim Foxx, the Democratic nominee for Cook County State’s Attorney, discussed her experience breaking into the political system as a black woman who grew up in public housing hoping to become one of the 1% of elected prosecutors nationwide who are women of color. In Seattle, we were joined by State Senator Pramila Jayapal, who is the only woman of color in the Washington State legislature and who is also running for a seat in Congress; and Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the majority-female Seattle City Council that has recently been the target of vicious misogynistic attacks following the City Council’s vote on a land-use issue linked to a potential sports arena development project. They were just three of many candidates and officeholders who participated in our strategy sessions, and whose tenacity and resilience would banish any suspicion that women or people of color are less politically motivated or engaged.
Speaking of sports, perhaps the most insidious myth of all is that politics is a competitive sport played on a level field. In fact, in over half of general elections incumbents run unopposed — and 60% of those incumbents are white men. The entire field is essentially rigged to prevent outsiders from gaining ground. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” said a young African-American woman holding local office in North Carolina and aspiring to more. But when the structural barriers I described turned out to echo her experience precisely, tears were the only sane response.
In each city, similar moments of validation occurred. Insults and rebuffs that felt personal were revealed as something else: manifestations of a system, a network of habits, assumptions, biases and default practices supporting a toxic and outdated status quo. Entrenched party gatekeepers, powerful political donors, the high cost of campaigning, and the low or nonexistent salaries for many local officeholders are just some the factors blocking women, people of color and many of the 99% from seeking office at any level.
A resounding theme at the gatherings was fatigue with the notion that if we just leaned in harder, the hurdles would vanish. The women we met aren’t just leaning, they’re pushing boulders up mountains, and the obstructions they face are hardly melting away. Structural issues require structural solutions, and that’s why our work is so important. We’re working to change this system.