“I can get on an elevator with some of my colleagues and they still ask me who I work for,” said Clarke, who occupies the seat once held by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. “Sometimes, just coming into the House complex, I have to show my ID and make sure my [member] pin is shown … I’m not given the benefit of the doubt.”
Clarke, who represents Brooklyn, now serves as first vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, helping to organize the group’s agenda.
She recently sat down with The Washington Post to discuss her unique perspective on the immigration debate, her reaction to police violence against African Americans and her advice for women entering politics.
Her answers have been slightly edited for length.
POWERPOST: Do you believe Washington remains a challenging place for women of color?
Clarke: Absolutely. I make a point of acknowledging all of the women that I encounter on Capitol Hill, whether they are cafeteria workers, whether they are operating the train that takes us between the Capitol and the House office complex, or whether they are part of the maintenance staff. We are in a very male-dominated environment, and people are oftentimes overlooked.
I can get on an elevator with some of my colleagues and they still ask me who I work for. Sometimes, just coming into the House complex, I have to show my ID and make sure my [member] pin is shown, because people say I have a more youthful look than my age would indicate. The average man on the Hill is a graying white dude, so I’m not given the benefit of the doubt. I have to make it clear why I’m here.
Think about Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton [(D-D.C.)]. The fact is that she is extremely marginalized. She’s not able to vote on the floor of the House, which disenfranchises the community in which we reside as a legislative body. I think it’s extremely disgraceful.
To see colleagues here on the Hill that won’t even acknowledge a “good morning” or “good afternoon,” it’s disheartening. But it reminds me of why I’m here.
How has your gender affected your experience in politics?
Politics is truly a male-dominated profession. There is no doubt about that. But I never had ambivalence about being in a position of power just by virtue of my background: I succeeded my mother [Una Clarke] on the New York City Council. There wasn’t hesitation on my part because I lived with someone who demonstrated the ability to lead and to be supported in leadership.
What advice do you treasure from your mother?
Speak truth to power. Be the voice of the voiceless. I stay true to that. In Washington, it is challenging because you have added pressure from interest groups, which are often adversarial to the positions I take.
You serve as vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. What are the challenges women face in that role?
When you’re a leader among leaders, it is always a challenge. But I’m in my 10th year here, and I haven’t seen things break down by gender. Since I’ve been here, at least over the last five sessions, there have been three women who have been chair [of the Black Caucus]. Let’s also add that I came into Congress voting for Nancy Pelosi to become speaker of the House. So I didn’t have that experience of women being marginalized.
Do you expect to see a woman of color leading House or Senate Democrats in your career?
It’s possible. I’m certainly looking at the leadership that is developing around me. We have two women who are vying for vice-chair of the Democratic caucus — both women of color [Linda T. Sánchez and Barbara Lee, both from California]. But it’s still a struggle. I think women of color have had to impose their leadership and build common cause. I don’t think they are given the benefit of the doubt by virtue of their presence and their work. They’re not given the type of deference that you see with other folks on the Hill. That’s an ongoing challenge.
When have you seen that happen?
Here’s one example: Congresswoman [Robin L.] Kelly [(D-Ill.)] has been relentless in her advocacy for us to do more around the issue of gun violence. … and she began protesting the moments of silence [for gun victims on the House floor] months ago. But it was Jim Himes [a Democratic congressman for Connecticut] who was recognized for protesting the moments of silence. Oftentimes, we’re taking actions here in Washington and imploring our colleagues to do likewise, and it’s not given the same weight as when a white male, for instance, does something similar. The press rushed to Jim Himes, but never to Robin Kelly.
What is the most valuable thing women of color can contribute to Congress?
Oftentimes, we’re elected as a result of activism in the communities that we represent. That’s really a relevant part of the American fabric, but sometimes it’s not integrated into the dynamics [on Capitol Hill]. There is often a sense of racial fatigue, where we don’t address the issues that are happening to African Americans with the same level of urgency. That’s the challenge that we face. How can we build common cause around marginalized communities that are really a bellwether for the challenges of the nation?
How does your ethnic background affect your advocacy on Capitol Hill?
Washington is very different from New York. … I remember being one of the lone voices of African American background [in Congress] to really engage the immigration debate because, aside from being African American, I happen to be Caribbean American. My parents were immigrants to the United States. It was important that we open the aperture of what the immigrant experience is. The Latino experience is very important, but we shouldn’t have a monolithic sense of what it means to be an immigrant. Even in the language of the immigration reform movement, I had to interject and make sure it reflected that diversity. It took a lot of muscling into the conversation, because the go-to people for us on immigration were in the Hispanic Caucus.
What advice would you give young women working to succeed in politics?
If you’re passionate about using your voice, then use it. If you’re faint of heart, then perhaps this arena is not the arena for you. But wherever you find your passion, be confident in your ability, be confident in your skill and your talent, and go for it. My life has been dedicated to confronting the status quo, to changing the chemistry of the [legislative] body by my presence so the next person who comes along is empowered to do likewise. The United States is a rough-and-tumble nation, and the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Shying away does not promote change.
How does your feminism affect your activism?
It’s about intersectionality. … You don’t really get it until you get it. Take the dialogues we’re having about gun violence and police shootings. There may be some level of compassion [from Republicans] but there isn’t necessarily a willingness to confront this historical legacy that has brought us to this point, the point where we’re having to emphasize that black lives matter.
For some white families, the thought of their child being gunned down is very far-fetched. But for black families, it’s an everyday, every-minute-of-the-day, every-second-of-the-day concern. I have three nephews coming of age right now. They have been subjected to stop-and-frisk. There is nothing that really protects their lives if the officer decides they got up on the wrong side of the bed, or they fear young black males or they decide they just don’t like them.
If this level of killing of young white males were taking place in America, everything would stop. Everything would stop. But there is a tolerance level that has developed that allows people to say, “What a shame,” and go on with business as usual. People ask, “What did [victims] do to cause it?” Or they say: “They shouldn’t have talked back. They shouldn’t have asked any questions.” Americans who are not people of color have the right to ask questions. We try each and every day, but that’s where the intersectionality has not occurred.