The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The sad state of black women in statewide political office

With his wife, Glenna Bevin, center, and Lt. Gov.-elect Jenean Hampton, right, looking on, Kentucky Republican Gov.-elect Matt Bevin speaks to his supporters at the Republican Party victory celebration in Louisville, Ky. on Tuesday. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

This much we know: Black women are hugely underrepresented in politics. The phenomenon extends to all women of color, but especially to black women.

This is driven home in a new report by Rutgers University, which puts numbers to the underrepresentation. The report, which was commissioned by Higher Heights, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to getting more black women into politics, found that black women make up 7.4 percent of the U.S. population but just:

  • 3.4 percent of Congress
  • 3.5 percent of state legislators
  • 1.9 percent of mayors in cities of more than 30,000 people
  • Less than 1 percent of statewide elected executives (we'll get to that last abysmally low number in a minute)

Just one of many sobering statistics in the report: Eighteen black women serve in congressional delegations in 13 states, and 12 states have never had a woman -- much less one of color -- serve in their congressional delegations.

"Black women’s voices are the most likely to be overlooked in governmental policy-making," the report says.

Even so, the report's author is optimistic about the future of women in color in politics. While the number of white women in Congress and state legislatures has flat-lined over the past two decades, Rutgers professor Kelly Dittmar told The Fix that she's witnessed a rise in the number of black women running for and winning office.

Her report finds that black Americans are joining state legislatures in higher numbers than ever, and that's entirely thanks to black women, who have increased their presence in those bodies by nearly 50 percent since 1994. At the congressional level, black women comprised one-fifth of newly elected Democrats and one-third of new women in the 2014 mid-term elections.

So black women are underrepresented, but they're doing better each year. That is, with one glaring exception: elected statewide executive offices. There, black women have hardly made a dent.

Let's go over the numbers from Rutgers: Only 10 black women from nine states have ever served in statewide elected executive offices (i.e. statewide offices besides senator). The numbers get even more sobering when you consider how they got there; of those 10, two were appointed to fill vacancies, and two served as running mates for a governor -- like Kentucky's newest lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, who in November became the first black statewide officeholder in Kentucky.

Simple subtraction means just six black women have ever won election to a statewide executive office in their own right, according to Kira Sanbonmatsu, a senior scholar at Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics.

Currently, black women hold only two of the 312 statewide elected executive offices in the United States -- California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, and Connecticut's state treasurer, Denise Nappier. (Hampton will make a third when sworn in next month.)

Oh, and also, America has yet to see a black woman serve as governor. "It's a little bit discouraging," Sanbonmatsu said.

Sanbonmatsu is looking into why this is right now, but she and Dittmar have a few theories, most of which boil down to: The political system just doesn't think black women can win in a majority-white electorate.

They found that the black women who are winning elections are doing so mostly in majority-minority districts. There's more political infrastructure -- both financial and strategic -- set up to encourage black women to run for office in these districts, Dittmar and Sanbonmatsu said.

"Black women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office, and are more likely to be discouraged from running, than black men and white women," Dittmar's report read.

Dittmar also doesn't think party leaders look at recruiting black women outside those situations. So there aren't black women running for statewide offices, which in turn fuels the perception that they either don't want to or aren't able to win at that level.

"I think it can become a vicious cycle where we don’t see women of color and black women achieving these offices, but we don’t think of them as aspirants," Sanbonmatsu said, adding: "It’s a little unfair to niche them in these areas. "

Another problem: Republicans dominate statewide elected offices across the country, and black women overwhelmingly tend to be aligned politically with Democrats: They're the party's most reliable voters, having turned out to vote in the past two general elections at the highest rates of any race or gender, Dittmar's report pointed out. Seventeen of the 18 black women currently serving in Congress are Democrats.

So there are fewer opportunities for black women to be recruited statewide. Only in 2014 did Republicans elect their first black woman to Congress -- Rep. Mia Love of Utah.

And, as you'd expect, demographics also play a role. If the conventional political wisdom is that women of color can win where there are more people of their color, that's a problem for black women.

Sanbonmatsu points to statewide women leaders in Hawaii and New Mexico who align with the demographics that make up large portions of their respective states: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) is a Latina, and Hawaii's senior Sen. Mazie Hirono (D) is the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate. New Mexico is 48 percent Hispanic or Latino, and Hawaii is 37.5 percent Asian American and 10 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

By contrast, Sanbonmatsu notes, "You don’t have states where African American women are a majority." (The most heavily black state is Mississippi, at 37 percent.)

Ever the optimists, Sanbonmatsu and Dittmar hope 2016 will be the year black women prove they can run -- and win -- statewide. Maybe not in executive offices, but in the U.S. Senate, where there are five black women running for a seat. If any one of them wins, she will become only the second black woman to serve in the chamber.