An irrefutable moment in time that even alternative facts won’t be able to erase. For a nation built by immigrants and slave labor, the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of what many had hoped would be a new era in America’s rich yet tumultuous history. While his legacy will be debated in the years to come, if nothing else, a glass ceiling was broken, offering a glimmer of hope to millions of Americans previously denied fair representation (and entry) into our political system.
For now, the Democrats continue to pick up the pieces after hoping to break another glass ceiling. Those that had passionately declared “I’m with her” were left dazed and confused after Donald Trump effectively dashed Hillary Clinton’s dream of becoming the first woman elected to the highest office in the land. For some, including Bernie Sanders’ supporters, it was further confirmation that Clinton should never have won the nomination in the first place. Despite being riddled with controversies of her own, in the end, she was still defeated by a man less qualified than her.
Accused of ignoring large swaths of the country, Clinton lost in areas that Obama had easily carried during his own presidential bids. People simply didn’t show up for her as they did for the former president, at least not in the numbers needed to secure the electoral vote.
There was one group that showed up big, however; the same group that helped Obama win in 2008 and again in 2012 — Black women. Clinton won an astounding 94 percent of Black women voters.
“Without Black women, President Obama would not have won the White House in 2012. Black women voters delivered in key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where President Obama picked up 67 additional electoral votes. If Black women had not turned out, President Obama would have been five electoral votes shy of winning the presidency,” said Carmen Berkley, director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Policies at the AFL-CIO.
Long touted for their ability to successfully organize and lead movements like Black Lives Matter, Black Girls Are Magic, Carefree Black Girl and more, Black women are arguably one of the most powerful voting blocs in the nation. But, despite proving themselves more than capable, they’ve remained largely underrepresented on the national stage, making up less than 4 percent of Congress.
If Clinton found difficulty in connecting with certain voters simply due to gender, imagine running for president as a Black woman less than a decade after the civil rights movement, as Shirley Chisholm did in 1972. The first African-American woman elected to Congress (in 1968), she faced the double strike of being both a woman and a minority. Chisholm found difficulty securing support even in her own party, as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond and more famously went against her in favor of George McGovern, who in turn was defeated by Richard Nixon.
Interns and aides of Chisholm would later recall passing out campaign fliers that would be scrawled with racial epithets and given back, making it clear that some weren’t prepared to accept any woman in the Oval Office, much less a Black one.
But the wheels of change move whether we want them to or not. At the very least, Chisholm eased the door open for others to come. With 2020 on the not-so-distant horizon, the hunt is already on for the “Great Blue Hope,” a successor to rebuild the Democrats’ fractured party. Despite being immensely popular, former First Lady Michelle Obama has denied any future political aspirations, turning eyes to fresh faces on Capitol Hill.
One name that’s been gaining traction is Kamala Harris, who recently became the first Indian-American and second African-American woman to enter the Senate. Following a brutal campaign against fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, Harris officially took over Barbara Boxer’s seat, joining Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and South Carolina Republican Tim Scott to bring the current number of Black senators to three.
Harris, an Oakland native, has emerged as a politician to watch, described by Politico senior Washington correspondent Anna Palmer thusly: “A lot of people think Harris is right in line to run for president as soon as she possibly can.”
Born to a Jamaican-American father and an Indian mother, the Howard University graduate has already drawn comparisons to President Obama, thanks in part to a shared biracial background and hopes of loftier ambitions. They’ve also received criticism for similar issues, Obama most recently following the 2016 slaying of five Dallas police officers and Harris over a decade earlier after she refused to seek the death penalty in a 2004 case surrounding the death of a city police officer.
Harris has become known for her commitment to the issues, going against her own party at times as she did in 2008 by refusing to uphold the state-passed Proposition 8. In 2013, she explained, “I declined to defend Proposition 8 because it violates the Constitution. The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.” The Supreme Court would later overturn a federal ban, legalizing gay marriage nationwide in 2015.
Perhaps it could all come full circle, as the state that produced Ronald Reagan, whose presidency resulted in an unprecedented surge in the nation’s prison population, has also produced a woman dedicated to dismantling a history of systematic oppression.
For now, Harris remains focused on what lies ahead, reminding supporters that, “It is the very nature of this fight for civil rights and justice and equality that whatever gains we make, they will not be permanent. So, we must be vigilant. Do not despair. Do not be overwhelmed. Do not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves and fight for who we are.”
No stranger to rolling up her own sleeves, the 52-year-old was sworn in as California’s 45th U.S. Senator in an entirely new political landscape. One where the promise of “draining the swamp” has been replaced with embattled nominees accused of being ill-equipped for their jobs. In Washington, seasoned politicians and Trump’s newcomers have continued to collide on Capitol Hill. It’s a fight welcomed by Harris as she seeks to oppose Trump on repealing Obamacare and his recent immigration ban.
It remains unclear if Harris will run for President, but, if nothing else, she serves as a reminder of what the future may hold and that future just may include a Black woman at the helm.