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New Research Offers a Blueprint for Recruiting and Electing more Black Women to Public Office

posted Oct 31, 2018, 1:47 PM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Oct 31, 2018, 1:52 PM ]

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the election of Shirley Chisholm—the first black woman ever to serve in Congress. Since that time, the number of black women serving in elected office at the local, state and national level has increased but is not progressing nearly fast enough. Black women vote more than any other gender or racial group. Yet, we are woefully underrepresented in government and account for less than 4 percent of elected officials serving in Congress and state legislatures.

Shirley Anita Chisholm 1924 - 2005

Shirley Chisholm.jpg
Shirley Chisholm, future member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-NY), announcing her candidacy in 1972.  Chrisholm was an American politician, educator, author and first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968. 

In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. 

Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Reports. Light restoration by Adam Cuerden. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ds.07135. Public Domain.

In the last two years, black women have run in and won historic elections around the country. This, despite the fact that their electability and viability as candidates is routinely questioned, especially outside of majority black districts. Still, there is tremendous potential for black women candidates. And in order to invest in them properly, we need to understand the power of black women’s electoral strength—particularly at this very distinct moment in American history. 
To this end, the Brookings Institute recently collaborated with the Higher Heights Leadership Fund to create a database of black women serving in government at the federal, state and municipal levels. 

Analyzing various Demographic Information about their Elections offers insight into Factors that Impact Black Women’s Electoral Success

These findings were released in a report this September in an event at Brookings in Washington, DC entitled “Claiming seats at the table: Black women’s electoral strength in an era of fractured politics.”  As Dr. Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings notes, “these insights can be used to create a framework—a blueprint—that can help boost black women, and their supporters, to succeed in attaining more reflective representation in elected office at various levels of government.”
I attended the 90-minute panel, during which Dr. Perry introduced the initial findings of the analysis which will be the subject of future research. They represent both challenges and opportunities in terms of increasing the amount of black women elected to public office. Among them are:

Most Black Women (roughly 77 percent) are elected in Majority-Minority Districts

Thus, there is a correlation between the concentration of residents of color in a given district and black women’s electoral success. However, this is for data from 2016. Recent elections during this midterm cycle demonstrate that black women can be and have been successful among majority-white constituencies.

States that have Large Black Populations offer Opportunities for Electing Black Women

After Dr. Perry’s synopsis came a moderated panel of black women elected leaders and political professionals who discussed how to create more opportunities for and support black women interested in running for office. The panelists included: Errin Haines Whack (who served as the moderator), National Race and Ethnicity Writer for the Associated Press; Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) (City of Baltimore); Del. Marcia S. Price (D) (Virginia); and Tasha Cole, from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Co-Chair of Running StartHowever, that requires black women to seek elected office. In 2016, over 500 majority-black constituencies selected a representative. But out of those races, only one-third included black women who contested those seats. 

The session’s audience was made up of predominately black women and this was reflected in the conversation as the panel spoke in-depth about how black women are uniquely positioned to help other black women to succeed in politics. But there was something for everybody and much to takeaway from the session in terms of recruiting, supporting and fundraising for black women candidates. You can watch the entire session below:


As we move toward the general election in November and head into 2020, this work is incredibly timely. Record numbers of black women are running for office at all levels across the country and they are well-positioned to lead. It simply requires a belief that they can win and the appropriate investment into training, resources and funding. This research is a necessary step in understanding the electoral strength of black women. It’s time to finally see the tremendous potential for change and transformation that comes with electing black women to office. 

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You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag, #BlackWomenLead
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