The Problem Keeping America From Being the Democracy It Should Be
I've been a proud Democrat since I was 14 — I remember that I identified myself as a Democrat because I could see myself in our party. As a young girl, I could see my own potential for leadership through leaders like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan and Bella Abzug. But, just a few weeks ago after a yearlong battle for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Maryland held by Barbara Mikulski, my 14-year-old self ran right into the glass ceiling for black women with a concussion-worthy crash.
For more than a year, I faced a barrage of personal attacks on my character, demeanor, personality, and appearance. I was accused of playing "identity politics" by big-tent Democrats because I talked about the need for the perspectives of people of color, women, and especially black women in the United States Senate. A leading Democrat in our state said the other guy was "born to the job," and one of my opponents surrogates even argued that we needed "strong white men to carry the flag for people of color." For the record, I am a proud black woman, lawyer, systems engineer, nonprofit CEO, five-term member of Congress (the first black woman elected to Congress in Maryland), and a mom who raised my son mostly on my own. For the record, that is a perspective and combination of life and professional experiences that do not today have a seat in the U.S. Senate. I was perhaps not "born to the job" but certainly capable of doing the job.
On Election Night in my concession speech, I called on the Democratic Party to stop pointing fingers outward and to clean our own house when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Here is a fact: Black women represent the backbone of the Democratic Party — the single most loyal of any demographic group. According to a study released by Demos, women of color represent only 4 percent of all elective officeholders nationwide. The Democratic Party will not survive the 21st century with the votes of people of color without the real leadership of people of color, especially black women, at every level. This is about decision-making and agenda-setting, not about filling out the stage as a demonstration of inclusion. The campaign for the Senate in Maryland, a nearly majority-minority state — some would say that Maryland is not just a Democratic state, it's a liberal one — generated fundamentally important questions about what elected representation means and looks like in the United States.
This is a conversation that must continue and it is a circumstance that must be resolved.
It is easy to look at the problems in Washington and conclude they are born out of hyper-partisanship and an unwillingness to work together. It is a narrative touted weekly in Washington, in its bars, think tanks, and editorial boards. Indeed, it was used in my own race: The editorial pages of the Washington Post called me a "Democratic facsimile" of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz when my opponent and I had virtually identical voting records.
I believe the real divide that we must come to terms with in American politics is the shocking extent to which America's elected bodies, from governor's mansions, to state legislatures, to the U.S. Senate, do not resemble the American electorate in income, race, or gender. According to the Campaign for Reflective Democracy, white men comprise 31 percent of the population and hold 65 percent of elective offices; 90 percent of all our elected officials are white. As Americans' median wealth is declining — just $44,900 per adult — the median wealth of the average member of Congress is over $1 million. And the extent to which this disconnect contributes to policy that seems far afield from what most Americans need and want could not be clearer — from a higher minimum wage to retirement security, equal pay, child care and college affordability, jobs, and fair trade. Too often, these concerns are set aside or negotiated away by elected officials who don't worry that their children won't do well.
Enough. In order to build the democracy every American deserves, we must call the question on diversity and inclusion. Can we pass equal pay laws and give women control of their own health-care decisions when women represent just 20 percent of Congress? When just 8 percent of Congress is Hispanic, is it no wonder that even the most "balanced" and "fair" immigration bills include stratospheric increases in border security and funding for deportations? With only 9 African-American senators in the nearly 240-year history of our country, and just one black woman (Sen. Carol Moseley Braun over two decades ago), will we tackle successfully the issues of education equity, criminal justice reform, and the chronic lack of investment in communities of color? Even if the answer is "yes," why can't we as women, as people of color, as middle-class people, speak for ourselves?
For too long, too many in my beloved Democratic Party have argued that they understand the struggles of American women because they have a mother, daughter, or a wife. For too long, too many have showed up in black churches during election season, walked across bridges crossed under fire 50 years ago for a photo opportunity, or simply pointed to their focus on supporting issues relevant to blacks and women, as if they are the purveyors of what those issues might be and how best to handle them. What's worse: Calls for diversity and a more inclusive and reflective democracy are dismissed as just another woman or African-American talking about her gender or race instead of "real" issues — the woman card, the race card.
The struggle for a more perfect union is the struggle for a union that welcomes all voices to the table and provides them ample opportunity to be heard. It's a clarion call that we should champion in classrooms, boardrooms, and the halls of the United States Congress. As important as it was to elect a black president in 2008 and as it will be to elect a woman president in 2016, that is simply not good enough and should not be the easy out. We are neither post-racial nor post-gender. Indeed while it is true that things are better than they were, it is not a high bar. In Maryland, 2017 will likely be the first time in 43 years that we will not have a woman in our congressional delegation. We must be honest about the depth of the problem in order to unloose the structural barriers that contribute to it — the money, the process, the lineage. It may require some to simply step aside.
I am proud of the work we did in Maryland, but for today's 14-year-old girls, the fight for a more diverse and reflective democracy is just beginning and cannot come soon enough.
Donna Edwards is a congresswoman representing Maryland's 4th congressional district.