Between the Lines of Victory: Black Women, the 113th Congress and the SCOTUS
“I don’t see color”
So many things run through one’s head upon hearing the declaration above whether it is the first or the 20th time you have heard it. I considered how to respond. Checking my Claire Huxtable style neck roll, I calmly stated that an inability or refusal to see color rendered me invisible. I further explained that when people “don’t see color,” what they really mean is that they see everyone as white. Which carries with it an assumption that people of color have any desire to be seen as such. Subsequently when women’s issues are examined, they are often explored through methods that fail to consider the differences in concerns for women of color. That is to say that while there are issues generally applicable to all women (i.e. equality, privacy, reproductive justice), the route to achieving those things and the modes of obstruction to them vary between groups. For example, white women in rural counties often do not have access to Planned Parenthood clinics. Black women in urban settings find Planned Parenthoods easily accessible, some have argued too accessible. If that same table of colorblind women seeks to improve the state of all women without regard for such differences, Black women will inevitably remain disenfranchised. Likewise, when men (of any race) claim to be gender blind, women who are Black are once again relegated to the margins. These tables are found within many industries and organizations, however well intentioned members might be.
Imagine that table on a larger, say, national scale. Now stop imagining and take a look at the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court of the United States.
To be clear, women and other historically excluded groups have made strides in both branches. The 2012 election cycle resulted in a record number of women serving in the Senate (20 female Senators will serve in the 113th Congress for a total of over 100 women). This election cycle brought with it an introduction to diversity in terms of religion (first Hindu members, first Buddhist member, first non-theist member), age (4 millennials), and sexuality (first bi-sexual member, first LGBT member of color).
To be even clearer, most of those strides were made in the House of Representatives.
Some might argue that there are non-Black women in the Senate and both Black men and non-Black women on the Court and that in being present, these members collectively represent the interest of Black women (the Senate remains absent of any Black members). This response ignores the unique manner in which race and sex combine to produce the Black female experience, an experience that can only be articulated by those who live it. Subsequently, they are the only people who can accurately voice their concerns. Yes, these elected and appointed members are charged with representing the people, but what happens in the moment, in the meeting before the meeting when the Black female voice is not present?
A 1993 account of then Senator Carol Moseley Braun’s response shows what happens when that voice is included:
In 1993, the Illinois Senator made headlines when she convinced the Senate Judiciary Committee not to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) because it contained the Confederate flag. The patent had been routinely renewed for nearly a century, and despite the Judiciary Committee’s disapproval, the Senate was poised to pass a resolution sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina that included a provision to authorize the extension of the federal patent. Moseley-Braun threatened to filibuster the legislation “until this room freezes over.” She also made an impassioned and eloquent plea to her colleagues about the symbolism of the Confederate flag, declaring, “It has no place in our modern times, place in this body, place in our society.”Swayed by Moseley-Braun’s argument, the Senate rejected the UDC’s application to renew its patent.
Of Moseley-Braun’s accomplishment, Senator Barbara Boxer stated, “If ever there was proof of the value of diversity, we have it here today.”
Moseley Braun eschewed critical argument in making a plea to her colleagues, a choice her Black male or white female counterparts may not have made given the traditional norms of debate on the Floor. Her white male colleagues agreed that her approach was not usually persuasive. How many times has something passed the Senate or the Court without the benefit of the voice that is unique to Black women? What happens when the Black female voice is absent from the table? What happens when the Black female voice is conflated with that of white women or Black men? What happens is that we get gender sensitive colorblind legislation and social norms that benefit those who fit the “universal woman” and “universal Black person” description.