Black Women At the Polls and in the Halls of Power

Black Women At the Polls and in the Halls of Power


S. E. Williams

For generations the political concerns of Black women languished at the lowest level of America’s race-gender hierarchy. Electorally dependable and too often taken for granted—lack luster appreciation for their political acumen shifted with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. 

The electoral power of Black women as voters in 2008 probably did not surprise some of the nation’s most astute political strategists. According to the Center for American Progress, since 2000 the population of eligible Black women voters has grown by 20.6 percent; and, Black women represent 43 percent of all women of color who are eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election. 

During the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles the power of their vote proved to be a reliable force for down ballot candidates as well. This year, their votes are expected to be pivotal in determining how the “swing-states” will lean on November 8. The political sway of Black women voters has proved equally reliable during non-presidential election cycles in U.S. House and Senate races, and to races at the state, county and municipal levels of government. 

Black women, always a strong force and often the foundational core of their families and the African-American community at large, now, more than ever before are helping to shape the discussion and change the face of politics in America not only as voters, but as candidates and elected officials as well. 

America has held itself before the world as a melting pot of possibilities. As the nation continues to evolve demographically, the county is learning to walk its talk in regards to the projected political impact of this evolution. 

It is ever more apparent that the political influence and power of women and minorities can no longer be ignored. The Brookings Institute recently determined the votes of minority populations, particularly Black, Latino, and Asian Americans, “are likely to prove influential in determining the next president of the United States.” 

In his seminal work, Diversity Explosion, American demographer Bill Frey, expressed his belief that the rapid growth of the country’s minority populations has and will change the course of American politics. Frey also suggested, “the diversity surge that is sweeping the nation suggests that the future belongs to candidates who support issues embraced by the multicultural generation.”


In 2012, for the first time in the country’s history, the United States Census Bureau reported 50.2 percent of the nation’s babies younger than one-year-old were racial or ethnic minorities—an indication of how America’s future is destined to have an even more colorful hue. 

Like other voters, Black women historically cast their ballots with mindful intention. This year will be no exception. A July Gallup poll showed that Black women, among all others, are the most concerned about the outcome of this year’s election. 

According to the report, three of every four Black women are strongly afraid of what will happen if their candidate loses the presidential election—this, along with growing concerns over issues related to racial discrimination, affordable health care, living-wage jobs, and criminal justice reform will be the impetus that drives them to the polls in great numbers again this election cycle. An interesting political aside is the key role these voters may play in turning some swing states from red to blue. 

This election cycle Black women are as cognizant as others of the shortcomings of both presidential candidates; however, for most of them voter apathy is not an option. Black mothers are concerned about the safety of their sons and their daughters and it is this concern that compels them to the polls. As surmised by the president of the consulting firm Incite Unlimited, "There is nothing more fierce than a mother fighting to protect her child." 

Certainly, the ballot is the most powerful weapon Black women have at their disposal. “Give us the ballot,” Martin Luther King Jr. told America more than sixty years ago. “Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.” 

Strategists and pundits alike have expressed concern over a potential enthusiasm gap that could suppress voter turnout this year; however, African American activists believe this will not hold true for Black women— Black mothers will show up at the polls this year as will Black sisters, daughters, friends and lovers. They will vote in large numbers out of an abundance of care and concern for those they love. They are committed to using their vote to help mitigate the tense racial environment that continues to cast a shadow over their nation and their communities. 

Just as voting is a pillar of American democracy— the twin pillar of democracy is the right to seek election to public office. Black women, who voted at a higher rate than any other segment of the population in both 2008 and 2012, have been slow to benefit from the electoral process themselves.


The good news is that a 2015 report published by the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University—Camden, showed more Black women ran for office in recent years than they have historically. Nonetheless, the report also revealed, “Only 35 Black women from 15 states have ever served in the U.S. Congress, only 10 Black women from nine states have ever served in statewide elected executive offices, and three states have still never elected a Black woman to their state legislature.” Most of these women were elected since the early 1990s.

In acknowledging this moderate progress, the report’s author Professor Kelly Dittmar wrote, “Increasing Black women’s representation is not only a matter of democratic fairness, but essential to engaging new constituencies, elevating policy dialogue and promoting policy priorities, perspectives and solutions that may be lost if Black women’s votes, voices and leadership are absent from American politics.” 

This year, the Inland Empire offers a rich slate of capable and qualified Black women who are seeking re-election to public office. 


“At some point, even if you feel you are capable, someone would dismiss your skills as being somewhat condescending to the point of even being arrogant.”
– Deborah Robertson, Mayor of Rialto
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Deborah Robertson broke barriers in 2012, to become the first and only Black to serve the City of Rialto as mayor. Previous to taking office, Robertson sustained a distinguished public service career that included 12 years on the Rialto City Council, leadership positions at the Southern California Association of Governments, the San Bernardino Associated Governments, and more than 20 years with the California Department of Transportation. 

Under Robertson’s leadership as mayor, Rialto has not only received recognition for innovation in relation to public-private partnerships, business development and job creation, it is also viewed as a model for other communities in the state for its refinancing and restructuring of its water and wastewater operations. She was also instrumental in the development of the city’s Transportation Commission and coordinated a transportation summit for the region as well. 

As a candidate for a second term as Rialto’s mayor, Robertson reflected on her role as mayor and her candidacy as an African American female. 

Other than just being of the female gender, Robertson explained, she must also operate with the knowledge and understanding of exactly how to move forward and get things accomplished, “…when you know that oftentimes a person may not necessarily be supportive of you. Not because of the knowledge, skills and capabilities you have,“ she added, ”But because of how they are viewing you.” 

Sometimes, according to the mayor, she is viewed as women are viewed in general in society; and, in relation to the role women should play. She also stressed how important it is that women understand “how we view ourselves as women in society.” 

This is another challenge however, that involves, “Being an African American woman and understanding that perhaps the true uniqueness, knowledge, skills and expertise you bring to an environment is oftentimes not appreciated—but rather, viewed as being a little bit too abrasive; too assertive; maybe as being a little too hostile, too unapproachable.” She added, “At some point, even if you feel you are capable, someone would dismiss your skills as being somewhat condescending to the point of even being arrogant.” 

According to Robertson, when you deal with or go into a situation knowing that just the way you present yourself will cause someone to feel a level of defensiveness, “Naturally, you have to prepare and understand all those dynamics. I think that is something that we learn—something I learned very early in my life as I navigated through my childhood and young adulthood in San Diego and in the Inland Empire.” 

Robertson said she generally does not approach things with any level of disillusionment. “I am very much aware of my history as an African-American woman. The struggles that my parents and their parents had to endure coming from Texas and Louisiana. I realize that while the geographical boundaries often change the mindsets and attitudes did not just remain in the South.” 

The mayor spoke with enthusiasm about the movements in the City of Rialto. “The promotion of how we feel about ourselves in Rialto has really resonated with our young adults, with working, middle class families,” she shared. 

In an interview earlier in this election cycle, Robertson, a 30-year resident of Rialto, said she is running for a second term because she is not finished. “I feel the role of the mayor is a calling,” she explained. “Not just a title.” 

As Robertson campaigns for her historic second term as mayor, several miles away another African-American woman is responding to a similar call to serve—Dr. Denise Fleming is a candidate for mayor of the City of Moreno Valley.


“As an educated Black woman in America I have been faced with many challenges and privileges throughout my life. I have used these as attributes that have encouraged, motivated, and moved me to educate myself with the issues of today’s society.”
– Dr. Denise Fleming, Mayoral Candidate, Moreno Valley

When asked what unique perspectives she brings to the office Fleming explained, “As an educated Black woman in America I have been faced with many challenges and privileges throughout my life. I have used these as attributes that have encouraged, motivated, and moved me to educate myself with the issues of today’s society.” 

The issues, according to Fleming, include healthcare, the economy, foreign policy and education among others. And the barriers she faced because of her race, gender, and childhood economic status have helped shape and strengthen her perspective. “This is the unique but universal theme that I, as a Black woman candidate can include in an expression of thought in producing policy to benefit Moreno Valley—a city that is growing demographically, culturally and economically.” Fleming also shared the research of Professor Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago who found that districts served by women legislators, regardless of race, are at a distinct advantage over those represented by men. For example, “U.S. congresswomen bring home roughly nine percent more discretionary spending than congressmen. As a result, districts that elect women to the House of Representatives receive on average, about $49 million more each year.” 

“This is what I plan to do for Moreno Valley,” she said and continued. “Maybe not on the congressional level, but why not locally?” She added, “Congresswomen sponsor more bills and obtain more co-sponsorships for their legislation than their male colleagues do.” Women tend to be more collaborative, she shared. “I will be a more modern mayor.” Fleming views modern mayors as more collaborative in their approach to problem solving who are also enabling and consultative. 

Other Black women seeking voter support in the Inland Empire this election cycle include 47th Assembly District representative Cheryl Brown who is seeking re-election; City Councilwoman Tonya Burke who is running for Mayor of the City of Perris and State Attorney General Kamala Harris who is running to become only the second Black woman to ever serve in the United States Senate; in addition to a host of other Black women seeking elected positions in their local communities. 

African-American women in the twenty-first century are using the ballot to carve out a legacy that was only dreamed about by Dr. King who said in a 1957 speech titled, Give Us the Ballot, that one day historians will look back and record: “There lived a great people. A people with fleecy locks and black complexion, but a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization. . .”

Kamala Harris


California Attorney General Kamala Harris is a candidate for U.S. Senator. If elected she will become only the second Black woman elected to the senate in the nation’s history. 

“I went to Howard University, and I loved that at Howard nobody was putting you in a box and saying, 'This is what it means to be black.' The homecoming queen and the president of the student government and the chief editor of the newspaper were all black,” Harris explained. “I want to encourage that type of thinking.”

According to Harris, the idols of her youth – the architects of the civil rights era – such as Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley, inspired her from a young age to want to be a lawyer and fight for the voiceless and for justice. 

“My mother always told me that you may be the first to achieve something, but make sure you're not the last.” She continued, “Just as other women have encouraged me to know that I deserve a seat at the table, it is important to me to show others what’s possible and give them an opportunity to fulfill their promise. All of this has influenced my perspective as Attorney General and will inform my leadership as US Senator.”

Tonya Burke


Tonya Burke is a candidate for Mayor of the City of Perris. She currently serves her community as a member of the Perris City Council.

“When elected as Mayor for the City of Perris I will be the first African American as well as the first woman in Perris’s 105 -year history as a city to be elected as Mayor,” Burke shared.  “The unique experiences I have had as both a woman and a person of color have informed my decision making.

It has allowed me to effectively identify problems in the city that may not be as readily apparent to leaders who haven’t experienced the challenges of, for example, securing safe and reliable childcare, having access to adequate resources to pay for college, or simply having a voice in how the city is governed.”

According to Burke, these unique experiences enable her to have a greater understanding and affinity for the families who live in Perris.  “I know their struggles because I’ve experienced many of them myself and I know their dreams because many of them are much like my own.  We each want for our families to live in safe neighborhoods, where our children have access to a high quality education, with jobs that pay fair wages that allow us to support our families.”

Burke continued, “My experiences as both a woman and a person of color have enabled me to exercise innovativeness when addressing these issues within the city; and as it is often said, ‘If you want someone who thinks outside the box, find someone who has lived outside the box.’ This is the benefit of diversity within leadership.  My unique perspective coupled with my knowledge, leadership experience, and passion for the people are the skills I bring to this role.”

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