A Conversation about Black Women in Politics with Karen Finney and Dr. Wendy Smooth

June 15, 2018

In late April 2018, Gender Watch 2018 Project Director Kelly Dittmar facilitated a conversation with Karen Finney and Dr. Wendy Smooth about Black women in politics. Finney is a Democratic political consultant with extensive campaign experience, including serving as a senior advisor and senior spokesperson for Hillary for America. Finney was also the host of Disrupt with Karen Finney on MSNBC. Dr. Wendy Smooth is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and political science at The Ohio State University. She is is a noted scholar of intersectionality and American politics, and an expert contributor to Gender Watch 2018.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dittmar: If we look at the electoral terrain Black women confront and navigate, what do you both sort of perceive as different or distinctive from other groups of women?

Finney: We’ve had women Black women and Brown women in elected office – it’s not new, but what is different right now is because there’s such a large group of women running, and within (that group) a large group of Black women running, that has really raised the conversation, or re-raised it, I should say.  particularly in the aftermath of the Alabama special election, and looking at Virginia and New Jersey, there’s recognition of the idea that Black women are the backbone of the [Democratic] party.  I personally have said, “I’m not the backbone. Treat me as a swing voter.”  But a corollary to that conversation is supporting them when they’re running for office, right?  Because I think a lot of people in this country, particularly in the aftermath of Trump’s election, are feeling very frustrated and feeling, wanting to take matters into their own hands. … Black women in particular have been activists throughout our history, but now we’re seeing running for office, particularly at the local level, as a form of activism.  That’s part of what has changed.

Smooth: I agree with Karen, wholeheartedly.  And I love that line, “Don’t treat me as a backbone, treat me as a swing voter,” and we have a long way to go before women of color and black women in particular are realized in that way.  I think the conversation more needs to center around setting the conditions that mobilize Black women to turnout.  In part, there’s a truth to, “where can you go, where can you swing to?” The parties must realize that for Black women, it’s not necessarily a “swing to,” it’s more of a “stay home,” right?  And so think of me as your critical turnout base, and support efforts that result in robust turnout.  In my mind that does not mean last minute, GOTV campaigns, but building long term capacity and voter engagement.

On another note, I have taken a lot of issue with this idea that women have suddenly gotten mad, right?  Because it removes women from having rational calculations about their voting process.  And when we do that, we as scholars then treat them very differently than we treat other voters for which we have exquisite models and calculations around their propensity to vote or their propensity to run for public office, or their ambition.  When we start to talk about them as simply emoting, that they’re unpredictable, that goes right along with all of the kind of derogatory narratives that we associate with women, namely insisting that we are irrational.

And to Karen’s point, for sure, Black women have been organizing from the very beginning, and have been engaged in politics. Among Black women, there’s some skepticism that’s long-held, around whether or not formal politics actually delivers for them, and so there’s a much longer community-based political tradition.  Black women have often favored community based politics when formal electoral politics seemed limited. But I think the Doug Jones election in Alabama reflects this kind of conversion of Black women’s community organizing and strategic decision-making into formal electoral politics. Doug Jones is not the perfect candidate for African American communities, but Black women are astute at making strategic choices about who they choose to support or when they choose to support them. I think we have to think more critically about Black women being strategic in that way.  And I would say, just as they’re strategic as voters they’re also strategic in terms of deciding to run for office.

Finney: I wonder if the tradition of more community organizing and activism [in the Black community] is more beneficial now, at a time when people feel so bombarded and overloaded with TV ads and you don’t know what you can trust on Facebook and other media – that those community ties can really make a difference.

But one thing that I think is inherent in the challenge particularly for women of color, Black women, and women in general is to look at the representation of women in party leadership roles. It’s still not where it could be in order to provide that kind of support and encouragement for recruiting candidates and supporting candidates than it might otherwise be.

Dittmar: What sort of bothers me is the singular narrative out there about why women are running for office this cycle – that they got angry post-election. This does actually kind of tie to the party problem; if you don’t have people in party leadership who understand the different path to office for women, Black women specifically, running for office, does that yield problems on the pragmatic side in terms of recruitment and support for candidates?

Smooth: Yes, it’s not just that women got mad because Donald Trump got elected, women and Black women especially are getting more strategic and that has to be cultivated.  The parties can play a role in that. The real story begins with how Black women remain motivated and mobilized. It’s not about what even happens in 2018, it’s about what these conversations set up for 2020, and what it sets up beyond 2020 about reformulating the ways in which women are thinking about their roles in politics and in party politics, and the importance of being involved in local party politics and what that can amount to down the line or how that can reshape the party. In the case of Ohio, it can give the Democratic party some much needed energy.  And so if we think about it only as what’s going to happen in this ‘year of the woman’  or “tidal wave of women” in 2018, we lose the potential for what this moment can be in terms of cultivating a huge team of potentials—candidates and voters moving forward.

Finney: For Black women in particular, there are a lot of barriers to get us to the point where we would ask ourselves, “Do I want to do this?  Do I want to run for office?  Could I run for office?”  But in terms of this moment in time, for women generally and Black women specifically, there is just this feeling of, “Okay, enough. I can be part of this.”  And a lot of women feel more encouraged than we have in other moments, and that helps get you over some of those initial barriers.

I wonder if part of what’s going on in this moment is this enthusiasm for women, encouragement for women, and Black women speaking up more for each other has created a moment where, as candidates women are saying, you know, “I’m gonna do this.”  And because we’re winning in places all over the country that people (a) said, “No Democrat could win,” and (b) they certainly didn’t think a woman, particularly a Black woman, could win, [they are more encouraged to run.]

The other thing I keep thinking about is what it could mean if we keep these women [running for office this year] in the pipeline and help them be successful if they win those races. That just really could change the face and the dynamic of American politics because you’d have such an infusion of just more diverse voices and bases and perspectives.

Smooth: You know, to your point that Black women are being encouraged more, I think that’s an under-investigated area in terms of who is engaging them, who is actually resonating with them?  As your comment suggests, it’s not necessarily the parties that are doing that work, and in the case of Black women that would be the Democratic party specifically. So there’s a huge untold story of women encouraging other women and resonating with them in a different way.  So what are the kinds of convincing points that will move a woman from on the fence – from “I’ve never really considered this” to “By gosh, darn, I’m jumping in and I’m gonna do it?”  Having a better understanding of who those groups are, how they’re connected, how those networks function – which is going to be different for African American women – is going to be important for 2020 and down the line in encouraging these women to continue.

The other important piece is helping women construct their narratives around not winning on the first time out because yes, we’re getting women who are taking the non-traditional steps to running. If they don’t win, we cannot afford a narrative that says, “You didn’t play by the rules so that’s why you lost,” because things are always going to be different for African American women, for women of color.

Finney: I would argue that, you know, the rules are out the window, you know…

Smooth:  (laughing) Yeah!  Yeah!

Finney:  …in politics anyway, so we might as well take advantage of that.

Smooth:  Right, right.

Dittmar:  One of the rules that we’re still playing by is money, right?  And so, this conversation around Stacey Abrams and her willingness to be very public about her own financial struggles, I think, raises the point that the costs of campaigning can really prevent many people, perhaps especially women and women of color, from running for office.  I think we all knew that, but Abrams opened a more public dialogue about it.  Do you think this is a particular challenge to consider as we think about recruitment networks and strategies?

Finney: There’s two dynamics there.  So part of it is that there’s an old playbook in Georgia that they’re coming back to now that [Stacey is] up 15 points in the polls and her fundraising is very strong. We’re seeing a lot of these old tactics thrown at her, including trying to use her personal financial issues against her as some suggestion of corruption, which is just wrong. But there’s also stereotypes against women managing finances.  And, you know, when we [on her campaign team] talked through this, her reason [for writing the Fortune piece] was to be able to say on her own terms, “Here’s what happened,” but also what happened is something that resonates with people.

So, my point is, people really understand and what they are saying now is, “Oh she actually understands what the financial challenges that we’re going through are like.” On a positive note, it actually helps give voters an insight into her as someone who has been through a lot of the challenges that people face and knows how hard it is, and that it has very much influenced some of her policy ideas and positions.

The second piece is just the challenge, particularly for Black women, of raising money.  Because, particularly if you’re a first-time candidate, you don’t have the name recognition; you may not have the same financial or political networks. So you’re trying to cultivate that as you’re raising money and it’s hard to raise money, you know?  It’s getting on the phones and doing call time, and women are better at it than they get credit for, but it’s still hard.

Smooth:  Certainly. The other thing is, as I was saying earlier, how does this story then resonate, not only with Georgians, but also with potential candidates across the country that are watching her story who understand, “Yes I’d love to run for political office, but that’s my story.”  There was a series of conversations in the New York Times about a year ago about how the accumulated wealth of African American women was significantly lower than White women or White men with similar educational backgrounds. If that was a more widely understood experience – debt and overall absence of generational wealth among African Americans- for historical and contemporary institutional reasons– we can point out. How then would African American women put that in their calculations over whether or not they can run?  That’s a big unspoken barrier that Stacey Abrams’ story might help other Black women cross.

I think that how her story will be received on the larger stage will be very critical, and it will be critical for those of us who are interested in expanding the scope of people running to figure out how do you get around that, right?  And how do you do what Stacey did? Gosh, the article was incredible in terms of connecting with people, and it offered a contemporary understanding of how does one amass debt? How did that happen for Americans particular in the economic downturn in 2018? Her story resonates at this particular moment based on a collective experience of the American public, but we would be foolish not to understand that for African American women, that moment in 2008 hit harder than other parts of the American community.

For those of us who care about getting more women of color interested in running, this needs to be part of the training programs.  This needs to be a part of the modules that we teach and we need frank conversations.  In identifying candidates, we have to say, “It’s okay that you have student loan debt that is past the acceptable ten-year period. We still can talk about you as a viable candidate.”  Or if you’ve lost a home due to foreclosure, which is a huge experience for African Americans, and African American women in particular, we have to say “You can still run.”

Finney: That reminds me – Barack and Michelle Obama had debt when he became President! So if we’re gonna go there…

Dittmar: We do are training particularly for Black women called “Run, Sister, Run,” and one of the things that comes up repeatedly in the panels of women who’ve run or won is a warning to Black women in the audience to be very careful because the scrutiny of their finances is going to be greater than it might be for other candidates.  I wonder if you both see that as being true in what you’ve seen in working with or studying Black women candidates?

Finney:  Yeah, it’s such an issue. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s research discusses this scrutiny on women and finances. But part of the scrutiny is related to the question of “Can she win?” And part of “Can she win?” is “Can she raise the money?” I think certainly for Black women the level of scrutiny is higher because of cultural stereotypes, but all women face it.

The scrutiny is [also] really focused on this idea of “Can she manage the finances?”   there’s a little bit of, “Oh, can she understand it?”  There’s a lot of cultural stuff in there, right?

And then the corruption piece, I’ve seen that narrative, that old playbook, used against Black candidates, male and female, more than I have with White candidates.  But it is the case that as women, as with a lot of different areas of running for office, you have to constantly be making sure that you are going above and beyond to show transparency and ethics because those are also, by the way, the easiest [areas] for your opponent to exploit and [use to] smear you.

Smooth: Yeah, I’m wondering too, what have we learned?  What have we learned in terms of the small donor strategy that Obama used so successfully?  This is likely a response to the question “Can she raise the money?” It may be that she raises money differently.  But how much are we talking to women about the possibility of raising money differently and taking lots of small donors versus the more traditional model of larger donors coming in at particular times?

Finney: [There is] a dual challenge. A lot of times the party committee will say, “We’ll take a closer look at you when we see that you can raise money, and when we see how you’re doing in the polls,” and it’s a little bit of a chicken or the egg because a lot of candidates will say, “Okay, but I need your help to get to that point.”  So yeah, small donor strategies can be very important but… that’s the other challenge.  You always need to find new supporters, new donors, and it takes resources to do that.  So there’s a dual challenge on that.

Dittmar: There’s a perception, perhaps a myth, that Black women can’t win statewide.  Right?  Is this a particular challenge, and what are the steps we need to take on the practitioner side as well as scholars to be sure that we’re expanding those types of opportunities and success for Black women beyond majority-minority district lines?

Smooth: Sure.  You know, I would kind of cast this question a little bit wider than just the majority-minority districts.  That’s one of the things, yes, that has led to important spaces of growth for African American women.  But by the same token, we do have these success stories of Black women who have run and been successful without the existence of majority-minority districts.  I’ve written about it and talked about it as a certain type of Black woman candidate who can go into those traditional White women spaces with a proven track record on women’s issues and resonate with those groups and still is able to leverage the African American voter. There’s potential for crossover appeal they bring.

I think we need to do more around asking the critical questions of when does that happen?  How is that successful?  I think Stacey’s [Abrams] campaign will give us an enormous amount of information about how early these national entities like EMILY’s List get involved and what that means for African American women candidates.

I want to back up and say that I feel like that as a community of scholars and practitioners we have said we’ve got to get more women of color running statewide.  And I think we have not actually asked women of color whether or not that is actually their goal, if that is where they consider themselves as having the most impact.  They are driven by a different set, or some are driven by a different set of imperatives.  If an African American woman is truly coming out of a community organizing background with community at the heart of her politics, her goal might be to decrease gun violence or to decrease state-sanctioned violence in her community – police brutality in her community. That is not necessarily a statewide question.  Those issue can be framed, and quite convincingly framed, as local issues, which may not lead an African American woman to statewide office.  It may not be that African American women’s ambitions are for statewide office. We need more research that speaks to those considerations.

Now certainly we have a vested interest in getting [women of color] to run statewide for broader name recognition and for the potential to grow the pipeline; that’s been a long-held narrative. But for women of color, I don’t know if that narrative actually resonates with them based on what they get into politics to do and whether or not they see national politics, or even statewide politics, as the space where the kind of changes that they’re interested in seeing actually happen.

Finney:  You know, I hear that. Although it’s interesting, mayors and governors have the most power to get things done… So I also wonder if part of the conversation with women is [to tell them] that’s where you’re really able to have an impact.  I hear what you’re saying… but I think maybe we have to help women recognize that, in terms of your ability to get something done, [being governor] is a very important role in a state.  And [encourage them] not to be afraid of that ambition.

The other dynamic that happens with women, in particular Black women, is that there’s all these cultural fault lines. You have to be so careful to not be seen as [too ambitious] – although I think there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.  We recently had the Republican Governor’s Association attack Stacey [Abrams] for being too ambitious and I thought, “You know, you never say that about men.”  But as women, we’re either still, …I don’t want to say learning our ambition, but being comfortable with that ambition.  And I think we get it in the workplace, in the private sector, in the public sector, you name it, right?  The motive is questioned as to why a woman seems to have ambition and that goes to a different narrative about women that is just one of the issues that women have to deal with generally.

Smooth:  Among African American women, we’re starting to have more conversations around ambition, and how do you frame ambition.  If you’re coming out of a community organizing framework, the notion of saying “I” and taking credit for the results, or taking credit for the win, is antithetical to the “we” of a collective organizing ethos.  And so helping women to talk about the alignment of your issue ambition with your own personal ambition is critical for helping more women make that transition from coming out of community-based organizing into formal politics.

Finney:  Another thing that is contributing to this moment [is] people sort of seeing the power and influence that Black women can have. How do we extrapolate that out for women and for society to see and recognize that?  And then how do we internalize with women this idea of ambition, this “Look what we’re already doing” of “When we come together, look what we can do,” as part of the way to have a different kind of conversation?

Dittmar: What is the value of seeing Black women running to either shaping these perceptions or disrupting perceptions of what it looks like, what it means, to be a candidate in 2018?  And do you see any specific examples or just more general principles about why this might matter in this moment?

Smooth: I’d go back to Karen’s earlier point about women engaging women and getting behind women.  Because, you know, there are all of these stereotypes of, “Oh women do not support each other!  They don’t support each other!”  And if we can tell more stories about how women are propelling other women forward, that’s important.

I think 2018 is a set-up year. This is about setting up different kinds of conversations.  Kelly, to your work and your book, this is about how campaign operatives will think about how gender functions, for them to be able to see gender as this incredible asset and to see the intersection of gender and race as an incredible asset through which you can reach different communities and mobilize different communities and keep them mobilized across election cycles.  Just think what that could do for increasing political engagement for everyone.

Those are the kinds of things that are exciting about how can we shift the types of conversations that we’re willing to have.  Let’s talk about that “you can’t be what you can’t see” actually means in practice. How do you make it resonate with people?  How do you take it to that other level, not just seeing it but seeing it and then having a willingness to act on it, whether we’re talking about campaign operatives or we’re talking about loyal women voters who always go to the polls and bring ten friends but no one’s asked them to run for office?

Finney: I agree with you wholeheartedly. The more we see it, the more we do it. I remember early on, probably in the 90s, we were talking about that as more people get in the habit of voting for women, it won’t feel like such a big deal.  And I think the more we see Black women running for office, and hopefully winning, the better – because then it doesn’t seem like such an outlier. That’s also how you help change attitudes and stereotypes.

Smooth: And that’s how you restore trust in government.  It’s hugely philosophical, but that’s what a government for the people and by the people actually should be about?  How do we get to that?