3 Tips for White Women to Win Over Black and Brown Women Voters

3 Tips for White Women to Win Over Black and Brown Women Voters

3 Tips for White Women to Win Over Black and Brown Women Voters

What would an Elizabeth Warren–type campaign have to do to attract more women of color?


There is no shortage of opinions about Elizabeth Warren. Many postmortems for her campaign to be president wax hagiographic, others take a stab at being judicious, and a few raise, with some venom, all the reasons why she was unfit in the first place. All represent the surfeit of feelings and arguments that erupt every time there is a possibility of a woman doing what all American women wish a woman would get done: become president of the United States. Warren, with a progressive agenda and a compelling tale of I-got-here-myself feminist gutsiness was our best chance so far at the coveted prize.

Best yet, though, is still not good enough. In many ways, Warren’s campaign (and her record) avoided the problems that had plagued Hillary Clinton’s bid. Warren did not climb to recognition on the back of a president husband, nor she did not support a war that killed hundreds of thousands. Her campaign did not take money from vampiric banks and brokerage firms; instead, she fought them. With all of these things going for her, why did Warren lose?

One answer lies in the racial and gender breakdown of the results from Super Tuesday states. These results showed that black women, a crucial constituency for any Democrat, largely rejected her candidacy. The result was not entirely surprising: An article in The New York Times had predicted it, noting that Warren had attracted Internet-savvy black personalities like Representative Ayanna Pressley but her audience at campaign events in South Carolina remained mostly white.

The question that emerges from the results that ended Warren’s bid to president is whether a white woman can ever win this constituency, which is crucial for Democrat get to the White House? What would a Warren-type campaign have to do to attract black and brown women voters who make up the base of the Democratic Party?

Such a campaign is possible, but it would have to break many rules of what campaigns look like, what they say and when, and how they make decisions. The following are three tips for a white woman running for president who wants the support of black and brown women.

Ditch the humble roots routine

White women running for president, like white men running for president, have a habit of emphasizing their humble roots. Each one seems to have had a father in a union, a mother who confronted hardship, grandmothers who worked as maids, or all of the above. Warren, like Clinton before her, eagerly repeated this recipe. The sixth line in her book A Fighting Chance is, “My daddy was a maintenance man and my mother worked the phones at Sears.” The emphasis on humble roots is intended as an exercise in being relatable to voters, a performance of the I-am-just-like-you routine that is a fixture of all candidate stories—except (notably) the current president’s.

It is also a routine that rings hollow to many women of color. The reason is simple: However humble a white woman’s roots may be, her burden is mitigated by the privilege that comes with whiteness. In Warren’s case, having a white man as a mentor, as she did in law school, and being chosen by a hiring committee of mostly white men at Harvard law school underscore the mobility available to those with white privilege. White women enjoy an acceptability to white men that is just not available to women of color.

When white women emphasize their hardships without acknowledging the role white privilege has played in lubricating their rise, many women of color stop listening.

Warren refused to do this. In her the speech ending her campaign, she said she felt proud of going from “teaching down the street” to running for president.

Choose a vice president early

The guesswork of who will be a nominee’s vice-presidential nominee is usually a game played in the last legs of every primary season. Guesses abound as to whom Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders will select for a few more days of earned media.

If a white woman wants to win via winning the votes of women of color, she should announce her pick as early as possible. Selecting a woman or man of color as a running mate, particularly one who is actually working class, would show a greater commitment to women of color. Doing so, would recognize at the outset, the deficiencies of what one New York Times report calls “grass tops” campaigns. Such campaigns, and Warren’s was one, attract progressive activists but don’t go deep enough into communities of color to draw many voters.

Putting a person of color on the ticket in the initial months of a campaign admits the truth that a white upper-middle-class woman (the usual category from which white women presidential candidates are drawn) are not relatable to all women. It would also underscore that a white woman candidate who wants the presidency is not simply assuming the support of all women, but is amenable to sharing power and giving visibility to black and brown women.

Warren’s campaign did the very opposite of this. In early February, a half dozen women of color exited Warren’s Nevada campaign team, because they were “frustrated” with being tokenized and ignored by leadership. Their complaints included a campaign culture where they were included in the campaign “to bring color but not the knowledge and the voice that comes with it.” When questioned about the issue, Warren had a predictable response: She blamed “America’s racist legacy” for the staffers resignations.

Mobilize the feminist “we”

When Warren took and passed the Bar Exam, she listed herself as American Indian on her State of Texas Bar card. She did the same thing in the Association of American Law Schools Directory, listing herself as a minority professor. By now the controversy around Warren’s claims of Native American heritage have been duly taken apart. But it did not endear her to the Cherokee tribe, some of whose members say they never received an adequate apology. While an investigation by The Boston Globe found that she never directly benefited from the designation, the incident suggests to women of color a gross misinterpretation and misappropriation of such classifications. The emphasis on genotype by Warren can be read by women of color as a lack of understanding of racial phenotype and the burdens it imposes on women of color.

If a woman misunderstands how race works in America, it makes it nearly impossible for her to become president. The reason is simple: For such a campaign to succeed, it will be extremely helpful to mobilize the collective feminist “we.” But the way Warren’s campaign has dealt with her past false self-identification as Native likely turned away many voters of colors. To them, it showed that she didn’t fully recognize the way racism oppresses communities. Race is not a box that one ticks off as an individual; it’s a shared language and community. Her disregard of this likely suggests to many people of color a superficial and hence troubling interpretation of race

Women of Warren and Clinton’s generation have undoubtedly faced challenges put before them by white men, but women of color face challenges put before them by white men and women. Building the sort of feminist collective that is necessary to win means a rejection of the “let’s replicate the capitalist successes of white men” ethic so popular among white women. It requires a commitment from white women to share power and thus give up some of the power they have already amassed.

Warren’s policies were progressive; they were forward-looking; they were pro-women. The problem is that she did not model a collective commitment to sharing power or recognize publicly that white supremacy likely contributed to her success. That lost her support in communities of color. What Warren or any white woman who wishes to win must do is to build a movement with a progressive, multiracial and feminist agenda, just as others (such as Bernie Sanders) have built around issues such as income inequality.

Americans, men and women, live in a racially riven society. White men have been able to ascend to the presidency, most recently by whetting these hatreds. Any white woman who runs for the presidency in the future will require a collective movement of women. White women aiming for the presidency will have to go beyond selfies and cries of persistence or paeans to intersectional feminism or racial harmony. The problem with all of this, the reason why the presidency has been such an unattainable goal is because in order to win, white women have to embrace the contradiction of sharing the hard-won power that they have wrested from white men.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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