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Kamala Harris pick shouldn’t end the conversation on electing more women of color

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Now that the veepstakes speculation is over, it’s time to state an obvious but overlooked truth: Kamala Harris’ selection is not the end of the discussion about needing more BIPOC women in elected office, it is the beginning.

Joe Biden’s announcement on Tuesday was monumental. Harris is not only the second woman to ever be selected as a running mate for the Democratic Party, but she is the first Black woman to ever run as vice president in U.S. history. Biden’s current polling numbers indicate that after 244 years, this might finally be the year that Americans elect a woman to (be next in line for) the highest office in the country. 

However, we cannot afford to lose momentum in November, even if Biden and Harris win. Yes, it will be thrilling to see a Black woman in the country’s second-highest position of power. But in order to ensure continued, lasting progressive change in our society, we must elect women of color to state and local offices, in every region, all the way up and down the ballot. 

This sentiment is something that Sen. Harris also believes. She once gave at Spellman College and said, “You know my mother used to tell me, she would tell my sister, my mother would look at me and she’d say, ‘Kamala you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.’ And that’s part of what breaking those barriers, that’s why breaking those barriers is worth it. As much as anything else, it is also to create that path for those who will come after us.”

2020 has provided a stark reminder of the influential role state legislators play in our everyday lives. While the president mishandles COVID-19 with inaction and chaos, state officials have stepped up to keep their communities safe. These same officials have the power to pass legislation on issues such as reproductive healthcare, family leave, childcare, and sex-based discrimination. But even with Democrats’ record electoral gains in 2018, women make up just 29 percent of statehouse positions. Major decisions on issues that matter to women most are still in the hands of a predominantly white male government, who will never truly represent women.

Additionally, overwhelmingly white legislatures give systemic racism a comfortable home in government. As Democrats, we talk a big game about wanting “diverse representation,” but the evidence shows we are not living up to our ideals, as only 7.3 percent of state legislators are women of color. The first step to rooting structural racism out of government should be a no-brainer: stop electing white men to office and expecting things to change. To see results, we must put women of color in power. Look no further than New York, where Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first black woman to serve as state Senate Majority Leader, got a series of police accountability measures through the legislature within a week of George Floyd’s death. Some of these measures had been languishing for decades. New York was the first state to respond in this way, and it was possible only because for the first time in the state’s history, a black woman was setting the agenda.

We should be excited about the Kamala Harris announcement, but we need to invest just as much energy into growing diverse representation at the state and local levels. Working to elect women, especially women of color, is a necessary step on the path to a truly equitable society, and it will generate enthusiasm and turnout like we’ve never seen. For a better, stronger, fairer democracy, vote for BIPOC women.  

Rita Bosworth is the founder and executive director of the Sister District Project, a women-led grassroots group that organizes volunteers to elect Democrats to state legislatures.

Tags African-American women in politics Black women Institutional racism Intersectional feminism Joe Biden Kamala Harris women of color

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