Saturday, January 5, 2013

113rd Congress: Should I get excited?

January 3, 2013 and the “freshman” class of the 113th Congress has been sworn in. A few days prior a dear friend of mine sent me the above picture with the statement “I'm sure you can do something with this imagery!” I looked at the picture, shrugged my shoulders and continued contemplating life (mine) in the New Year. Then I watched Dianne Sawyer’s interview (1/3/2013) with a number of these women and I became intrigued. I listened to how the women conceptualize themselves as law makers. One said that women are not filled with testosterone and that makes them different from their male counterparts. They talked about abortion and women’s rights and other issues one has come to expect such panels to deal with. I almost ignored the segment on ABC Nightly News as it started (at least the start for me) on how many children were shared between the women. My thought was please, not this again. Nevertheless, I set aside my bias and listened. But I came away with more thoughts than could be answered in the two-minute segment (or however long it was).  
I taught Women and Politics last semester—perfect timing. Leading up to the election and after the election my students and I discussed not only why women run for elective office, but also the barriers they face and how women of various social locations confront these barriers. We discussed how women confront the masculinist structure that is Congress. After the election we talked about whether or not the newly elected cohort will be able to change how Congress functions or will they be confined to working within the structure as is.
Many tout this as the most diverse Congress to date. This diversity covers a wide spectrum including:
1.      The House Democrat Caucus-it is projected that the majority now comprises of women and non-white individuals. The Republican counterpart remains heavily White and male.
2.      Religious & Racial Diversity—the House of Representatives now has its first Hindu member and the senate has its first Asian-American woman (the second woman of color to serve in the Senate). Twenty-eight Latinos are now serving in the House and three in the Senate.
3.      Sexuality—the Senate now has its first openly gay member.
4.      Gender-- The Senate now has 20 women (of 100 members) and there are 81 women in the House of Representatives (of 441 members of which 435 are voting members and 6 are non-voting members).
In the face of it all, this is indeed something to celebrate. But… I do wander what does this all mean for Black women? Between 1917 and 2012   
“A total of 31 African American or black women have served in Congress (1 in the Senate, 30 in the House), including the 15 serving in the 112th Congress. Eight Hispanic women have been elected to the House; seven serve in the 112th Congress. Six Asian American women have served in the House, including four in the 112th Congress.”
Of the 43 current African American Congresspersons (a drop from 44), a total of 17 are women (these includes two non-voting members). So, there are 17 (out of 435 members) Black women in the House of Representatives and zero (out of 100 members) in the Senate, but why should we care?
Symbolic vs. Substantive Representation: Why we should care
Who will represent Black women? This is a question of substantive versus symbolic representation. While both are valuable, I’m inclined to advocate for substantive representation which would result in policy changes—positive changes-- that would enhance the lived realities of Black women. There are so many issues that Black women need to pay attention to; depending on how Congress acts on these issues will show how and if Black women matter, in a substantive manner, to this most diverse Congress. Below I explore only a few of the issues that I think we ought to pay attention to.
1.      Violence Against Women Act (VAW). The 112th House, as it came to its end, failed to act on the VAW Act. The GOP leadership refused to introduce the Act for re-authorization. The bill passed in the Senate would have extended domestic violence protections to approximately 30 million LGBT individuals, First American women and undocumented immigrants. Black women need this legislation. Consider the following:  
Various groups experience domestic violence at disproportionate rates. The NVAWS found that African-American and Native American/Alaskan Indian women and men reported higher rates of domestic violence than did women and men from other communities of color(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000), while Asian/Pacific Islander women and men tended to report lower rates of intimate partner violence than did women and men from other minority backgrounds(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). It also found that 23.4% of Hispanic/Latina women had been domestic violence victims in their lifetime(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that African-American women experienced domestic violence at a rate 35% higher than Caucasian women(Rennison & Welchans, 2000).

An important consideration with respect to race and domestic violence is the impact of economic class. A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) publication suggests that "African-Americans and whites with the same economic characteristics have similar rates of intimate violence, but African-Americans have a higher overall rate of intimate violence due in part to higher levels of economic distress and location in disadvantaged neighborhoods"(Benson & Fox, 2004).”
2.      HIV/AIDS: Simply put we need a comprehensive, well-funded, national HIV/AIDS policy. Having said this, I recognize that this might not occur in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, there are a few policy issues that Black women need to press Congress on. For one, we need to pres them on funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. We also need to advocate for funding (increased) for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which provides care to low income people with the disease and Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA).
3.      The Economy. There are so many issues to discuss related to the economy including the high rates of unemployment among African Americans—regardless of gender and/or age. We also need to advocate, in the coming months, on how the “fiscal cliff” will be addressed. The fiscal-cliff might have been averted, but it is not over. The 2013 Congress must now address what is referred to as the sequestration requirements. Sequestration, implemented by the Budget Control Act of 2011, is approximately $1 trillion in automatic cuts to federal government spending over the next decade. This means that this Congress must now create a deficit reduction plan designed to identify $1.2 trillion in budgetary cuts over the next decade. We need to pay attention to a number of areas that might be affected by these cuts, including for example the Affordable Health Care Act in general and the Prevention and Public Health Fund specifically. Federal employees are not off the hook, yet. A substantial number of African Americans are employed by the federal government. How they handle this economic “crisis” has implication for education parity (Head Start among other programs), access to affordable health care, and adequate and safe housing. 

Congresswoman Maxine Waters
Finally, we need to pay attention to committee assignments as this is often used to mute and silenced those who might challenge the status quo. When Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman elected to Congress, was elected she was initially appointment to a minor subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee. She challenged this appointment and the power structure changed her appointment to the Veterans Affairs Committee. She bucked the system by challenging power structures, she made many uncomfortable with her presence and her words. Hers is but one method of radical representation for substantive change. We have to wait to see if this celebrated 113rd congress will in the words of Shirley Chisholm “breathe fire”. In the meantime, we cannot sit back and wait for our elected officials to act, we must also act. It is time for us, the voting public, to also “breathe fire” and demand substantive policy that positively affects the lived reality of Black women.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I'm not sure why the comment was removed as it was a very thoughtful comment. Thanks for reading the post.