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Kamala Harris will leave a U.S. Congress that still doesn’t represent all Americans

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By Meera Jagannathan

With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris set to depart her U.S. Senate seat this month, a new analysis sheds light on record gains for Black women’s representation in Congress — and the work left to be done.

Black women remain underrepresented despite the “record-breaking number” who will serve in the 117th Congress, according to an analysis published Sunday by the nonprofit Higher Heights Leadership Fund and Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP).

Twenty-six Black women will serve as voting members at the beginning of the new Congress, the analysis said, outstripping the previous record of 23. They include Rep. Cori Bush , the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, and Rep. Marilyn Strickland , the first Black woman to represent Washington state as well as one of the first Korean-American congresswomen. Two Black women will also serve as non-voting House delegates representing Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. All are Democrats.

But with Harris heading to the White House later this month, the number of Black women in Congress drops to 25 and the number of Black female U.S. senators falls to zero. (Despite pressure to replace Harris with another woman of color, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last month that the state’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, would finish out the remainder of her Senate term.)

The remaining 25 Black female House members are poised to see their numbers further reduced this year, as President-elect Joe Biden has selected Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge as the second Black woman to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department.

All Black women currently serving in Congress are Democrats, the analysis also pointed out. Former Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the first and only Black Republican woman to serve in Congress, lost her reelection bid in 2018

“Despite an increase in Republican Black women candidates and nominees, Black women’s congressional representation remains entirely Democratic,” the report said . “More specifically, in a year where Republican women made up the majority of women newcomers to Congress, no Republican women winners were Black.”

All told, the 26 Black women serving in Congress as of Monday made up just about 4.9% of the 535 voting seats while accounting for 7.6% of the country’s population, according to the report. Only 47 Black women have ever served in Congress since seven-term New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm made history in 1968 as the first Black congresswoman.

With no Black women serving in the Senate after Jan. 20, “we must work hard to ensure that we will never again have Black women without representation in the highest offices of our country and we invest in a strategy to elect Black women in the Senate,” said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights, which works to expand Black women’s elected representation.

Women’s success in the 2018 midterms “did not fully upend the entrenched institutional norms and structures” that have placed them at an electoral disadvantage, according to a 2019 CAWP report . Gender and intersectional biases still exist in evaluations of female candidates, the report said, and women continue to experience “harassment and threats of violence, particularly those of a sexual nature, as a cost of candidacy.”

“Celebrating ‘firsts’ for women, and especially women of color, across levels of office serves as a reminder of the work left to do to create political institutions that reflect the full range of constituencies they serve,” the report added.

Harris will break several glass ceilings of her own when she ascends to the country’s second-highest office. She is the first woman, first Black person, first South Asian American and first alumna of a Historically Black Colleges and Universities institution to be elected vice president.

Biden has selected a number of other Black women to serve in his administration, including former national security adviser Susan Rice as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, campaign advisor Symone Sanders as the vice president’s chief spokesperson, foreign-service veteran Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations, and environmental lawyer Brenda Mallory as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

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