Harris Senate seat pick reveals Black women are still not truly valued

OPINION: Haley Taylor Schlitz writes that Black women and girls celebrate breaking barriers but have never been allowed to be present in all areas of government at the same time

A year like no other. Herstoric. Challenging. Knee buckling. Groundbreaking. Barrier shattering. Distressing. Ups and downs that no one could have ever imagined just twelve months ago.

For Black women and girls, 2020 offered us both a glimpse into our future and at the same time provided us a serious reminder of the historic challenges we have and continue to face. As we move toward the historic moment on Jan. 20, 2021 when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take her oath of office, we will join together and celebrate the shattering of another barrier. 

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(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

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At the same exact moment, we will also live with the reality that the single seat and voice that we had fought to secure for Black women and girls in the United State Senate will be gone. Once again, we live with the intersectionality of being Black women in America. Celebrating HERstoric moments while at the same time being reminded that our voices and opinions are still not truly valued in our nation.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his selection of California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Harris becoming Vice President. While a historic moment for California, it was at the very same moment a reminder that Black women have never been allowed to be present in all areas of our government at the same time. 

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President-elect Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff wave to crowd on stage after Biden’s address to the nation. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

To make matters worse, Newsom rushed to appoint a Black woman to the position of California’s Secretary of State to address the immediate backlash. The appointment of California State Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber to California Secretary of State is well deserved. Her leadership in California as Chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus demonstrated her passion and tireless dedication to addressing issues of equality and justice.

What her appointment was not, though, was anything equal to the loss Black women suffered that day.

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In our nation’s history, only two Black women have ever been elected and served in the United States Senate. Collectively, 10 years of service out of the 231 years the United States Senate has existed.

The first Black woman elected was Sen. Carolyn Moseley-Braun from Illinois in 1992. After being sworn into the Senate, Senator Moseley-Braun said, “I cannot escape the fact that I come to the Senate as a symbol of hope and change.” She only served one term and in the 2004 election, she would become the second Black woman, after Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, to run for the Democratic nomination for president. 

Former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Black women and girls would have to wait almost two decades before our collective voices, experiences, and hopes would once again be heard and represented on the floor of the United States Senate. In 2016, then California Attorney General Harris would win over 60% of the vote and become the second Black woman elected to the United States Senate. 

During Senator Harris’s victory speech on election night, she acknowledged the HERstoric moment she represented for our nation. She described the intersectionality of her life and her path to this moment. Specifically, she acknowledged the realities that Black women and girls face when she stated that Black women “are often, too often, overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.

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Haley Taylor Schlitz and Senator Kamala Harris. (Photo: Courtesy of Haley Taylor Schlitz)

As much as we cherish this moment in time, the decision by Newsom was a reminder of how fast these moments of celebration can be displaced with a single action by those we believed had moved forward with us. His decision makes clear, once again, that the struggle for equality will continue to be present; and that a new generation of Black girls will live in the duality of a world where both barriers are being removed and placed before us at the same time.

Governor Newsom’s decision is truly harmful because he had multiple Black women who could have skillfully filled the vacant United States Senate seat. Two individual Black women in particular were passed over. In Los Angeles, former California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was available. A trailblazer herself, Congresswoman Bass was the first and only Black woman to ever be elected to serve as Speaker of the State Assembly. Her long career demonstrates the ability to work across the diverse communities in our nation and effectively lead.

In the Oakland and East Bay communities of California, Newsom has a national leader who has demonstrated integrity, leadership, vision, and what I believe is the spirit of Black women in the modern Democratic Party. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a global leader that has spent her career addressing the fundamental issues that Black women and girls face in our nation.

The works of Black women are not appreciated by the very political party that is constantly begging us to turn out and vote. A quick look at Georgia should remind us of this constant double standard: wanting our vote but not our voices.

As we move forward into 2021, Black women and girls once again face a world where barriers are removed and put in place at the very same time. For my sisters in Generation Z, our challenge is not to be dismayed or demoralized. 

We must remember and live by the words of one of our original sheroes, Congresswoman Chisholm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Sisters it’s time to get our chairs and take our seats at the table. 

Haley Taylor Schlitz

Haley Taylor Schlitz is in her second year of law school at SMU Dedman School of Law. In May of 2019, she graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Woman’s University College of Professional Education. She is also the youngest graduate in the history of Texas Woman’s University and is an elected delegate to the Texas Democratic Party and was elected and served as a Joe Biden Delegate from Texas to the Democratic National Convention.

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