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Women voters of color are watching how Democrats respond to attacks on “the Squad”

The voters who helped push the congresswomen into office will be an important voting bloc in 2020.

Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib speak with reporters during a press conference on July 15, 2019.
Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib speak with reporters during a press conference on July 15, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

For more than a week, President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked four first-term congresswomen of color, claiming that the women are unpatriotic and should leave the US.

He’s said that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — all US citizens — must “go back” to other countries. He’s further escalated these attacks in recent days as he continues to argue that the women, whose election reflects the growing influence of women of color as voters and political leaders in the US, are spreading “racial hatred” and pose a dangerous threat to the nation.

It’s far from the first time that Trump has used the seat of the presidency to criticize a person of color, and much of the public reaction to the controversy follows a well-worn pattern. As with other moments when the president’s racist views are in the news — in this case, his well-established belief that people of color are not as American as white people, and thus are only allowed to claim citizenship by meeting his personal standard of patriotism — there’s been a debate over whether his statements should be called racist, an argument about whether Trump’s racism is or is not a smart political strategy, and a question of how much his statements matter to the overwhelmingly white group of voters who pushed him into the Oval Office.

This last point in particular has seen attention in recent days, as outlets like Reuters, CNN, and the New York Times have discussed how Trump voters view the president’s attacks.

In many ways, the attention to Trump’s base of support is an extension of a recurring media project in the Trump era: efforts to understand the viewpoints and political needs of those who voted for the president.

But this focus overlooks the attitudes and viewpoints of the groups and coalitions that are strongly opposed to the Trump presidency. And one group that has been particularly overlooked is women of color, a powerful force in the Democratic electorate who not only largely didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 but also helped propel women like Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar, and Tlaib into office.

And it is this group — progressive women voters of color, politicians, and activists — that has been particularly critical of the president’s recent attacks. They argue that as the controversy continues, politicians and political parties looking to win women voters of color must support the leadership of women politicians of color and speak forcefully and consistently against the racism and sexism used against them, or risk losing part of this critical demographic of voters entirely.

Women of color are an increasingly influential group of voters — and political candidates

The attacks on the Democratic congresswomen come at a time when women of color — a diverse group that includes black, Latina, Native American, and Asian American women — have become increasingly influential in the Democratic Party. It is also in these communities that Democrats are fighting to shore up their support.

Women of color are estimated to make up roughly 20 percent of the Democratic electorate, and comprise 25 percent of the population in key swing states like Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and South Carolina. While women of color, particularly black women, have played crucial roles in elections for years, it wasn’t until the 2012 presidential election — which saw women of color push the overall women’s vote in Barack Obama’s favor even as the majority of white women backed Mitt Romney — that their power as voters began to enter mainstream discussions of politics.

This shift was later followed by strong showings from black women voters in the 2016 presidential election (where 94 percent of this group voted for Hillary Clinton), and in 2017 state elections in Virginia and Alabama. In the years since, the work of groups like She the People, a political group focused on women of color voters that held a presidential forum in the spring, has argued that this demographic has specific policy needs that political parties and politicians must address.

“We’re not looking to hold our noses and vote for a candidate we don’t believe in,” Aimee Allison, the founder and president of She the People, told me in May. “And inspiring women of color is going to be crucial for any candidate who wants to be successful.”

As women of color have sought this deeper investment from politicians, more women of color have also launched their own campaigns. In 2018, a historic number of black women won election to Congress, marking the first time in history that more than 20 black congresswomen would serve at the same time. And many of these women, including Omar and Pressley, won after running progressive campaigns that openly discussed how people of color are uniquely affected by policy and politics and need to be at the tables where political decisions are made. This focus likely helped these women — a group that also includes Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Reps. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland — make history in the 2018 election cycle.

In doing so, these women served as some of the most high-profile examples of a broader wave of women of color running for and winning elected office across the country. As a recent report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign (which tracks the election of candidates by race and gender) found, the number of women of color running for political office in the country has increased some 37 percent between 2012 and 2018.

And a higher number of women of color are also winning political office — the percentage of women of color in Congress for example, has increased from 6 percent in 2015 to 9 percent in 2018. “After 2016, the numbers [of women of color] running for office really took off,” says Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

Understanding these trends is important for understanding why Trump’s attacks matter. In attacking four congresswomen of color, by presenting them as uncivil and unpatriotic, the president is continuing a pattern of berating his critics of color by weaponizing the idea of patriotism. And in going after this specific group of women with this specific line of attack, Trump is, some observers argue, also attacking the legitimacy of a recent increase in the number of progressive women of color in political office, undermining not only the policies they advocate for but their very presence in the halls of Congress.

It highlights a deeper issue that has at times been glossed over in political coverage: that even as women of color increasingly run for, and win, political office, their work is being hampered by the continued racism and sexism they face once elected.

This isn’t just about Trump’s attacks; it’s about how other politicians respond to them

The sorts of attacks seen in the past few weeks aren’t new for Trump, who has repeatedly criticized black women and female lawmakers of color. Before Trump turned his ire to the four congresswomen, there was his fierce criticism of Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, who in 2017 criticized the reportedly callous way the president spoke to Myeshia Johnson, a black grieving military widow, in a phone call. The president has also attacked California Rep. Maxine Waters, often calling her “wacky,” “unhinged,” and “low IQ.”

As I’ve previously written, many of these attacks follow a similar pattern where Trump questions the intelligence and mental state of a woman of color, before dismissing her as a rude, unpatriotic figure who deserves harsh scrutiny and admonishment. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, many women subjected to these attacks report receiving death threats soon afterward.)

And recent days have shown that he is willing to escalate these attacks with arguments that Omar, a Somali refugee and naturalized citizen, should be sent back to her country, and other barbs chastising Ocasio-Cortez for her prominence, Tlaib for her language, and Pressley for her openness in discussing race and racism.

The fact that these attacks fit into a trend of undercutting women lawmakers of color has led some women of color political strategists to argue that Democratic lawmakers must take a stronger stance not only in condemning Trump, but also in supporting and respecting the political vision and policy goals of women lawmakers of color, rather than fighting and dismissing them publicly.

“The time is up for blatant disrespect of Congressional women of color,” reads a current petition started by a coalition called “Black Women Leaders and Our Allies.” “The time is up for people of color being the targets and scapegoats for America’s failed policies of justice and equality.”

As Pier Dominguez recently wrote for BuzzFeed, these concerns are rooted in a long history of outspoken women of color being criticized and ignored not only by Republicans but by leaders in the Democratic Party. And these issues have been raised by women of color in recent years, including in 2017 when a group of black women submitted a letter to the Democratic National Committee arguing that the party was taking the support of black women voters for granted and had failed to center their policy concerns.

More recently, the Democratic Party has been criticized for publicly chastising women of color like Waters and Omar, with black political leaders and activists writing in a 2018 letter that the criticism of Waters in particular “telegraphs a message that the Democratic Party can ill afford: that it does not respect Black women’s leadership and political power and discounts the impact of Black women and millennial voters.”

These tensions have also been on display in party leaders’ very public criticisms of the four congresswomen; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently questioned the women’s actual political power in an interview with the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, saying that despite their viral prominence, the women “didn’t have any following,” and are just “four people.”

Predictably, those comments received criticism, not only from Ocasio-Cortez and her staffers but from people working with women of color more broadly. “They’re not just four votes!” Allison, the She the People founder, told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. “For many of us, they’re the physical manifestation of generations of blood, sweat, and tears for representation in Congress.”

Ultimately, by failing to better support women of color lawmakers, many of whom are the most prominent voices pushing for policies women of color and their communities care about, Democrats run the risk of alienating the voters who helped put these women into office. And in an upcoming election where women of color voters are looking for politicians to show that they deeply understand the needs of their communities and the value of their leadership, that error is one that activists say Democrats cannot afford to make.

“When she attacks them, she attacks all of us,” Allison said of Pelosi. “From a practical standpoint, when you don’t have women of color fully engaged and excited about the party as organizers and voters, you will lose the White House.”

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