Media Attacks Hurt Black Women Public Servants the Most

By Nina Turner 

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In 2014, the nation saw the largest number of Black women running for statewide and national offices.  The outcome of that historic effort was not as fruitful as many of us had hoped, but that’s hardly surprising considering the distinct challenges that Black women face when running for elected office or serving as political appointees.

Chief among them is the seemingly endless barrage of image-damaging personal attacks that appear uniquely targeted toward Black women, and which seldom, if ever, have anything to do with our leadership abilities or qualifications. The Name it. Change it. project by She Should RunWomen’s Media Center, and Political Parity examines the widespread sexism in the media as being one of the top obstacles that women candidates face.  The project asserts that a toxic media environment often times negatively affect their campaigns.

There are several recent examples of this phenomenon. During last year’s general election, Kentucky State House candidate Ashley Miller, a nurse practitioner who works for Planned Parenthood, was the target of attacks posted to an anonymous website. Instead of challenging Miller’s political views—which would have been fair game—the website called her “trashy” and falsely accused her of modeling lingerie in men’s homes for money. The smear campaign was a clear attempt to discredit her character and link her strong reproductive justice stance to a supposedly promiscuous lifestyle.

A few days after the November election, Politico published an op-ed calling for the firing of White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. The writer, Carol Felsenthal, failed to offer up a single example of how Jarrett had failed in her duties as President Barack Obama’s top advisor. Instead, she insultingly called Jarrett the Obamas’ “First Big Sister,” and dismissed Jarrett as unqualified without once mentioning her professional credentials, which includes having a law degree, serving in top posts for two Chicago mayors and as CEO for a major real estate development company.

I also know a little something about these kinds of unfounded media-driven attacks. During my recent run for Ohio Secretary of State, my opponent described me as the "two Nina's"; the one he knows in the work environment and the one that appears on Politics Nation with Rev. Al Sharpton (despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of my appearances on MSNBC was as a guest on the Ed Shultz Show). This was his dog-whistle. It got particularly rough towards the latter part of the campaign as his racial overtones to undermine my work ethics and integrity was hoisted onto 30-second spots for all of Ohio to see. 

While the political arena has never been a place for the faint of heart, you rarely see these kinds of personal attacks on white male candidates or appointees, and when you do their leadership aspirations are seldom crushed in the manner that many qualified Black females have experienced. Just ask former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders or former Assistant Attorney General Nominee Lani Guinier. Both of these women where immensely qualified to be public servants, and yet they never returned to the political arena after becoming targets of attacks on their personal lives and having their positions on issues misconstrued. In addition to thwarting the futures of so many promising Black female public servants, according to a recent Higher Heights study, these character assassination tactics are also discouraging many qualified Black women from even attempting a run for office or accepting the offer of a political appointment.

If we are serious about achieving effective and adequate political representation, we’re going to have to take a hard look at the double standards between how male public servants are judged and forgiven and how their Black female counterparts are judged and crushed as a result of the negative images that are put out about them. We also need to challenge the deeply seeded assumption by many that Black women aren’t as capable of leadership as men and white candidates. Challenging those beliefs is particularly important within our own ranks because, despite our awareness that this double standard exists, Black women are socialized in the same America and exposed to the same cultural dynamic that says we are less capable and more fallible.

Because we have the most to lose by becoming targets of dirty politics and negative media stories, Black women also have the most to gain by changing the dynamic. Groups like Higher Heights and other organizations focused on harnessing and increasing Black women’s political power can help by broadening the scope of their work to include an effort to define and promote what’s fair game for political debate and competition. Beyond that, we need to create support networks that can help Black female candidates and political appointees survive and thrive after such attacks. Political leaders are only as strong as their networks, and in order to be successful we need a strong, organized based of supporters who will donate their time and money to promote awareness of our political agendas and progressive works.

Nina Turner is a former Ohio State Senator. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Cuyahoga Community College and currently serves as a Co-Chair of the Ohio Task Force on Community and Police Relations.