Last month, I had the privilege of seeing Representative Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) speak at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. After a few minutes of pleasantries, Pressley began to give an autobiography of her political journey, beginning as a scheduler for Senator John Kerry, serving as the first African-American woman on Boston’s City Council, and then becoming the first African-American congresswoman from Massachusetts after defeating incumbent Mike Capuano.
She spoke proudly but humbly about her congressional campaign’s voter outreach efforts. She credited her campaign’s TV ads on Telemundo and Univision for increasing Latino voter turnout by more than seventy percent. Moreover, she touted her performance among young voters and the more than two-fold increase in voter turnout in the areas inhabited by Boston University students.
However, the Representative was frank about how she felt after establishment Democrats and Capuano supporters alike attacked her after her victory. Critics argued that, because policy differences between Pressley and Capuano were scant, her skin color, above all else, propelled her to victory. Her alleged use of identity politics, these critics maintain, are part of a larger trend in the Democratic Party—one that they fear will further divide the country on racial lines and give Trump a clear path to victory in 2020. To Pressley, these criticisms were merely rebranded right-wing tropes.
Knowing that many Democrats view identity politics as the party’s number one potential pitfall, Pressley was careful with her words. Rather than endorsing or rejecting the term, she explained why she believes identity has a role in government. And she made a quite compelling case.
Critics of Pressley are correct to say that she and Capuano ostensibly agreed on almost all major issues, from immigration to healthcare to housing and transportation. And Capuano, a longtime proponent of single payer healthcare and labor rights, has been one of the most progressive members of the House in recent years.
But the point of Pressley’s primary bid against Capuano wasn’t to push the district farther to the left, and that’s why comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are misguided. Rather, Pressley argued that her “lived experience” as a black woman and a survivor of sexual assault gave her the tools to achieve the “Equity Agenda” that she ran on in 2018. This manifests not in sweeping changes to immigration or fiscal policy, but rather in small but important modifications to legislation that make use of her aforementioned “lived experience.”
Rising tides lift all boats, but sometimes, certain boats that have been held back by institutional discrimination require special assistance. Thus, in describing a new bill addressing workplace harassment and discrimination for low-income workers, Pressley stated that she “didn’t feel that the faces of [the #MeToo and Time’s Up] movements were inclusive of every worker,” so this new legislation “is about farm workers… tipped workers, [and] domestic workers.” The Representative also spoke at length about her concern with the poor maternal health outcomes for black women—including those in the seventh congressional district—and insinuated that being a black women herself could equip her to address this problem.
Even though I agree with most of Pressley’s positions on using identity in politics, I’m not without qualms. Primarily: is she trying to argue that the only people who fully can address racial or gender disparities are people of color and women, respectively? Are white politicians unequipped to fully address issues specific to non-white communities?
These fears—at least with regard to Pressley’s campaign—may be overblown. Black voters were more likely to vote for Capuano than were white voters for Pressley. But more importantly, it’s about damn time we brought the identity of a black woman from Massachusetts to Congress. We need more politicians who are unafraid to bring their “lived experience” in a marginalized group to Capitol Hill. Otherwise, good-natured politicians may overlook important issues affecting minority groups, including the ones that Pressley mentioned in her talk at Tufts.
Featured Image via Tufts Daily