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Sisters in the StatehouseBlack Women and Legislative Decision Making$

Nadia E. Brown

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199352432

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352432.001.0001

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Black Women’s Representation

Black Women’s Representation

(p.69) Chapter 3 Black Women’s Representation
Sisters in the Statehouse

Nadia E. Brown

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 utilizes elite interviews to investigate how the intersection of the multiplicity of Black women’s identities affects their decision-making process. It evaluates the extent to which the data support the theory that legislators’ identities are a factor in the legislative decision making. The chapter argues that the political context for a particular issue strongly influences the likelihood that a representative will use her identity as a means for understanding and articulating policy preferences on the Minority Business Enterprise program.

Keywords:   Minority Business Enterprise, legislative decision making

The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood.

—Mary McLeod Bethune

I have crossed over on the backs of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Madam C. J. Walker. Because of them I can now live the dream. I am the seed of the free, and I know it. I intend to bear great fruit.

—Oprah Winfrey

Scholarship about women and minority legislators consistently indicates that member characteristics and group identity influence legislative behavior (Fenno 2003; Mansbridge 1999; Rosenthal 2000; Smooth 2001; Swers 2002). However, this does not imply that there is a predetermined unity of vision based on group identity; there is variation in the political agendas of African American women who are elected officials. For example, while the overwhelming majority of Black women elected officials are Democrats, the 2010 elections saw Jennifer Carroll, a Black Republican, elected as the lieutenant governor of Florida. Prior to assuming the post of lieutenant governor, Trinidadian-born Carroll was the first Black woman Republican to serve in the Florida House of Representatives. Carroll represents a deviation from the liberal-leaning, identity-based politics that Black women legislators have traditionally partaken of. Perhaps the growing number of Black women political elites will highlight diversity within this population, leading scholars to pose new questions about what issues Black women will prioritize in office. Regardless, in the “Age of Obama,” identity politics should be more cognizant of diversity within demographic groups. It remains yet to be seen whether diversity among Black women legislators will change the nature of policy making in any systematic way.

(p.70) This question of diversity among Black women legislators hinges on how legislators perceive their own race-gender identity’s effect on their legislative work. In seeking to identify the ways in which African American women represent their constituents, scholars’ findings about gender or race, taken as mutually exclusive factors, are instructive but not sufficient. By expanding the scholarly understanding of factors such as race and gender in descriptive representation, I uncover differences in Black women’s representation and their self-conceived ideas about substantive representation. Based on the assumption that gender, race, and class are social markers that play a major role in organizing U.S. society and its institutions hierarchically (Simien 2006), I argue that the political context for a particular issue strongly influences the likelihood that a representative will rely on her identity as a means for understanding and articulating policy preferences. I contend that although Black women legislators mobilize their identity differently from one another, they nevertheless arrive at the same policy solutions when it comes to legislation that uniquely impacts African American women.

Because each African American woman has different experiences that help to shape her worldview, her race and gender are instructive but not definitive characteristics of how she defines herself. Building upon self-categorization theory and using an intersectional and additive approach to understanding Black women state legislators’ contribution to policy creation, I use representational identity theory to posit that African American women legislators share a social identity that influences both group and individual behavior. This shared identity in turn impacts how the women view their legislative work.

Yet political science scholarship neither fully addresses the formation of group identity nor entirely examines its relevance within the legislative arena. In order to fully establish a link between legislators as people and how they prioritize the legislation that they champion, we first must investigate legislators’ personal identities as group members and consider the processes and conditions by which social identity is primed. In this chapter, I argue that Black women legislators connect descriptive and substantive representation—meaning that they look like their constituents and represent the policy interests of their racial and gender groups—to advance the policy priorities of Black women. However, this is not to say that Black women constitute a legislative bloc. In fact, Black women use their identity in the legislative decision-making process differently, depending on context. My findings point to the need to study Black women legislators both as individuals and as group members precisely because their identity mobilization affects their legislative work. I examine here the viability of the (p.71) idea that African American women elected to office engage only in descriptive representation based solely on their mirroring the physical characteristics of their constituency.

Identity Formation

Identity formation is a process shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces that come together in distinctive and dynamic yet mutually constitutive ways (Sánchez 2006, 35). Identity is therefore linked to social positioning. Sánchez finds that “positionality is always at variance with other positionalities, including one’s own on other issues, as one’s perspectives are always multiple, contradictory, and again, constantly in a state of flux, renegotiating themselves in the face of changing realities” (2006, 39). Consequently, identity formation is rooted in class/structural positioning and is connected to social conjunctures. I employ Sánchez’s fluid definition of identity formation to examine and understand why individuals sharing a similar or even the same positioning do not live their situation in the same way (39). Legislators belonging to the same identity group may express policy preferences rooted in lived experiences that are germane to specific marginalized social groups. A critical realist theory of identity formation necessarily implies that “identity formation takes place at a conjuncture of external and internal, contingent and necessary, processes that interconnect and emerge with specific historical conditions that are in good measure not of our own making” (34). Identity is grounded in reality, specifically in its social structures and relations. As individuals, Black women legislators’ identities are a combination of communal culture and of reflection and observation. The multiple identities that Black women legislators occupy add to the complexity of their own awareness. Thus, African American women legislators’ articulations and understandings of identity are essential to this study of descriptive and substantive representation.

Black women’s shared social identity is formed from distinctive shared experiences, linked fate, and other attributes. Examining group formation offers a deeper understanding of group cohesion based solely on shared characteristics. Social psychologists understand social identity as part of an individual’s self-concept originating from her knowledge of her membership in a social group (or groups). Social identity is imbued with the value and emotional significance that is attached to group membership. (Tajfel 1974). Group members recognize that they are a distinguishable social entity comprising socially relevant characteristics that, in turn, produce self-awareness. Important for (p.72) our purpose here is the development of social identity as a theory that recognizes that identity can be “switched on” or primed by certain situations. Tajfel found that social identity provides a basis for cognitively regulated behavior but was uncertain under which circumstances and environments it would manifest itself as social behavior. In response, Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, and Wetherell (1987) develop the self-categorization theory as the “cognitive elaboration” of Tajfel’s (1974) earlier social theory that provides an explanation for how individuals come to identify and “act as a group” (Turner et al. 1987, 42). Turner et. al.’s self-categorization theory is helpful in explaining how people shift their self-perception from personal to social identity. This process of depersonalization is fundamental for understanding how group processes emerge from social identity. Thus, when social identity becomes salient and people define themselves in terms of shared identity, they tend to see themselves as alike due to the defining attributes of their shared identity rather than due to their personal characteristics. In sum, social identity can vary in highly situational or specific ways.

Haslam Turner, Oakes, McGarty, and Hayes stated that “salient self-categories are . . . intrinsically variable and fluid, not merely being passively ‘activated’ but actively constructed ‘on the spot’ to reflect contemporary properties of self and others” (1992, 5). From this we see that identities have the ability to vary over time as situations change or the social categories shift in importance. One of the key tenets of self-categorization theory is that individuals constantly shift back and forth between individual and social identities (Brewer and Weber 1994; Simon, 1979; Turner et al. 1987). The benefits of self-categorization theory for explaining Black women’s legislative behavior are vast. Because they are united by the common characteristics of race and gender, Black women legislators have a common social identity. This common identity produces socially validated knowledge and shared beliefs about ways of perceiving, thinking, and behavior. The collective self then reflects the collective realities of the group. While acknowledging group membership but still allowing for individual behavior, self-categorization theory allows Black women state legislators’ social identity to be contextualized as dynamic and context specific. Thus, self-categorization theory is a useful and practical theoretical tool for examining an individual’s behavior in a range of contexts (Ashforth and Mael 1989).1 It makes room for scholars to consider how a Black woman legislator acts as an individual whose cognitive connection to a group of other Black women is based on a shared fate but may be deployed under different situational contexts.

To increase our understanding of how group formation and social identity influences Black women’s political behavior, I develop a theory of (p.73) representational identity, which contends that Black women legislators’ race-gender identities influence their individual political actions and beliefs that are tied to their awareness of race-gender group interests. Baxter and Lansing (1981) suggest that the dual discrimination of racism and sexism experienced by Black women for generations has produced heightened political awareness in this group. Because of these common experiences, I argue, Black women have developed a mechanism that enables them to specify the conditions under which African American women’s group interests become stronger or weaker than their individual interests.

In political contexts where race and gender intersect, African American women are likely to use their race-gender identities in legislative decision making. Thus, at times, Black women form a cohesive bloc in the legislature when policies specifically impact African American women. At other times, Black women express divergent legislative strategies and policy prescriptions in addressing Black women’s issues. My representational identity theory makes room for a Black woman legislator to act as an individual whose cognitive connection to a group of other Black women is based on a shared fate and which may be deployed under different situational contexts.

I employ an intersectional approach to help explain how Black women use social identity to understand the negative material effects of a race- or gender-only approach to public policy in state legislation. This approach supposes that relevant categories of difference are mutually constituted, both analytically and experientially, and that they shape political actors (Garcia Bedolla 2006; Hancock 2007; Hawkesworth 2003; Weldon 2008; Yuval-Davis 2006). It cannot be understood simply as adding race to gender in order to understand Black women’s experiences. The additive model—one that posits that race and gender are mutually reinforcing—theorizes that two or more disadvantaged identities can be brought together if the subject experiences two or more distinct forms of discrimination in tandem (Gay and Tate 1998; King 1988). This approach, assumes that categories are static and constant. It is problematic because it may create or reinforce binaries between advantaged and disadvantaged groups by assuming that there are mutually exclusive categories of identity that privilege one identity over another.

Lastly, I assert that Black women state legislators use an intersectional approach to formulating public policy. Their social identity as Black women enables them to understand how “the multiple marginalization of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation at the individual and institutional levels create social and political stratification, requiring policy solutions that are attuned to the interactions of these categories” (Hancock 2007, 65). Public policy that treats race and gender as mutually exclusive categories is (p.74) antithetical to Black women’s lived experiences; thus, they may be better positioned to recognize the inherent problems of using an additive approach in the creation of public policy. As Hancock (2004) concludes in her influential work on the impact of race, class, and gender on the stereotypical and political motivations for welfare reform, an intersectional approach illuminates the relationships between categories to create effective public policy. I thus utilize an intersectional approach to examine how Black women state legislators understand public policy that is targeted to assist either racial or gendered groups and then go on to show that it actually serves to marginalize Black women. As a result, I find that Black women play an important role in providing descriptive representation for African American women.

Identity Matters—Race and Gender

The Black women in this study invoked identity in two distinctive ways to explain its role in the legislative process. For example, some legislators stated that they prioritized a particular part of their identity depending on the legislative context. Other Black women legislators asserted that they could not prioritize aspects of their identity. They were unable to parse the factors of their identity. Overall, the Black women state legislators acknowledge that identity affects their legislative work, and they all ultimately connect descriptive representation to their substantive work in Annapolis. While several disagreed on the importance and frequency with which their identity had an effect on their legislative work, the legislators all believed that their identity, as mediated through experiences, was beneficial to their activities as representatives.

Two of the African American women legislators purport to have an either/or approach to identity-based representation. For example, Delegate Miller, a divorced mother of two, claimed that there are times when parts of her identity influence how she interprets legislation: “It [identity] probably contributes to but is not the only factor in how I feel about legislation. It would be difficult for me to tease out which parts of me because I am a Black woman and I am from the Midwest, I’m a mother. So which part of me is it that?” (Personal interview, March 12, 2009). Delegate Keira Miller further discussed the importance of using her identity, when applicable, in the legislative process. She stated that she draws on different aspects of her identity to better recognize whom legislation may affect. For example, she explained that her entry into politics was motivated by her desire to create more recreational opportunities for her children. Delegate Miller’s twent-two-year old stepson was killed in 2001 after becoming involved in the (p.75) distribution of illegal drugs. She reasoned that if her stepson, and other neighborhood children, were engaged in after-school activities, they would channel their energy into productive outlets. Indeed, when she questioned the neighborhood teenagers about why they were involved in gang-related activities, she learned that some teens did not feel that they had options for more constructive pursuits. She ran for the school board as an advocate for teenagers who wanted a community recreation center so they could channel their time and energy into positive behaviors. She believes that the recreation center would have helped to save her stepson’s life, and that is how she became engaged in politics.

Delegate Keira Miller prioritized her identity as a mother in this situation. However, there are serious racial and class undertones to this story. “The Justice Department estimates that one out of every twenty-one Black men will be murdered, a death rate double that of U.S. soldiers in World War II” (Black Star Project 2010 ). Similarly, a young Black man is more likely to die from gunfire than any soldier in Vietnam was. This makes the homicide rate of Black males seven times higher than that of White males. Therefore, race was a factor in the death of Delegate Miller’s stepson, and this fact surely has an effect on her legislative choices.

There are also class connotations. Delegate Miller’s stepson was involved in drug dealing because he did not have steady employment. While it constitutes roughly only 13 percent of the total population, Black America represents nearly 30 percent of America’s poor; 53 percent of Black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four are either unemployed or earn too little to lift a family of four from poverty. The share of young Black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990s. In 2000, 65 percent of Black male high-school dropouts in their twenties were jobless—that is, unable to find work—not including those who were not seeking it or were incarcerated. By 2004, the percentage had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of White and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of the Black men in their twenties were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000. While people of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. One in every five Black men and one in every thirty-six Latino men was incarcerated in 2012, compared with one in every 106 White men (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 2009). These numbers show that African American men, compared to other demographic groups, are incarcerated in disproportionately high numbers.

Delegate Miller’s stepson’s murder, while partially a result of his bad decisions, was informed by his status as a Black male. She cites his death as (p.76) the catalyst for her run for public office using the stand-alone framework of motherhood to explain the impetus. I contend that the circumstances around his death that were framed by race and class-based social structures, along with her citing motherhood as the impetus for her political involvement, are all powerful examples of how identity affects political decisions. However, this African American delegate singles out motherhood, one specific aspect of her identity, in her example of how identity impacts her political work. Thus, Delegate Miller’s story illustrates an additive approach to identity politics.

In articulating the trilogy of race, class, and gender as social categories that inform her identity and her experiences, Delegate Julissa Moore, a lawyer who grew up in a middle-class Black neighborhood, reported that how she positions herself via-à-vis identity is dependent on context. She said, “I have a different experience. If I did not bring my experience here I don’t think I would be doing a service to the entire state of Maryland. I don’t make decisions based on my race and gender, I bring an understanding that’s reflective of my race and gender. . . . [In certain situations] I feel my gender more here or my race more here or my class background there.” (Personal interview, March 12, 2009). Delegate Moore indicated that she sees her experiences as filtered through her identity. She draws on these experiences in her legislative work. For example, she is a champion of worker’s rights. This delegate acknowledges her own privilege; she grew up in a stable, middle-class family. Her upbringing, coupled with her identity as a middle-class African American woman, led her to sponsor a bill that would raise Maryland’s minimum wage. While she feels fortunate to have had a privileged lifestyle, she also strongly believes that everyone should have their basic needs met. The 2011 Census Bureau Poverty Report recently found that the Blacks have been hardest hit during the Great Recession. Using 2010 census data, the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that focuses on women’s economic security and legal rights, finds that the poverty rate has increased faster and risen higher, to 25 percent for Hispanic women and to 25.6 percent for Black women. Therefore, while Delegate Moore did not explicitly mention race and gender in her discussion of how her experiences impact her decision, her sponsorship of a bill that would raise Maryland’s minimum wage indicates that both are factors. Her comments reflect an understanding of how the race and gender impact the economic condition of her constituents.

Notably, all of these legislators couch their discussions of identity and representation by stating that not all of their decisions are based on their identities as Black women. They may add this disclaimer because African (p.77) American women legislators are aware of the hypervisibility of their race and gender, which often goes in tandem with assumptions that their legislative work is biased or skewed to favor minorities and women. However, the narratives provided above prioritize one identity over another but incorporate the multiplicity of identity in some respect. These women favor an additive approach to politics, even in situations where an intersectional approach may be warranted. Some Black women legislators chose to present their multilayered identities as individual parts in their response to my questions, illustrating that there is variation in how Black women perceive their social identity and the priority that they place on certain identities. Divergent from the tenets of intersectionality theory, the two Black women quoted above hew to an either/or approach to identity-based politics. In this context, the legislators view the totality of their identity as composed of separate and individual parts that combined to make them who they are. Instead of viewing aspects of their identity as mutually constitutive, these Black women easily place themselves in discrete categories that are then mobilized depending on the legislative context. These legislators can then give equal weight to politically salient identities—including race, gender, motherhood, class, or geographic region—in their deliberations of specific legislation.

Rather than articulating an additive approach to identity politics, two other African American women state legislators in this study describe their gender and racial identities as mutually reinforcing. Similar to Gay and Tate (1998), I find that gender and race work in tandem to inform Black women’s political identities. The participants in my study identify equally as African American and women, but notably, a new group social identity emerges: that of being a member to a cohort of Black women. This race-gender identity thus melds into one identity that is based on the mutually constitutive distinctiveness of experiencing life as a Black woman. Members of this cohort find that race and gender strongly influence their political attitudes but that intersectional identity does not.

Unlike Delegates Keira Miller and Julissa Moore, other African American women legislators from my sample employ an intersectional approach to identity politics. These women acknowledge that their identity comprises multiple and subordinated subject positions (Crenshaw 1989) that influence their legislative work. For example, Delegate Abigail Watson, who moved to Maryland to pursue a master’s degree in education and later accepted a position as a director of Prince George’s County public school program for the education of impoverished children, stated, “My identity as a Black woman matters because I see it [legislation] from a different experience. I’ve experienced some of the prejudices, the not-so-friendly family legislation as it impacts Black women” (Personal interview, March 11, 2009).

(p.78) In explaining which constituents she feels closest to, Delegate Watson explained that her personal experiences with sexism and racism enable her to empathize with others who experience similar forms of discrimination. She admitted that Black women face additional burdens due to the intersecting nature of race- and gender-based discrimination in legislation that disproportionately affects Black women and their families. Delegate Watson further explained that there are flaws in some state-run services that are intended to protect the needy as well as vulnerable children and adults. She stated that individuals should be personally responsible for their actions and decisions but also said she believes that government policies should give special consideration for race and gender discrimination, particularly when it comes to social service programs. Here, her professional experiences as an educator and program director charged with improving public education in high-poverty areas helps her understanding of the relationship between personal agency and structural inequality. Succinctly, she understands that institutionalized race-gender discrimination and racism and sexism place Black women in precarious positions, but she believes that Black women must also be accountable for their actions. This understanding comes from this delegate’s own background. As a survivor of both child abuse and domestic violence, Delegate Watson stated that she understands how race, class, and gender inequalities impact the lives of Black women. Her comments about personal responsibility, however, can be seen as an engagement with right-wing rhetoric.

Delegate Ingrid Jefferson, a union leader who grew up in a lower income, working-class family that often went without basic necessities, contended that her identity offers her perspective that other legislators may not have. Her experiences allow her to view legislation differently and to understand the potential impact of legislation in a particular community: “I can look at a piece of legislation and see it from the perspective of an African American woman who lives in the inner city and have a totally different perspective of a colleague of mine who lives in Montgomery County and has never had to worry about how he would put bread on the table. (Personal interview, March 14, 2009).”

Drawing on her experiences as a low-income African American woman and Baltimore City resident, this delegate acknowledged bringing that perspective to her legislative work. Her observation also evokes awareness of social class issues. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 2006 only 8.2 percent of Whites were in poverty, compared to the 24.2 percent of African Americans. Poverty rates were highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they were Black or Hispanic. In 2010, according to data from the National Poverty Center, 31.6 percent of households headed (p.79) by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty. As these examples indicate, Black women in the Maryland state legislature descriptively represent their constituents and are likely to share similar backgrounds with the African American women whom they represent.

In the quote above, Delegate Jefferson articulates identity as mutually constitutive and is unable to parse which part of her identity influences how she interprets legislation. Her quote illustrates the intersectionality of race, gender, and class backgrounds. Yet one can be both intersectionally advantaged and intersectionally disadvantaged (Baca Zinn and Thornton Dill 1996), because no one is ever only privileged or oppressed (Jordan-Zachery 2007; McCall 2005). While Delegate Jefferson indicates that she is familiar with having more month than money, she is now in a privileged position as a state legislator with middle-class economic standing. Yet her experiences afford her a superior perspective on certain legislation—in her opinion—to that of a colleague who does not share her experience.

In sum, African American women articulate different understandings of how identity influences their legislative work. The women use an additive or intersectional approach in detailing how they view their own identities and identity’s impact on their motivation as political actors. Some African American women use a mutually reinforcing approach to identity politics, prioritizing one identity over another, while other Black women delegates utilize an intersectional approach to explain how a race-gender identity influences how they view legislation. As the next section will show, the Black women’s approaches are highly contingent on the legislative context. I now go on to ask whether this variation then causes Black women legislators to exercise substantive representation of African American women in different ways.

Legislative Example—Political Intersectionality

Several legislators in this study provided examples to illustrate how their identity influences their representation of their constituents. While I did not include questions about it, the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) program, which I will discuss shortly, came up frequently during the in-depth, semi-structured interviews and provides an important example of the legislators’ policy priorities. The responses that cited this program give an indication of what types of bills are on the legislators’ minds. Their examples of legislation spotlight the differences in the ways in which identity (p.80) is negotiated, with special attention to race, gender, and the intersection of identities that influence the legislators’ worldviews. We see instances in which African American women do not believe that their gender and racial identities are in fact mutually reinforcing; we see instead that they use an intersectional approach to discuss the specific policies that they champion. They find that their intersectional race-gender identity as Black women is brought to bear in specific policy issues where race and gender are already functioning as mutually exclusive categories.

While Black women view their identity in ways that differ from one another, their racial and gendered identity leads them to support policies that benefit African American women. This behavior is in line with Mansbridge’s theory of the second function of descriptive representation, which elucidates the benefits of providing “innovative thinking in contexts of uncrystallized, not fully activated, interests—descriptive representation enhances the substantive representation of interests by improving the quality of deliberation” (Mansbridge 1999, 628). By using an intersectional approach, the African American women in this study provide a new way of approaching legislation that may have unintended negative consequences for minority women. Because of their lived experiences as Black woman, these legislators believe that they are uniquely positioned to understand how, and keenly aware that, policy can have disastrous effects on African American women.

Minority Business Enterprise

Established in 1978, the MBE program is a “set-aside” program in which a percentage of government contracts are reserved to be awarded to women and minorities. Maryland has one of the oldest MBE programs in the country. It is one of fifteen states with the program, one of four states with a MBE law, and the first state to establish a subgoal for African American-owned firms. It is also the only state to collect uniform data on the progress of its MBE program or to report data on payments to MBEs. The Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs (GOMA) has outlined plans to expand the program, primarily into the private sector. During the 2008 fiscal year, the state boasted of receiving $1.1 billion in MBE payments and of making $1.3 billion in awards to minority- and women-owned firms. That translates into $1.8 billion of overall economic benefit in the form of tax revenue, wages, and salaries. The same fiscal year also saw increases in MBE participation. Program “participation rose to 22.5 percent; 27.2 percent for 10 StateStat reporting agencies collectively—the highest in the State’s (p.81) history” (Wilson 2009, 3). According to GOMA, the program has generated 18,639 jobs in Maryland (Wilson 2009). Expanding the MBE program was a major economic development initiative for the O’Malley-Brown administration under the mantra “Minority Business Enterprise—More Business for Everyone” (Wilson 2009).

The 2008 legislative session showed increased attention to the MBE program. The Maryland state legislature unanimously approved SB 606, a bill that required the state treasurer, Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, Injured Workers’ Insurance Fund, and State Retirement and Pension System to attempt to use MBEs for brokerage and investment management services to the greatest feasible extent. Governor O’Malley signed SB 606 into law on May 22, 2008. The goal of this legislation was to diversify the management of Maryland’s $40 billion portfolio of pension funds to include more minority- and women-owned firms, because previously only 1 percent of Maryland’s pension funds were shared with MBEs (Wilson 2009, 11–13). The bill required that Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, IWIP, State Retirement and Pension System, and the state treasurer submit annual reports to GOMA and the general assembly on their efforts to increase MBE firms as mangers in brokerage and investment banking services for the state. SB 606 was intended to expand Maryland’s pro-minority business climate by advancing public policy and economic practice, according to Luwanda Jenkins, special secretary of GOMA (Wilson 2009, 13). Indeed, Maryland has been recognized by the National Association of Securities Professionals for enacting model legislation for MBE and women business enterprise (WBE) participation in pension funds.

Of SB 606’s sixteen cosponsors, ten legislators are African American and five are Black women, including the lead sponsor of the legislation. Cross-filed with HB 1277, the House of Delegates sponsorship also closely resembled the racial makeup of the cosponsoring legislators: of the twenty-nine cosponsors, twenty are African American and seven are Black women. Co-sponsoring legislators represent primarily districts in Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, and Baltimore County—areas in the state with the highest African American population. The program shares widespread support among legislators of varying races and ethnicities who represent these three areas of the states. Both Governor O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, former member of the House of Delegates representing a district in Prince George’s County, also hail from the same areas of the state as the legislators who strongly support MBE legislation.

Maryland’s MBE participation goal is 25 percent, with subgoals of 7 percent for women-owned firms and 10 percent for African American-owned firms. (p.82) This is the largest MBE goal in the nation. Because this program has separate quotas for MBEs and WBEs, minority women are subsumed within both categories. Minority women can apply for a government contract as either a woman or as a racial minority; there is no category that is reserved for minority women business owners. As a result, Black women business owners are forced to think of themselves as either Black or as women rather than as both racialized and gendered individuals. Whereas the MBE program specifies that women or minority members who are White women of European descent, Blacks, Hispanics, or other minorities are eligible for government contracts, this description ignores the race-gender identities of Black woman (and other racial/ethnic minority women).

A tireless advocate for minority business owners, Senator Raquel Simmons was named the Minority Business Advocate of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration in the mid-1990s. Articulating the problem with the program’s strictures, Senator Simmons, who grew up in a working-class family in Pennsylvania and later became the president and CEO of a public relations accounting firm, offered an intersectional analysis of Maryland’s MBE program that is informed by her race-gender identity. Senator Simmons, as the lead sponsor of this bill, clearly displays a serious commitment to representing minority women:

Last year I introduced Senate Bill 606 that required the state to diversify its portfolios; it relates to engaging African Americans, more specifically minorities in general, and its investment portfolios, which increased the participation of minorities from about 300 or 400 thousand to about 1.2 billion dollars. This legislation is moving through the general Senate now where African American women, specifically when being certified to do business with the state, have to declare at the time of certification whether they are a female or minority. The fact of the matter is they are both. And so in changing the legislation to say that an African American woman specifically, or minority woman in general, when being certified by the state to do business can declare themselves as a minority and as a female and only at the time of bidding on a specific contract do they have to declare which way they want to go. (Personal interview, March 11, 2009; emphasis in original).

As the lead sponsor of this legislation, Senator Simmons is attempting to rectify the mutually exclusive categorization of Black women as either Black or a woman within the MBE program. She demonstrates the intensity with which an African American woman can represent the interests of other Black women. Scholars have demonstrated that bill sponsorship most clearly establishes the link between constituency interests or preferences and the legislative behavior of representatives (Haynie 2001; (p.83) Di Lorenzo 1997; Schattschneider 1960). The fact that this Black woman senator introduced this bill shows the importance that she associates with this piece of legislation and thus serves as a gauge with which to measure the intensity of her interests. Her introduction of this bill shows that there is in fact a connection between the presence of Black women in the legislature and the substantive representation of African American women’s interests.

Demonstrating Mansbridge’s (1999) assertion that descriptive representation is necessary when there are uncrystallized interests, Black women legislators demonstrate the importance of having a voice in deliberative democracy, which illustrates a larger normative claim of the benefits of descriptive representation. For example, Senator Pamela Price, an entrepreneur who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore City, does not believe that the MBE legislation was intentionally designed to slight Black women business owners. However, she doubts that Black women’s perspectives were included when the legislation was first introduced twenty years ago:

I don’t think anybody really thought about it because government thought that they [Black women] would check one group or they would check the other. And I think that people assumed that African American women would choose minority first. And one reason being is that the goals for minorities in the state are larger than the goal for females. So you would think that they would choose that first. By being able to choose both, for example, if in fact someone says to you [referring to me as an example—a Black woman] “female, I would really like you to be on this contract with me” and you say “who’s on the contract with you,” they have the opportunity to say “well if you have a minority already then I can.” Hopefully it works. (Personal interview, March 17, 2009)

Using an intersectional approach, this senator critiques the assumption that Black women place a greater emphasis on their racial identity than their gender identification. The idea that race and gender identities can be prioritized among African American women has long been a contentious debate within Black group consciousness and the women’s movement (Giddings, 1984; Hull, Scott, and Smith 1982). Senator Pamela Price articulates that the policy priorities of African American women cannot fit neatly into one group affiliation and shows how this policy limits the effectiveness of the state program by essentially overlooking non-White women. Senator Price adds that she is substantively representing minority women by pointing out the flaws in this bill. The blind spot in the legislation was not considered by the Black men and White women who developed the (p.84) program over thirty years ago. It is important to note that both Senators Price and Simmons are entrepreneurs and business owners and that their interest in rectifying some of the negative aspects of the MBE legislation most likely stems from their experiences as Black women business owners.

Senator Imani Hayes, an emeritus college professor and dean at a local historically Black university, also noted that the MBE legislation has negative consequences for Black women business owners and that the option to self-select as a MBE or WBE contractor is not suitable.

Businesses seeking contracts with the state will only pursue Black women if they cannot find a qualified Black man [for the MBE] or a White woman [for the WBE]. Black women are the last resort. I’ve heard from several Black women that firms just aren’t taking their application as serious as they should be. These women feel like businesses would be prefer to contract with anyone who fits the goals of the program beside a Black woman. Really, there are no incentives in the MBE or even the WBE for hiring Black women in particular. There are no incentives for hiring Black women because these goals are not laid out. . . . No incentives or penalties to encourage firms to grow the number of Black women contractors. (Personal interview, July 2, 2009)

Senator Hayes further adds that she is still in the information-gathering stage and has yet to decide what the next step should be to encourage the increase in the number of African American women-owned businesses that contract with the state. She was hesitant to push for a stricter MBE support program but noted that perhaps legislation that requires supplier diversity among the MBE recruitment pool would be advantageous. While I was unable to substantiate Senator Hayes’s claim that Black women are the hire of last resort, her comments provide deeper insights about why African American women senators feel strongly about including African American women within the MBE program. Senator Hayes clearly finds that African American women are disadvantaged by the either/or approach to the MBE procurement opportunities for contractors. She states, “Black women need to be equally engaged as a woman and as racial minority” (Personal interview, July 2, 2009).

Senator Bailey Smith, a lawyer from a politically active middle-class family in Baltimore City, explains adroitly how the MBE initiative requires an intersectional perspective:

I think being a woman affects how I see the impact of legislation. And also being an African American woman, because I have been very involved with minority business enterprise and promoting the state’s responsibility for inclusion. I (p.85) diligently make sure that minority women are included with the contracts with the state. I bring the perspective of a Black woman to the table, for example, when I make sure that there is equity in re-funding different programs. (Personal interview, March 13, 2009)

While this senator begins her discussion of identity’s impact on her legislative work in gendered terms, she concludes with an intersectional perspective of a Black woman. She does not choose between two identities; instead, this senator recognizes that African American women are doubly bound by racism and sexism in the unfair distribution of government contracts that does not account for the multiple facets of minority women’s identity. Thus, Senator Smith is substantively representing Black women by working to eradicate government neglect of overlapping memberships within race- and gender-based categories.

To underscore the importance of the role of Black women legislators in the creation of policy that benefits Black women, I include here a quote from an African American male delegate. This Black male delegate expressed that race and gender may matter but that he is not as invested in securing state contracts for African American women business owners. He is a supporter of African American quotas for state contracts and asserts that a gendered analysis is not necessarily needed in his interpretation of the program. “There was a hearing for the MBE bill for the dual legislation for Black women to count as an African American and a woman. I’m sure they are impacted [long pause], the person that is doing that type of work [voice trails off].” (Personal interview, March 15, 2009). This Black male delegate does not seem to have a commitment to Black women’s role in the MBE; his statement does not reflect a clear understanding of the legislation’s impact on Black women, unlike the previous statements from the Black women legislators.

The male delegate is, however, nicknamed “Mr. MBE” in the Maryland legislature because of his tireless work for the program. During MBE Night at the statehouse, when hopeful minority and women business owners convened in the statehouse to lobby the legislature to increase funding for the program, this Black male delegate was the “go-to person” for the night. He was highly visible, meeting with business owners, the governor, and other key members of the executive branch, as well as other minority legislators and women legislators. “Mr. MBE” proclaimed his commitment to the program by detailing the benefits of the quota system. In my role as participant-observer that evening, I was frequently within earshot of this delegate’s conversations. He spoke with various parties about the importance of the governor’s office and legislators working in (p.86) tandem to advocate for the program. However, I did not overhear Mr. MBE mention Senate Bill 606 or the need to reframe the legislation to include minority women. During my personal interview with this delegate, two days after MBE Night, he acknowledged that Black women may be negatively impacted by the current MBE legislation. However, he was not nearly as animated or detailed in his discussion with me about minority women as he was about the program in general. I imagine that my identity as a Black woman researcher may have prompted this delegate to include African American women in his discussion of the MBE program, whereas he may not have been inclined to do so otherwise.

Without the perspective of Black women legislators, it is unlikely that the legislature would revisit MBE legislation to consider including a more comprehensive means of assisting Black women business owners in the receipt of state contracts. The fact that a Black woman senator, Raquel Simmons, introduced the bill, illustrates that Black women may be better able than Black male legislators to understand the importance of gender inclusivity in legislation geared toward assisting a racial minority. It was, after all, the African American women legislators who took this program to task for failing to account for the double minority status of Black women contractors. Without the Black women legislators, it is doubtful that African American women business owners would have the option to negotiate what identity they would like to file under in a bid to receive a state contract. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the champions of this legislation were business owners themselves or middle-class African American women most likely to take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities.

That the Black male legislator took no real issue with the mutually exclusive identities for women or minorities in this bill points out that this Black male delegate prioritized one identity—his—over another. This additive approach to public policy is at odds with the intersectional approach to identity utilized by Black women legislators. It is also of note that White women did not mention MBE legislation during my interviews with them. Therefore, this example is a telling illustration of the fact that Black women legislators are needed—and are the best advocates for—for the substantive representation of the interests of African American women.


This study provides context for identity politics by investigating how representation and identity are linked for Black women political elites. This chapter echoes the findings of other scholars who contend that descriptive (p.87) representation enhances substantive representation. Unlike previous studies, however, I uncover nuances in how identity is articulated among legislators sharing the same descriptive background. In so doing, I expose a deeper complexity within identity politics. My work adds to the empirically demonstrated link between descriptive and substantive representation by showing that although Black women represent Black women they arrive at policy positions in diverse ways. African American women legislators in this study describe identity as having a meaningful and significant impact on their work as representatives. Yet the ways in which they articulate how they use identity differ, although the outcome of the substantive policy that they champion is the same.

The African American women legislators in this study demonstrate that identity is relevant in their legislative work. That self-perceptions of legislators’ identity are influential in their role as representatives is telling. First, I find that Black women legislators use either an additive or an intersectional approach to articulate how identity informs how they view legislation. Here the African American women legislators prioritize different identities depending on context. Some highlight that one identity may be mobilized in the political process and that they are able to identify when this identity is beneficial, while others find that their race-gender identity is paramount in helping to define their legislative work. As a result, Black women may mobilize different parts of their identity in different ways. Furthermore, the data indicate that Black women legislators recognize numerous aspects of their identity as influential in their legislative work. While race and gender are readily seen as mutually reinforcing, so are other identities, such as class, motherhood, and geographic region. For other Black women state legislators, an identity that is an intersectional framing of race-gender is the driving force behind their view of certain legislation. This nuanced understanding of the complexity inherent in identity is highlighted by Black women Maryland state legislators’ first-hand experiences, some of which I have shared here.

Next, the Black women legislators provided examples of when and how they bring identity to bear on their legislative work. Here I contend that they universally employed an intersectional approach in their understanding of a certain piece of legislation whether they would articulate it as such. This intersectional approach indicates that African American women resist being placed into discreet and static categories that fail to account for the overlapping membership in both race- and gender-based groupings. As a result, the Black women legislators were instrumental in bringing inequity to the forefront of debates about the MBE. I argue that, without African American women legislators pointing out the fallacy of gendered versus (p.88) racialized approach to the MBE quota system, it is highly probable that other legislators would not have advocated for the specific inclusion of minority women. By speaking against the inequity of MBE legislation that asks Black women to choose between their race and gender status, Black women legislators exercise substantive representation.

Lastly, theories of descriptive representation that keep identity constant over time and context fail to account for the value of the substantive work of Black women legislators. Through the use of self-categorization theory we find that social identity varies in highly situation-specific ways. The Black women legislators are attuned to their intersectional situation and attributes but, as individuals, choose to deploy them differently. Here we find that the legislative context matters in the prioritization of social identity in legislative decision making. Scholarship that takes for granted how Black women legislators will behave by relying only on gender-only or race-only perspectives misses the complexity of identity as well as the complicated way in which identity is mobilized.

As the use of representational identity theory indicates, the African American women Maryland state legislators illustrate that there is a strong connection between descriptive and substantive representation. Yet the distinctions in how the women view identity as informing their legislative work vary. By highlighting the complexity and dynamism of social identity, Black women state legislators in this study demonstrate that it is important for scholars to recognize the nuance in identity-based politics rather than viewing subgroups as monolithic. Thus, cross-sectional analysis should play a role in understanding variation and commonality among African Americans, women, and specifically among African American women.


(1) . Self-categorization theory can also be problematic. Visible identities or external labeling is, most of the time, unavoidable. The color of one’s skin, texture of hair, thickness of lips, nose, and hips are marked cues of overt physical otherness in the American context. So are language and cultural practices. However, these attributes are easier to change than physical traits. Gender and visible manifestations of biologically sexed bodies are often also hard to disguise. The somatic “othering” of bodies by external factors creates group boundaries either imposed, self-selected, or both. The main issue, however, is that choice in identity acquisition is not as readily available among members of low-income-status groups (see McKenna and Bargh, 1998). These less permeable groups are theorized as having an internalized group identity. This category of individuals are “united by some common characteristic” apparent to outsiders and a group in which members “are aware of their similarities” and define themselves on that basis (Jenkins 1996, 23). Identity choice is as significant as identity formation because “membership in a group shapes and influences an individuals’ identity” (Huddy 2001, 141). To illustrate, McKenna and Bargh (1998) have found that “individuals with a strong identity as a member of a marginalized group (e.g., sexual and political) are more likely than those with a weak identity to accept their identity, share it with friends and family, and feel less estranged from society when they participate in a group-related electronic news group” (Huddy 2001, 146). However, other scholars have found that identity can be and is performed by low income or low status groups. For example, Ballroom culture, a Black and Latino/a queer community in North America, use performance to create performance to engage in HIV/AIDS prevention (Bailey 2009).