An extraordinary cohort of women of color was sworn into Congress this week.
They arrive in a D.C. that is fraught with chaos and uncertainty, largely because of our reckless president. He is holding the government hostage, demanding an estimated $5 billion to build an unnecessary wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. This ransom comes at the cost of an ongoing federal government partial shutdown that is further impairing an already fragile nation.
Since Dec. 22, the shutdown has put the lives of government employees (and their paychecks) on hold because President Donald Trump thinks that playing high stakes politics is how he should govern.
In stark contrast to many establishment leaders, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Deb Haaland, Ayanna Pressley, Lucy McBath and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are showing America what thoughtful governance and political hope can look like. Theirs is not a politics of pettiness; it is a politics of accountability.
This squad of bold women of color is arriving in the nation’s capital on the people’s steam, not on the coattails of establishment Democrats.
On the first day of this 116th Congress, these congresswomen of color are calling for a New Green Deal and the impeachment of this treacherous president; they are demanding genuine gun control and transparent oversight of our infrastructure. This is what women of color politics looks like.
This squad of bold women of color is arriving in the nation’s capital on the people’s steam, not on the coattails of establishment Democrats. They make comprehensive proposals like a New Green Deal. They support a boycott, divestment and sanctions bill to use tools such as economic sanctions to address violations of Palestinians’ human rights. They insist on serving on the most powerful committees because they are emboldened as veterans of social, economic and racial justice movements.
Theirs are the strategies of organizing everyday people to insist on their rights and to accept nothing less.
Last year began with both the GOP and the Democratic Party refusing to recognize the power of these women of color and the new American majority that stands behind them. But now they’re in the driver’s seat, and there is no denying who they are, who they represent and what they will do. These women of color are in office to challenge the mores, practices and assumptions of both parties.
In the month before taking office, these women of color ― including, most visibly, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar and Haaland ― have called for what amounts to a legislative agenda that advances voting rights, green jobs, a living wage and protection of the basic humanity and rights of immigrants and refugees.
The women of color leaders entering Congress are not cogs of a party machine; they are, instead, veterans of grassroots movements, once wholly dismissed by establishment Democrats. They are organizers and thought leaders, everyday women who understand firsthand what it has been to suffer under the cruel regime of conservatism inflicted on people of color and other marginalized communities.
They are not just changing American politics; they are changing our culture.
Mothers of the Movement’s Lucy McBath entered Congress with a promise to make government accountable to the young, to black people and to victims of gun violence. She will do this in the seat once held by Newt Gingrich and alongside the largest and most impressive class of women of color ever to enter Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez holds government accountable to poor and working-class young people when she exposes the common practice by both parties’ congressional members of not paying interns. She takes a stand for working people when she points out the hypocrisy of Republicans decrying Obamacare while enjoying excellent government benefits for themselves and their families. If her first day in office is any indication, she will continue to call out the avarice and self-serving practices of both parties.
We will look back and thank these women of color for doing what Democratic stalwarts couldn’t: lead the charge to transform our politics and our country away from its long, brutal conservative era.
She, along with Rep. Ro Khanna, publicly refused to support a rules package from House Speaker Pelosi because they want to eliminate the fiscal measure pay-go, which fuels a politics of backroom deals and horse trading. Ocasio-Cortez brought unprecedented energy and momentum to a Green New Deal, uniting 45 members of Congress behind the proposal, which calls for generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable energy in 10 years. Pelosi, sensing a need to respond, acknowledged in a recent speech that the American people are ahead of Congress on the urgency of climate change.
Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates grace under fire. She has already faced demeaning personal attacks to dampen her influence, but in the age of Trump, when demeaning attacks are commonplace, her effective and powerful response is often to call out the hypocrisy of whatever statements are made against her. A video of her dancing in her college days, released by an anonymous source to shame the new congresswoman, instead captivated millions and strengthened her support.
Democrats would be wise to heed her tenacity and growing influence. As a Justice Democrat who has endorsed the strategy of challenging moderate incumbent Democrats in blue districts, she has the experience on the ground and with movements to force both Democrats and Republicans to pay attention.
Tlaib, who hails from Michigan, where poor black and brown residents still don’t have clean water in Flint and Detroit, is demanding that the federal government be accountable to those most affected by such environmental catastrophes. She joined the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in at Pelosi’s office in November, refusing to abide by conventions that would weaken her advocacy. Instead, she publicly supported demonstrators’ demands and is organizing members of Congress to form a select committee on a Green New Deal. And she’s not holding back. On her very first day as a congresswoman, she vowed to “impeach that motherfucker” Trump.
When Pelosi initially waved off talk of impeachment, it was this group of incoming congresswomen of color who joined with other progressive legislators to demand accountability and investigations. In doing so, they are holding Democrats and Republicans accountable to the Constitution and to our democracy. Pelosi will likely continue to face challenges from this group of leaders who are empowering colleagues to press for progressive change.
A quarter-century ago, conservatives laid out an ambitious plan to reshape our government — privatizing schools and prisons, repealing oversight of financial corporations, neutering civil rights laws, strangling ballot access, expanding military spending and criminalizing people of color. All this created the structural conditions that would make a Trump presidency not only possible but inevitable.
It has taken decades, but we are now at the twilight of that period, and a new era is before us. In the 2018 midterms, voters recognized that moderate politics would not be enough to stop Trump and his relentless attacks on our people and our democracy. In a time where phrases like “Muslim ban” and “border wall” are commonplace, Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and other women of color are effectively blunting the attacks unleashed by the GOP.
A quarter-century from now, I predict we will look back and thank these women of color for doing what Democratic stalwarts couldn’t: lead the charge to transform our politics and our country away from its long, brutal conservative era.
Aimee Allison is the founder of She the People, a national network elevating the political voice and power of women of color, and the president of Democracy in Color.
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