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Boston now has an Asian American woman as mayor. Why are so few women of color in elected office?

My research examines why women of color reach the ballot less often than men of color, White women and White men

- November 23, 2021

Last week, Michelle Wu was sworn in as mayor of Boston. Some celebrated her for being the first woman and first person of color to be elected to that city’s top job, breaking with Boston’s long history of electing White male mayors. Given that, news outlets focused on how members of groups that are often marginalized in politics tend to make demands on breakthrough candidates once they are in office, or on the fact that three Black candidates failed to make it to the general election.

Meanwhile, many scholars interested in seeing the U.S. population’s diversity fully represented in political office have asked what it would take to elect more Asian American women or Black women or Latinas. But my research suggests that it is equally important to ask: What will have to change to elect fewer White men?

As I argue in my new book, it would be a mistake to see this election only as a study in minority coalition politics, or an example of racial or gender representation alone. Instead, when we look at American elections through an intersectional lens, a larger issue emerges. The communities that feel represented by Wu and former acting mayor Kim Janey, a Black woman, have very few opportunities to elect someone. In particular, women of color reach the ballot less often than men of color, White women and White men. Why?

Growing communities, stagnant representation

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States and live in a broad array of communities across the country. But Asian American women are rarely elected to offices ranging from local school boards to state legislatures to Congress. Wu joins just three other Asian American women mayors in the 100 largest cities in the United States. Among the 7,383 state legislators currently serving, only 56 are Asian American women. In the rare instances in which Asian American women hold elected office, they have often won in communities like Boston: racially diverse, Democratic-leaning areas with growing first- and second-generation immigrant communities.

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Pathways to office for women of color are few and precarious

I wanted to understand why Asian American women and other groups have been so persistently underrepresented, even though the communities that often support them have been growing for decades. But as is often true when studying how and why groups are marginalized, comprehensive data on the demographics of state legislative candidates and the districts they serve did not exist. I spent several years collecting data on the race and gender identities of candidates in 57,000 general elections from 1996 to 2015; surveying over 500 sitting state legislators; and conducting interviews with donors, consultants and candidates, successful and not, across dozens of states.

I found that two overlapping pressures shape who runs and wins in American electoral politics. Across the United States, the districts for most state and federal offices are populated by White majorities and represented by White male incumbents. Less than 3 percent of state legislative general elections between 1996 and 2015 were won by a person of color in a majority-White district. As a result, strategic candidates — and the donors and organizations that support them — often believe that only a limited number of districts realistically offer people of color a chance to win.

Meanwhile, within the very districts and communities where people of color have had the most success on the ballot, that perception of scarce opportunities intensifies gatekeeping behaviors that often favor men of color. Gatekeeping happens when politicians turn to people and networks they already know and trust to recruit candidates, or don’t give women’s political activities and community experiences the same weight as men’s in deciding whether they would be good candidates. As a result, women of color rarely have access to the resources they need to run for office.

These overlapping pressures mean that many talented potential candidates jostle for the rare seats that are seen as achievable for a candidate of color. Women of color such as Wu have few pathways to office — and those few are often lined with potential pitfalls and roadblocks.

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Changing these patterns of under- and overrepresentation

As a result, despite living and leading in the same communities as Asian American men or any other marginalized racial/ethnic group, and despite having the highest success rate of any group of candidates when they do run, my data show that Asian American women get on the ballot far less often. And while the external and internal political pressures that squeeze women of color’s prospects for candidacy work in different ways within each community, I find similar patterns for Latinas and Latinos.

In other words, people of color have very few opportunities to run for office — and women of color are often screened out of those few. Meanwhile, White men continue to be vastly overrepresented in city, state and federal governments compared with their share of the population.

Right now, post-census, state legislatures are drawing new district maps that will determine whether districts continue to be disproportionately made up of White majorities. With Republicans in charge of most state legislatures and aiming to minimize the number of districts likely to elect Democrats, the answer is probably yes.

But if donors, consultants, party officials, organization leaders and candidates want to interrupt the twin patterns of under- and overrepresentation, they could rethink how they assess which candidates are viable. Asian American women have incredibly high success rates as candidates, as do Latinas and Black women. Often, they are not supported in running for office.

For more relevant analysis, see TMC’s Race and Ethnic Politics topic guide.

Wu campaigned by emphasizing how much more expansive and inclusive city politics in Boston can be, even delivering speeches and campaign videos in three languages to emphasize that point. Her election is a landmark in representation for Asian American women and for the coalition of voters and supporters she brings with her to the mayor’s office. Those who wish to see more such opportunities may want to reevaluate how to do so.

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Christian Dyogi Phillips (@justcdp) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern California, and author of “Nowhere to Run: Race, Gender and Immigration in American Elections” (Oxford University Press, 2021).