Op-Ed

Politicians ignore the challenges of African-American and Latina women at their peril | Opinion

Lucy Flores, who was a Nevada assemblywoman from 2011-3015, accused former Vice President Joe BIden of nuzzling her hair inappropriately.
Lucy Flores, who was a Nevada assemblywoman from 2011-3015, accused former Vice President Joe BIden of nuzzling her hair inappropriately. AP

Lucy Flores shook the political world when she recently shared her story of Joe Biden making her feel uncomfortable by kissing her on the back of the head and smelling her hair before she went onstage while campaigning for lieutenant governor of Nevada in 2014. What the former vice president’s subsequent jokes, the personal attacks and the speculation about her motives show is, by and large, that as a society and as people in politics, we have work to do.

After generations of struggle for equality, women still experience rampant discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, and African-American and Latina women far less, 61 and 53 cents respectively. One in four women has experienced sexual harassment at work.

In 2019, this should be a starting place of any conversation that women have the right to not be touched without their consent, and if and when a woman is made uncomfortable, the immediate response should be, “I apologize.” Instead, when a woman shares her experience of discomfort or, worse discrimination, there is too predictable a cycle of defending the accused’s character and, ultimately, maintaining the status quo.

Intentions are beside the point. Women are tired of being made uncomfortable by men in the workplace and having to smile through it.

Yes, President Trump has treated woman far worse than behavior of which Biden has been accused. Trump has groped women, belittled them and inflamed the war on women’s bodies. Yet the fact that Trump’s misogyny is so uncensored does not give other elected leaders, including Democrats, a pass. We cannot have a double standard that holds right-wing leaders accountable, but stays silent when men who say the right things and vote for pro-women policies act inappropriately.

As executive director of New Florida Majority, an independent political organization focused on racial equity and gender justice, I navigate political spaces that are largely dominated by men. That’s true despite the fact that women make up the majority of people doing the paid and unpaid work that power elections. As a woman of color, I have worked closely with men who are respectful colleagues over the past several years , but I also have experienced mansplaining and been patronized, dismissed and ignored more times than I can count. I have experienced “progressive” men whose actions do not match their rhetoric and who fail to examine their actions and change their behavior even when women let them know they are crossing lines.

Lucy Flores’ experience was completely recognizable for most working women and, unfortunately, so were the public responses to it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we center the experiences of women of color, we don’t hurt our chances of beating Trump in 2020, despite the partisan response to Flores. In reality, we strengthen our democracy. We motivate other women to come forward with the challenges they face and bring innovative policy ideas to the table. We generate new leaders such as Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who can open the floodgates of civic involvement and inspire new levels of engagement.

At a time when women are saying enough is enough, as we’ve led a charge to bravely tell our stories of sexual abuse, heal ourselves and transform society through #MeToo, isn’t it time for political campaigns and candidates to catch up? Women in politics should not have to choose between their silence or their success. Harassment, no matter the scale, is not something we should have to grin and bear.

We deserve better. And as the bloc with the highest turnout rate in the Democratic Party, women of color demand better. Women’s equality in the workplace or anywhere is not an overreach, period. The sooner we all realize that — and put it into practice — the better off we, and our democracy, will be.

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Andrea Cristina Mercado is executive director of New Florida Majority.
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