Mia Love is already getting more attention than most of her newly elected congressional colleagues. She is Haitian American, a woman, daughter of immigrants, Mormon, Republican and from Utah, all things that she seems eager to boast about, except when she isn’t, as those who contrasted her post-election speech with a subsequent CNN interview noted. But her own confusion about when to tout her history-making achievement and when to downplay it is more than matched with the contortions of others who are trying to figure her out.
It would be a good thing if she were evaluated and judged, praised and criticized for being the very singular Mia Love. But unfortunately that does not seem possible in a country where the election of a black president — twice — did not so much smooth over the vestiges of the country’s segregated and unequal past as rip the scab off still festering wounds.
When it comes to black women, adjectives and images — born in our nation’s past and reinforced by continuing media caricature — are placed on them at birth. In this context, the fact of a Mia Love does not compute. It’s much easier for all sides to see symbol rather than human being.
For some conservative Republicans, she is proof that racism has ended and their party is not tinged with racism and sexism — a case that is difficult to make when they disparage the accomplishments of black people and women who don’t agree with them. African American Republicans such as Ben Carson and Allen West have themselves fallen into this trap, referencing imagery of slaves and plantations to describe blacks who vote Democratic.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But some liberals are equally flummoxed, dismissing the significance of Love’s election by saying she is a token, and pointing out that she does not represent the majority of black voters who have favored Democrats in elections since the civil rights bills of the 1960s were signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. Yes, she belongs to a faith that once discriminated against blacks. But she has made peace with that, so why should it be anyone else’s concern?
On the other end of the political spectrum, first lady Michelle Obama — with her background, education and accomplishments — similarly puzzled all those who tried and failed to file her under “angry.”
Love has courted some of the controversy that swirls around her. You are bound to make waves when you start laying down the law before you’re actually laying down the law. The newly elected Utah congresswoman said, before a 2012 contest that she narrowly lost, that she would join the Congressional Black Caucus “and try to take that thing apart from the inside out.” In the Deseret News, she described the caucus this way: “It’s demagoguery. They sit there and ignite emotions and ignite racism when there isn’t.” Unless she has softened her stance, Love has done quite a bit of pre-judging before she has attended the first meeting and sought out opportunities for compromise. Maybe there is wiggle room. She has, after all, gone from calling for the elimination of the Department of Education to just favoring less federal government involvement in state education decisions.
But the zeal of a newbie going into Washington with grand ideas of how things are going to work before she or he has learned the ropes isn’t limited to party, gender or race. President Obama had the ideas and ideals of an outsider, as well, and it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for him. Love will soon find her own place in Washington, for better and worse, and her constituents will judge.
A black Republican woman is no stranger to me; I was raised by one. My mother was a party activist, though of the moderate type, a Maryland Republican who was liberal on civil rights and conservative on economic issues. When it came to her thoughts on taking responsibility, she sounded much like Tim Scott, the African American, Republican senator from South Carolina. She had a generous heart, was active in the church and would give her last dime to someone in need. She chafed at Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric, though despite personal and societal roadblocks, she never collected a cent of outside help and shared a few tough love lessons on making it despite adversity.
She would be proud of Mia Love and thrilled at the thought of a black first family, especially since she and her oldest children were there at the 1963 March on Washington. But I’m not sure what lever she would have pulled in any election. She was complicated in the way all people, including black women, are.
However anyone judges her politics, Love has expanded the public image of what it means to be a black woman. It would be nice if people could see past labels, to disagree with Love or, for instance, Loretta Lynch, the president’s pick to replace Eric Holder as attorney general, without relying on reflex to attack. Like Love, Lynch’s strong family background and hard-won educational and professional triumphs should be acknowledged for at least a minute before the partisan sorting out begins.
Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
Special To The Washington Post