Marilyn Mosby, Kim Foxx, Kim Gardner, Aramis Ayala – they each broke barriers to become the first Black woman elected as state’s attorney in their regions. Yet, all have experienced harassment, retaliation and verbal abuse associated with those positions. Most have faced lawsuits, death threats, legal inquiries and public scrutiny by politicians, police officers, police unions and sometimes, constituents.
While a Black woman’s appointment, selection or ascension to a massive role is exciting, there is an underbelly associated with career progression. I document this in my forthcoming book “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life,” out in February 2021. The book speaks to the unrealistic expectations, racism, sexism and downright hostility associated with being the first or only. The point of the book, and this broader work, is to say that being first is great, but standing alone isn’t.
In “First and Only,” I note that there is a seldom-acknowledged level of second-guessing, undermining and menacing that Black women experience throughout their careers but especially in high-stakes roles. Unfortunately, shattering a glass ceiling and breaking through a barrier isn’t inoculation from peers who question whether you belong, team members who treat you differently because of your race and gender, and opponents who resent your audacity to even show up.
This is amplified when Black women are promoted to positions that threaten the status quo. In those situations, there is an invisible hand attempting to push us back even as we attempt to lunge forward. Despite public affirmations that the work is needed and necessary, the invisible hand reacts negatively when progress threatens the powers that be. That has been crystallized in the experiences of these Black state’s attorneys. When a Black woman dares to operate from a place of agency, leaning on what she believes to be right or running afoul of the wishes of power brokers, her life and livelihood may be in jeopardy.
When it comes to Black women prosecutors, there is an irony to their work and existence. To be a reform-minded elected official and be white and male, means that even when others disagree, one never has to experience the hatred Black women endure. It is dangerous when one is Black and female. The Black women I mentioned at the outset of this piece are all women who, fed up with the criminal justice system, decided to make a change. But in their pursuit for change, they have been met with a level of hostility that is breathtaking in its boldness and scope. In June 2019, New York Times reporter Richard A. Oppel Jr. noted that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s “professional actions are being scrutinized in a manner that is virtually unheard-of for an elected prosecutor.” A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate her handling of former Gov. Eric Greitens’ abuse case, and presently Missouri Gov. Jim Parsons wants to limit her ability to investigate certain cases, granting this right to the state’s Attorney General.
Their election may have been cheered by the communities from which they sprang, but the power brokers, including police unions, resent their presence. These vanguards of power appear to despise the audacity of Black women courageous enough to question the order of the day. As Vanity Fair contributor Eve Ewing wrote of police unions, which she aptly argued are not unions at all: “The unforgivable sin within the brotherhood is to cast aspersions against the only people whom the brotherhood recognizes as human—its own kind. Shoot a boy in the back, and you can still be in the brotherhood. Side with the people who are asking questions, or raise a fist with them, or kneel before them, or talk to them, and you are out.”
The animosity these Black women officials experience is deeper than surface-level irritation.
As part of a wave of reform-minded prosecutors, Gardner had high hopes of making a difference. She didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, have imagined all she’d need to contend with to do so. Her budget is woefully inadequate for the job she’s expected to do. She says she has been called the “n” word, the “c” word and everything in between. It seems everyone from President Trump to the St. Louis mayor to the Missouri governor to the local police union down to rank-and-file officers appears willing to go to any length to not only silence but destroy her.
Other Black women prosecutors have faced similar challenges. Kim Foxx in Chicago is presently under investigation for dismissing charges against former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett who was accused of fabricating a hate crime. Even her decisions to drop or dismiss other unrelated felony cases have evoked the ire of the invisible hand in Chicago.
And when Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby prosecuted the officers who killed Freddie Gray, she faced death threats as well as a malicious prosecution lawsuit brought by five officers involved in the arrest or death of Gray. Even today, five years after Gray’s death, Mosby is still under attack. She is presently under investigation for allegedly failing to disclose companies she owns on financial disclosure statements.
In Florida, the first Black state’s attorney Aramis Ayala saw former Gov. Rick Scott reassign death penalty cases from her. Ayala had announced she would no longer seek the death penalty because it was costly and not a suitable means of deterring crime. For Black people long suffering from the war on drugs, racial profiling and a broken criminal penal system, Ayala’s courage was life-altering. To the old guard, it was proof she didn’t belong.
All of that points to a painful truth: For Black women, being the first or only is as exciting as it is dangerous. Being elected is only part of the battle. Being able to withstand the invisible hand dishing out psychological, mental and physical attacks must be a part of the calculation of whether to run for such positions. The irony of the invisible hand is that we know to whom the hand belongs to, though we cannot always see it operating. We know the hand is an extension of white supremacy even if the players vary from community to community.
The other side of this is the often high expectations of the people who elected these women. There is an expectation, rooted in racism and misogyny, that Black women must solve problems they didn’t create and do so at lightning speed. People who feel this way don’t even consider the hurdles placed in Black women’s paths, even as constituents expect those women to work miracles time and time again.
We see this phenomenon across the political spectrum too. Just a few days ago, many in our nation were celebrating the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as the first Indian American and African American woman to be tapped to serve as vice president on a Democratic ticket. But let’s be clear about what her future holds. People will expect Harris to smile and operate superbly despite what she may face as the first and only. She will be held accountable for things for which she has no control. The attacks will come from all sides, even from seemingly natural allies. The hurdles she will need to clear will be massive, and that is notwithstanding her affiliation with a prominent Democrat, i.e., Joe Biden. She is still a woman and a person of color, and she will face obstacles.
I raise these points not to dissuade Black women from running for office or standing up for that which they believe is right. I offer this analysis to say that everyone must do more to support Black women who support the Black community. We must do more to protect Black women who attempt to protect us.
Rather than being content to celebrate when a Black woman becomes the first or only, we must continue to remain with them over the long haul. The commitment must supersede political affiliation. The litmus test for support can’t merely be whether we see things from the same ideological lens. At some point, being Black, female and doing one’s best must be enough to extend grace and support. We must marshal resources to partner with them throughout the life of their careers. That means dispensing with, or at least critically examining, cancel culture.
These women must have spaces where they can be authentic and vulnerable, without fear that they will be summarily dismissed. They must have a community that affords them support, yes, but patience too.
There is indeed an invisible hand. I am wondering, though, if the Black community can offer Black women a visible and strong shoulder.
Jennifer R. Farmer is a writer, trainer and activist communicator. She is the author of the forthcoming book “First and Only: How Black Women Thrive at Work and Life.” Follow her on IG/Twitter using @pr_whisperer.