'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

Will the multiracial administration mean a boost for less-visible black women?

U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice and the other "Obama women" are redrawing the portrait of power.
Photograph: Illustration by David Cowles.

Andrea Berry has her doubts. “What did it do when Condoleezza Rice was there on the cabinet for those eight years?” retorts the 48-year-old senior vice president for broadcast operations at Fox Networks. “It didn’t change. I didn’t see anybody rushing to hire black women. I don’t know that [Rice made] a difference. And she’s extremely brilliant.”

Berry has a point. Our generation has been here before. By the 1970s, affirmative action had brought about a heightened sense of opportunity and possibility. But while affirmative action opened doors, it has also been used as a hammer against us, as in: “You just got in because you’re black. And a woman. A twofer!” It was more than a little disheartening in 2003 to hear some of my colleagues at the Washington Post blame the whole Jayson Blair plagiarism debacle on affirmative action at the New York Times. (Where do we place the blame for Stephen Glass, a white male who admitted to inventing stories wholesale for the New Republic?) Skip forward to this past summer, and check out a Washington Post article that, noting the increased number of black women reporters covering Michelle Obama, poses the question: “Are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?” An alarm that of course has never been raised about white reporters covering white politicians or white first ladies.

Which is why so many of us feel as if we’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. In the decade between 1996 and 2007, the number of black women getting master’s degrees increased 130 percent, while the increase for white women was 38 percent. There’s a reason we earn degrees at such a high rate. It’s been drummed into us both by birth and by history.

Traditionally, in the black community, education was seen as the only way up. In a world that limited your options, you fought back by arming yourself with university degrees. “It was important to excel,” says Carla A. Harris, 46, managing director at Morgan Stanley and author of Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success From a Wall Street Vet. “My mother was a strident, ardent believer that you couldn’t be on the borderline. If you wanted an A, you had to shoot for an A-plus.” Many of us, like my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, got their degrees from historically black colleges such as Morehouse (Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater), Spelman and Howard. After graduation, most of them, including my great-grandmother, became teachers. A rare few, like dentist Bessie Delany, one of the subjects of the book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, managed to have careers as doctors and lawyers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett became a journalist and documented lynchings back in the 1890s; Madame C. J. Walker made a fortune marketing hair care products in the early twentieth century. But with the Civil Rights movement and then affirmative action, the world began opening up to African-Americans, and huge swaths of black women began to move into positions that had previously been closed to them.

And now we’re eyeing a move to the next level. Yet despite our qualifications, black women are still hugely underrepresented in the corporate world and in other centers of power. According to Catalyst, a New York–based research firm that studies women in business, African-American women hold only five percent of all managerial, professional and related positions; white women hold 41 percent. Women of color are similarly scarce on corporate boards. And until Ursula Burns was tapped earlier this year to head Xerox, there were no black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

“When white women talk about difficulties in advancing, they often talk about the glass ceiling,” says Katherine Giscombe, vice president of women of color research at Catalyst. For non-white women, especially those who are African-American, the ceiling is more like concrete—denser than glass, says Giscombe, “and a lot harder to break.”

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