A debate over racial and ethnic representation in American government broke out Tuesday on social media after California Gov. Gavin Newsom decided against picking a Black woman to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris leaves behind. Instead, Newsom chose Alex Padilla in an appointment that will make the outgoing California Secretary of State just the 10th person of Hispanic heritage to be a U.S. Senator. Padilla will also be California’s first Latino Senator.
However, on the flip side, the appointment also means that there won’t be a Black woman U.S. senator in 2021 when Harris is sworn-in as vice president and Padilla replaces her on Capitol Hill. In fact, it’ll be the first time the Senate won’t have a Black woman among its ranks in four years — the same amount of time Harris served in her first and only term.
Newsom’s move could also be seen as him thumbing his nose at the Black Lives Matter movement, which called for a Black woman to fill Harris’ seat in a “non-negotiable” demand that emphasized why Senate representation by an African American woman is so important.
For others, it might have been a confounding move to see Newsom decide that a man — regardless of ethnicity — was a better fit for the U.S. Senate than, say, sitting California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whose name was trending on Twitter Tuesday as her supporters sounded off about what they described as being snubbed. Bolstering Lee’s Senate-ready resume is her leadership in the national fight against the coronavirus pandemic, an urgent issue with which Padilla likely does not have the same level of experience.
It all added up to seemingly reinforce the common political and patriarchal narrative that men get to decide that women must wait patiently for their turns at the back of the line. The fact that the decision was made by a white man, in particular, only hammered home that point even more. While Harris decidedly shattered the glass ceiling back in 2017 when she became just the second Black woman senator in the United States’ history, Newsom at least partially rebuilt it Tuesday, critics suggested.
There was also the case being made that there are already a relatively substantial number of Latinos in the Senate, so why not try to balance out representation by keeping at least one Black woman? Besides, that single representation would still be fewer than the six Latinos, including a woman Democrat with Nevada Sen. Catherine Marie Cortez Masto. With Harris gone, there are just two Black Senators now: Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Hopefully, this decision for Newsom didn’t boil down to a mathematical equation. But to be sure, there has only been one Latina Senator: Masto. Padilla will be the 10th ever Latino Senator. Similarly, there have only been 10 Black Senators in U.S. history.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Black woman, made no qualms about her true feelings on the “unfortunate” matter.
“This is a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general, and I think it’s really challenging to put it in words,” Breed, the city’s first Black woman mayor, told the Associated Press.
The Black Lives Matter movement previously posted an online petition explaining why it was so important for Newsom to appoint a Black woman, in particular.
“Appointing a Black woman to this seat is nonnegotiable — this must be done. Our government is about representation of the people, and as we saw in this election, Black people, and more specifically Black women, are constantly showing up for democracy,” the group said in part of a statement accompanied with the petition. “If there is not a single Black woman in the Senate, then the Senate is simply not a proper representation of the people.”
Rep. Lee, for her part, offered a gracious congratulations to Padilla in a display of class.
Of course, even if Newsom did appoint Lee, that would still leave her U.S. House seat vacant, setting off another political firestorm over with whom the governor should fill that position. As it stands now, Padilla’s seat is up for grabs. Wash, rinse, repeat.
In the meantime, social media reactions tell a more nuanced response to what still remains as the fact that come next month, the United States of America will no longer have a Black woman Senator following a year marked by a purported racial reckoning. The irony.