Let’s start with the facts: U.S. representatives of color were the first to call for President Trump to be impeached.
Now that the impeachment inquiry has begun, so has the attempt to reshape the narrative in ways that undermine and diminish the originators of color, and instead center a group of white politicians who publicly entered the fray much later.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) were the first two members of Congress to publicly advocate for impeachment, during the initial months of Trump’s tenure in office, citing his “obstruction” of the Russia investigation. Earlier this year, shortly after they were sworn into office, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the freshman congresswomen otherwise known as “The Squad”—have each amplified calls for impeachment. Tlaib’s “Impeach the motherfucker” became a rallying cry for supporters and a lightning rod for criticism from both sides of the aisle. And before the Mueller Report went public, House Democrats of color made up the majority of those who supported impeachment moves.
Yet on Saturday, CNN profiled “The Badasses,” a different squad of five white, moderate, first-term Democrat congresswomen who “changed history by becoming unlikely leaders on impeachment.” As the story notes, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, Rep. Mikie Sherill of New Jersey, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan are all Democrats with national security backgrounds. They won their seats in 2018 “in mostly Trump territory by campaigning on kitchen table issues like health care and affordable prescription drugs.”
Following reports of Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate Vice President Joe Biden and his son The Badasses, along with two male members, expressed their support for an impeachment inquiry in a September 23 op-ed for The Washington Post. The op-ed, according to CNN, “opened the floodgates for others who had been resistant, and gave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi critical political cover” before her formal announcement of an inquiry.
There’s no clear indication of whether or not dozens of other Democrats lent their support of an inquiry as a result of the op-ed, or because of the highly egregious nature of the allegations against Trump. In fact, more than 130 House Democrats had already lent their support to the process before Trump made admissions about his call with the Ukranian president. Like many other members of Congress, regardless of tenure, these five congresswomen are speaking out as part of their constitutional duty and dedication to serving the country.
So, then, what makes The Badasses so remarkable? Apparently it’s because they’ve been positioned as the opposite of The Squad and other outspoken Congress members of color.
Characterizations like these have caught fire amid concerns that moderate whites—including some of the white women who tipped the scales for Trump in 2016—are turned off by what they perceive as a lack of “civility” and hyperpartisanship in Washington. Indeed, an extremist administration has overwhelmingly fueled political division and polarization, and women of color have been among the most vocal critics. There’s fear among some Democrats that, unless the members who are seen as more outspoken and liberal take a back seat and simmer down, the party will squander its chance to win a majority in both chambers of Congress and risk a Trump victory in 2020.
"I don't care who has the headlines," Rep. Spanberger told CNN, in response to a question about whether they’re frustrated about the attention extended to The Squad and their so-called Twitter wars. "I care about the legislation that we prioritize and I don't think any of us want to be the loudest voice in the room. I just want to be one of the most effective."
The Badasses, then, are not those supposedly bombastic, irrational, angry members of color. Meanwhile, The Squad and other outspoken Democrats have expressed understandable disgust with the actions of the Trump administration—including a human rights crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border, economic policies that have driven the wealth gap to record levels, rollbacks of voting rights protections that address race-based efforts to suppress votes, and an anti-LGBT agenda that includes making it legal for workplaces to discriminate against LGBT employees.
It’s as though The Squad, and even Rep. Waters, hasn’t encountered constant death threats, Twitter diatribes from the president, and defended themselves against a routine barrage of attacks from the president’s supporters (real and bot, alike) who see them as convenient targets to rally people towards Trump’s agenda. They’ve also demonstrated a clear ability to use social media as an advocacy tool, whether it’s been about Russian election interference, immigrant detentions at the border, allegations of sexual abuse against Trump and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or about the need for impeachment.
Somehow, a long, obvious trail of lies and deception from the administration wasn’t enough for The Badasses and dozens of other Democrats to publicly support an impeachment inquiry before the Ukraine reports. The Squad and others like them have been long part of the vanguard. Yet as they so dare to challenge the state of affairs in Washington, they’re typecast as part of the problem.
The apparent solution? Columbus their efforts. Casting “The Badasses” as the anti-Squad is like enlisting the Rancho Carne Toros to bring it on to The Compton Clovers.
During a Sunday panel discussion on CNN, Jake Tapper at the very least acknowledged a few representatives who have been in favor of impeachment from the very beginning. He then asked one of The Badasses, Rep. Slotkin, about whether “those members” of the Democratic Party, and the ones who are “especially gleeful” about the moment, undermine the seriousness with which she and her colleagues wish to proceed.
“I know that my district does not want me participating in kind of vitriol that they see coming out of Washington generally so that's not what I'm going to personally be doing,” Slotkin said.
Lionizing “The Badasses,” in this case, is not only disingenuous but it also dismisses leaders of color to cast moderate white women as the central, history-making heroes. That’s to say nothing of the MAGA acolytes who arguably are attempting to whitewash the country itself. In either framework, people of color are disposable, their labor is devalued, and their experiences as people from marginalized groups (disproportionately affected by regressive policies) gets dismissed in the service of centering white identity and white perspectives in politics and culture.
It’s the same conundrum that fueled Trump’s election in the first place.
Many mainstream news outlets covered the 2016 election and discussed Trump while giving white supremacists widespread platforms to promote their message of hate, focusing more on scandals than policy specifics, and allowing Trump to disseminate countless falsehoods without immediately vetting them. Hours upon hours of cable news devoted live coverage to rally speeches where he employed bigotry and exploited prejudice in the service of crystallizing a white identity politic to consolidate power against the supposed threats of “PC culture,” immigrants, Muslims and those deemed as “other.”
Meanwhile, media and entertainment pivoted to center white “middle America” in the wake of Trump taking office. Tamron Hall and Al Roker were essentially pushed out of anchoring The Today Show’s third hour to make way for Fox News alum Megyn Kelly; of course, Kelly was eventually fired from NBC after remarks that supported the use of blackface, not to mention her show’s terrible ratings. ABC rebooted Roseanne despite her promotion of right-wing conspiracy theories and penchant for racist remarks, much of it in support of Trump’s election. (The show was canceled within months after Roseanne Barr tweeted anti-Black insults.) Yet the network blocked an episode of Blackish deemed too anti-Trump before it could air, prompting the show’s creator to walk away.
We don’t need to replicate this same pattern during stories about the Trump impeachment inquiry, nor can that be the case as the 2020 election cycle continues. There’s a reason to hold out hope, too, as various news outlets have revisited the efforts of impeachment trailblazers such as Reps. Green and Waters in new interviews.
Without adequately and accurately crediting people of color, especially women of color, for the myriad ways in which they’ve pushed American society toward any semblance of progress, we may very well be doomed to repeat some of the worst parts of our history.
They cannot be erased.