No, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not a racist. Yes, she has been an ally of women of color for her entire 31-year career in Congress.
I have seen her up close and personal, when she spoke at an event my Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority held last year in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress to honor a historic black woman. She is all in on black women’s advancement and policy issues. To argue otherwise would be untrue.
Yet freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has it right — Speaker Pelosi is old guard. She does not like her new, high-profile women of color members nipping at her heels. She paid her dues. She worked her way up through the male dominated congressional system for decades to become the nation’s first female Speaker of the House.
The daughter of a powerful Baltimore Mayor, Pelosi was raised in the 1950s and came of age in the early 1960s. She remembers a time when women were like "Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moms, known for their pearls and perfectly coiffed hair.
Bold young women demand change
Pelosi remembers an America where women were largely silent, and could advance in politics, but only through steady party loyalty, staying in their place, waiting their turn, and never running their mouths to the media. This is Pelosi’s formation as a politician and to a large degree as a person.
Enter New York’s 29-year-old "AOC,” a she is known, and her Democratic colleagues Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. These bold, young women of color — unbought and unbossed in the spirit of the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm — have turned the Democratic caucus on its head. They are unafraid to speak out, to call out, and demand the change that we are so often asked to delay or deny as women of color.
The current tensions erupted after the four women opposed a border spending bill they said failed to protect migrant children from President Donald Trump's policies. Pelosi criticized them in interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the women fought back, and AOC told the Washington Post that Pelosi had been "outright disrespectful." She accused her of "the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
The issue here is NOT that Pelosi is a racist. In fact, Trump's Twitter attack Sunday on “'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen" and his suggestion that they "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came" drew a strong defense of the four women from Pelosi, who called his comments xenophobic and evidence that he wanted to make America "white again."
Women of color are lagging behind
No, the real issue here is what we academics call “intersectionality" — the combined impact of racism, sexism and other types of discrimination on people and groups. In practice, it means that white women in power often take on the same characteristics of white men in power toward women of color.
The effect on women of color is widespread. White women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to white men. Hispanic or Latina women earn 53 cents on the dollar. Black or African-American women earn 61 cents.
White women have made notable advancements in industry, politics, academia and corporate America, whereas women of color make up only about 5% of corporate executives and there is only one woman of color heading a Fortune 500 company. In medical schools, law schools and law firms, while women overall have achieved parity or better, women of color lag far behind. I could go on and on with data points, but that is not the issue at hand.
When you need Trump to defend you as not being a racist, you must stop and consider why. What do I mean? On Friday, Trump told reporters that AOC had been "very disrespectful" to Pelosi. "I don't think that Nancy can let that go on," he added.
Trump, Pelosi should listen and learn
What the heck? What Trump really meant to say is that older white people like him, Biden, and yes, Pelosi, simply do not yet know how to deal with women of color being in power and holding their feet to the fire.
Black women are deemed “angry.” Latina women are deemed fiery. And Muslim women are “radical.” These words often used to describe us are meant to marginalize and silence us.
The solution here is not for Speaker Pelosi to silence AOC or condemn her. It is to listen and learn and find a way to work together. This is not Congress in 1978, 1988 or 1998. This is 2019. People of color have a voice. Women of color have a voice.
These women are members of the United States Congress. These women of color have a national platform that empowers them and indeed demands of them that they speak up for themselves and their constituents.
Sophia A. Nelson is an MSNBC commentator, journalist and author of multiple books. Her most recent book is “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders' Vision for a United America.” Follow her on Twitter: @IAmSophiaNelson
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nancy Pelosi should learn from Ocasio-Cortez and other women of color