Not Here To Behave: What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Shirley Chisholm Have in Common

Like Shirley Chisholm and Ella Baker, when candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib enter the halls of power, they bring their people with them.

Barbara Ransby February 27, 2019

(Illustration by Terry LaBan)

The elec­tions of Reps. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) were vic­to­ries for social move­ments, and two pro­gres­sive out­siders” are now on the inside. But what can the Left expect from these insur­gent Democ­rats? The lives of Shirley Chisholm and Ella Jo Bak­er, two 20th cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal fig­ures who chal­lenged the estab­lish­ment of their day while main­tain­ing strong move­ment ties, offer us insight.

When out­siders are allowed into the inner sanc­tums of pow­er, the first con­di­tion is that they assim­i­late. Shirley Chisholm, a tough-talk­ing for­mer school teacher from Brook­lyn with Caribbean roots who became the first black woman elect­ed to Con­gress in 1968, recalled how her col­leagues, believ­ing she didn’t under­stand pol­i­tics,” tried to edu­cate” her about Washington’s horse-trad­ing ways.

Democ­rats have already tried to instruct Oca­sio-Cortez on how to behave. She doesn’t under­stand how the place works yet,” Rep. Kurt Schrad­er (D‑Ore.) told the press. When Oca­sio-Cortez lob­bied for a place on the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, an anony­mous senior House law­mak­er” told Politi­co, It total­ly pissed off every­one. … You don’t get picked for com­mit­tees by who your grass­roots [sup­port­ers] are.”

Insid­er sta­tus is a priv­i­lege. New mem­bers of the club are expect­ed to play by the rules. As James Bald­win observed, that is the price of the ticket.”

The sec­ond con­di­tion for out­siders is that, once admit­ted, they dis­tance them­selves from the move­ments that got them elect­ed. When I first came to Wash­ing­ton, I would some­times con­fide to oth­er mem­bers how I want­ed to help the peo­ple of my com­mu­ni­ty,” Chisholm writes in her mem­oir, Unbought and Unbossed. It became embar­rass­ing. I was talk­ing a for­eign lan­guage to some of my col­leagues when I said com­mu­ni­ty’ and peo­ple.’ ”

What scares the estab­lish­ment is not that a sin­gle Black or Lat­inx or Arab-Amer­i­can or indige­nous woman is allowed inside” the cor­ri­dors of pow­er, but that she gives voice to the com­mu­ni­ties that elect­ed her. Dur­ing Supreme Court Jus­tice Sonia Sotomayor’s con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, crit­ics were out­raged by a 2001 speech in which she sug­gest­ed an expe­ri­enced Lati­na elder might in some cas­es pos­sess bet­ter judg­ment than a priv­i­leged white male who hasn’t lived that life.” That is what the estab­lish­ment fears: not that new­com­ers look dif­fer­ent, but that they bring with them a set of val­ues, ideas and sen­si­bil­i­ties val­i­dat­ed in oppressed com­mu­ni­ties. The price of the tick­et” for inclu­sion often means conformity.

I did not come to Con­gress to behave myself and stay away from explo­sive issues so I can keep com­ing back,” Chisholm wrote. She served in Con­gress on her own terms and in 1972 made a bid for the pres­i­den­cy, an auda­cious move by a black woman at the time. She did so against the advice of sup­pos­ed­ly admir­ing insid­ers. And when the rad­i­cal Black Pan­ther Par­ty endorsed her, she accept­ed their sup­port, refus­ing to con­form to lib­er­al expec­ta­tions that she dis­tance her­self from the more mil­i­tant wing of the Black Pow­er movement.

Ella Jo Bak­er, an intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal force in the Black free­dom move­ment, was, like Chisholm, a con­sum­mate out­sider. From the 1930s until her death in 1986, Bak­er nev­er held polit­i­cal office, served as a charis­mat­ic leader nor head­ed a major civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tion. Yet in her work along­side the likes of Thur­good Mar­shall, W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Bak­er wield­ed pow­er as an out­sider with­in” and earned the respect of gen­er­a­tions of grass­roots orga­niz­ers. Some of the men she worked with labeled her a dif­fi­cult woman,” and she wore the moniker proud­ly. She did not kow­tow to those at the table, and she demand­ed the inclu­sion of those not in the room.

Like Chisholm and Bak­er before them, Oca­sio-Cortez and Tlaib are not daz­zled sim­ply to be in the club nor intim­i­dat­ed by the threats of mar­gin­al­iza­tion lobbed at them. When Tlaib called for Trump’s impeach­ment, she used grit­ty lan­guage from the street, not the par­lance of the elite. In response, Oca­sio-Cortez tweet­ed to Tlaib that I got your back” and the GOP lost enti­tle­ment to polic­ing women’s behav­ior a long time ago. Next.”

Oca­sio-Cortez insists on advanc­ing a Green New Deal, and Tlaib is push­ing for a del­e­ga­tion to Pales­tine. When Rep. Eliot Engel (D‑N.Y.) admon­ished Tlaib to instead lis­ten and learn,” Tlaib evoked her Pales­tin­ian fam­i­ly in a tweet: I hope you’ll come with me on the trip to lis­ten and learn. My sity (grand­moth­er) will wel­come you with an embrace & love.”

Bak­er often asked those she met: Who are your peo­ple?” She want­ed to know your ties to fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty and polit­i­cal tra­di­tions; whose side you were real­ly on. It was as much an admo­ni­tion as a question.

As the grass­roots train­er Mar­shall Ganz has explained, trans­ac­tion­al lead­er­ship” is horse-trad­ing” or oper­at­ing with­in the rou­tine” that is prac­ticed to main­tain, rather than change, the sta­tus quo.” On the oth­er hand, trans­for­ma­tion­al lead­er­ship” typ­i­cal­ly engages fol­low­ers in the risky and often exhil­a­rat­ing work of chang­ing the world.”

Trans­for­ma­tion­al lead­er­ship is a two-way street: We on the Left will have to buoy the new pro­gres­sive insid­ers as they buck the sta­tus quo, remind­ing them that we are their peo­ple, and they are ours.

Bar­bara Rans­by is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go and the author of Ella Bak­er and the Black Free­dom Move­ment: A Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Vision. She is a long­time activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters.
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