Why Valerie Jarrett Isn't Surprised by the Latest Round of Attacks

And why no one should be at this point.
Photography by Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, spoke to MSNBC host Joy Reid, but she was really speaking to her critics. "When you break glass ceilings," she said, from a polished green lawn, "you’re going to get scraped by a shard or two."

Jarrett has gotten a spate of press coverage lately, most of it bad. After last week's Democrat-punishing midterms, reporters' fingers have been itching to point somewhere. A number of articles chose her for a target, dubbing her Obama's "night whisperer" or "yes woman." They've gone beyond skeptical, and strayed well clear of subtle. Take the Politico article “Fire Valerie Jarrett”—how's that for a headline?—that offers up as concluding wisdom the recommendation that Jarrett become Obama’s librarian. But, putting aside the pettiness, what the attention underlines is this: Jarrett is very probably the most powerful black woman in the history of the White House. She hasn't been shy about using that power to advance women or people of color. No wonder she's getting scraped.

In a profile of her for The New Republic, a piece far more revealing—not to mention sane—than Politico's, the reporter Noam Scheiber asked Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director, about Jarrett’s tenure. “Her role since she has been at the White House is one of the broadest and most expansive roles that I think has ever existed in the West Wing,” she said. If you step back from this week’s  scapegoating—even Fox News is calling foul—that's something to think about.

It's even more remarkable considering where she came from. Jarrett is the the great-great-great-granddaughter of a white slave-owner, Angus Taylor, and a black woman. Her great-great grandfather was their son, Henry Taylor, who was enslaved (by his father), and managed to build a thriving contracting and construction business in antebellum North Carolina. Henry Taylor’s son, Robert Robinson Taylor, was the first black student to graduate from MIT. An architect and teacher, he became the vice principal of the Tuskegee Institute. Robert Robinson’s son, Robert Taylor, was a housing activist, who became the first African-American to lead the Chicago Housing Authority. Taylor resigned in 1950, when the Chicago city council rejected a development plan that would have propelled integration. A two-mile stretch of tenements in Bronzeville, on Chicago's South Side, opened in 1962, three years after Taylor died. They were called the Robert Taylor Homes. They were the largest affordable-housing development in America.

Jarrett was born in Iran, and moved to London as a child, and then moved to Chicago, where she knew those homes. Her father, a geneticist and pathologist, worked at the University of Chicago. She made her name there, eventually serving as director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Stock Exchange. As a confidante of the Obamas, Jarrett did more than maybe anyone to help them rise.

In her work, Jarrett has kept in mind the legacy of racism that marks American history. In the first months of Barack Obama’s presidency, he established the White House Council on Women and Girls. He made Valerie Jarrett the chair. Today, the Council released a hefty report entitled “Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity.” It celebrates the progress women and girls of color have made since 2009: Girls of color have performed markedly better on national math tests. Their high school dropout rate has fallen—by 16 percent for African-American girls, and 30 percent for Hispanic—and their graduation rate has increased. Teen pregnancy among girls and women of color is down. Home aides and nursing assistants—nearly half of whom are women of color—now have minimum wage and overtime protections. About 12.5 million women of color with private health insurance now have guaranteed access to women’s preventive services, and 10.4 million women of color no longer have lifetime limits on their insurance. And the report highlights the challenges that American girls and women of color still face: the higher rates of poverty, the lower wages they receive, the greater likelihood of school suspension, heart disease, and domestic violence.  

There are only 18 black women sitting in Congress' 535 voting seats. On some matters, Jarrett has more influence than any of them. Well beyond these midterms, that will be her legacy, no matter the scrapes she sustains in the meantime. 

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