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What it will take to fight the sexist, racist attacks against Kamala Harris

Harris’s identity as a Black and South Asian American woman will attract lots of hate. It’s up to America to push back.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris waves at the end of the third day of the Democratic National Convention, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 19, 2020.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

When Kamala Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, she pledged to honor uncelebrated women, like her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and the late New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for the Democratic nomination and laid the groundwork for Harris’s rise.

“I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America. I do so committed to the values [my mother] taught me,” she said on Wednesday night. “And to a vision passed on through generations of Americans, one that Joe Biden shares, a vision of our nation as a beloved community where all are welcome no matter what we look like, no matter where we come from or who we love.”

It was a moment that parents have likely shared with their little girls — especially little Black and brown girls who so often feel overlooked and undervalued — to help them feel empowered, to finally see themselves as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.

Such inspiration is certainly good news. Too often in politics, a woman’s gender or her race — or both — get used against her, forcing her to walk lines around tone, language, and ambition that men do not. This is particularly true for Black women who face myriad tropes used to diminish them in public life and on the campaign trail, like the “Sapphire” stereotype known today as the “angry Black woman,” or the biblical temptress Jezebel. All of which are clear examples of misogynoir — the unique brand of misogyny that Black women face because of the combination of their gender and race.

Harris has dealt with this dynamic — even from her friends. Business Insider ran an entire piece about how she’s battled stereotypes her entire career. In one anecdote, we learn of the first time her hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about her in 1994 when she was a prosecutor; it was only to call her “the Speaker’s new steady” because she had been romantically involved with Willie Brown, then the leader of the California Assembly. Brown published an op-ed under the pretense that he cares about her political career; in it, he argued that, if offered it, Harris should reject the vice presidency because she isn’t suited to the role.

Before the nomination, Harris was labeled “too ambitious,” and since the nomination, racists have launched conspiracy theories about where she was born and misogynists have released T-shirts with slogans like “Joe and the Hoe.” Because she is married to a white man, Harris has even been called a bed wench, a derogatory term used against Black women who were raped by white slave masters during slavery.

Now, as Harris takes on a critical role for the Democratic Party — running not only in arguably the highest-stakes election in generations but as Biden’s presumed heir apparent if they win — Biden’s and Harris’s allies need to be prepared to live up to the promise he made when announcing his running mate to the world: “Kamala Harris has had your back and now we have to have her back.”

I spoke with Howard University political science professor Niambi Carter, author of the book American While Black: African Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship, about what it means to have Harris’s back as she will surely face challenges into November and beyond. An edited and condensed version of our conversation can be found below.

Fabiola Cineas

People have been talking about Harris’s “firsts” as vice presidential nominee. But if elected, how will those firsts come into the role she will play as vice president?

Niambi Carter

I think the role of vice president has changed a lot over the years. Lyndon Johnson, Dick Cheney, even Joe Biden, for example, were influential vice presidents. Still, we have never had a moment like this. If Biden wins the election, he will be the oldest president ever elected, so Kamala will be vital in multiple ways. Not only will she likely be more public-facing given this ongoing pandemic, but she will be younger and likely to be the big “draw” in this partnering because it will be another “first” for this country.

Given the unfolding of summer — with the Black Lives Matter protests, the pandemic, and the calls for racial equity and justice across a range of institutions and domains — Harris has a real opportunity to not only lay the groundwork for bold policymaking in this administration, but maybe also in her own administration if she chooses to run. This is a moment where bold leadership will be needed.

I know that saying she is young doesn’t sound all that comforting, but she is much younger, and the truth is, she can be present in the public in ways that Joe Biden cannot. That’s not to say that it’s safe for her, but it’s more dangerous for him. Part of what makes her attractive is that she does have a policymaking background. She understands a lot of issues. That makes her an attractive running mate.

Ultimately, we know what we’re getting with Joe Biden. He’s been around. He’s been a public figure longer than I’ve been alive. He’s been a part of most of our adult lives for a long time. Kamala is the much more interesting person on the ticket. I think that’s why they chose her. The excitement that is there is there for her. She will rightfully be the centerpiece of this campaign because she is literally going to be a heartbeat away from decision-making, and people are interested in her. People want to know more about her. The impulse will be to defer to her in some ways because Kamala is a very strong politician. She has the gravitas.

Fabiola Cineas

And with her as the centerpiece, we obviously can’t ignore that she is a Black and South Asian American woman and that she has dealt with attacks and stereotypes around her race and gender her whole career. What should we watch for in the media and beyond as the campaign unfolds?

Niambi Carter

Unfortunately, we’ve already seen Sen. Harris be publicly reprimanded for being “too ambitious,” which is a really pernicious way to attack women politicians, particularly Black women. Harris will be viewed as the “Sapphire” stereotype. This is the stereotype that gives rise to the modern “angry Black woman,” and I think this is likely to be what we see. That we have never seen a Black woman in this country with this level of power and access will likely churn the hate machines that will view any semblance of emotion by a Black woman through a negative lens.

Fabiola Cineas

Do you see this hate being concentrated on one side of the political aisle or will this happen on a bigger scale?

Niambi Carter

I definitely think it’s much broader. The way it looks, functions, and sounds will perhaps be different, but I think it functions as the same thing, which is to discredit. You’ll have people on the left talking about what she didn’t do, that she didn’t do enough of these things when she was a prosecutor. But that is sort of unfair because you expect this lone woman of color, this lone Black woman, to undo centuries of injustice in a few terms. Who else do we have that expectation of?

Then on the right, it’s all of these questions around her identity, like whether she’s super far left. They don’t know what they want her to be! She’s a socialist bot on some days. Other days, she’s lying about who she is and whether she’s really an American. She can’t clearly be all of these things, but it doesn’t matter because these are clever tricks to convince folks on the right or who have right-leaning sympathies that she’s dangerous for them in the same way. This also convinces “progressives” or people on the farther left that she’s no good for them and that she can’t do anything for them if she does not conform to their notions of what she ought to be if she is indeed going to be an effective leader of the left.

Fabiola Cineas

How have we seen this sexism play out in the past for women in politics?

Niambi Carter

We saw Congresswoman Chisholm chided for leapfrogging over her male counterparts in her bid for the Democratic nomination in 1972. Congresswoman/Ambassador Geraldine Ferraro had exposes written about her father’s criminal activities and her familial tax returns. And, most recently, we saw the ways in which first lady Michelle Obama was scrutinized on her clothing choices, level of attractiveness, anger, etc., and she’s not an elected official. All of this is to say that Black women will have not only their politics scrutinized, but their sexuality, their hair, their marital choices (if any), their intelligence and fitness for duty, etc. I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Particularly as former acquaintances feel the need to write op-eds about their ability to handle the job through the lens of their former “entanglements.” Yes, I am definitely talking about Willie Brown writing yet another op-ed about Sen. Harris and reminding us all they were once involved when she was a single woman.

Fabiola Cineas

Do you believe Harris is more likely to be the victim of disinformation attacks because she is a woman of color?

Niambi Carter

Certainly. We know it’s very easy to attack Black women online. There have been a number of reports, and even women in tech and others who’ve been talking about how easy it is to not only attack Black women online but to get other people to participate in those attacks.

I do think that’s going to be something that we see more of, not just people talking about her background — like whether she’s a real American — but people are going to start talking about her record as a prosecutor. That’s already been scrutinized. And if you look at some of the materials that have been released, people say, “Well, she’s not as conservative as people make her out to be. She’s actually more liberal.” There’s going to be much more. We’ve seen it already with the photographer who put up that meme that said, “Joe and the Hoe.” People are attacking her for her past relationships. We are going to see much more of this.

Fabiola Cineas

What should we take away from the racist birtherism theories that have manifested about Harris and that Trump himself is advancing them?

Niambi Carter

We should expect it. With Barack Obama, even before he was a candidate for the nomination in 2016, he was a target of this. We should know this is what Donald Trump does. Kamala Harris represents some of the biggest threats in their mind. She’s Black. She’s a woman. She’s also Asian. They’re attacking her Americanness; saying that she’s inauthentic is one of the ways they delegitimize her leadership. “She’s not a real leader because she’s not a real American.” That kind of language we see often mobilized to really fend off a much more credible record of public leadership. If we can say that she is somehow illegitimate and trying to usurp authority, this kind of language of the sort of the sinister immigrant who is trying to upend American society goes hand in hand with all the other things we see about illegal immigrants. What we’re seeing with Harris is a calling card of this administration. The thing that makes it really scary and important is that it’s not just words, it’s also actions. These people aren’t just saying these things. They also act on these things.

Fabiola Cineas

So far, we also see that the media is struggling to write and talk about Kamala’s identity. For example, commentators seemed ready to call her just a Black woman, but then people were like, wait a minute, she’s also the daughter of a South Asian/Tamil woman. What should we make of this?

Niambi Carter

America has never really had a good way to talk about race. A lot of what we understand to be race is not scientific. It’s a lot of alchemy and we’re talking about administrative arrangements.

She’s been very open that she sees herself as a Black woman — look at the sorority she selected and the university she selected — but she has very real ties to her South Asian heritage. But America is still stuck on these notions of race purity. You’re either one thing or the other, and if you’re biracial or multiracial, we don’t have space for that.

I think it’s enough to say she is a South Asian and Black woman. She lives in that duality. I think people want the pithy story, but identity is a very messy and slippery concept, particularly when we talk about race. Let Kamala be everything that she is. Stop trying to come up with a nice and neat story, and start talking about a more complicated story.

Fabiola Cineas

The vice president’s job on the trail is traditionally to absorb the blows for the president. Biden’s been criticized for inappropriately touching women and for his treatment of Anita Hill. As a Black woman, Harris could very well have to answer for Biden’s track record on race and gender. Add to that Biden’s proclivity for gaffes and it’s hard not to imagine that Harris will have to step in and clean up when he makes a blunder.

Niambi Carter

I’m certain Harris will likely have to make [Biden’s] crooked paths straight. But Biden has to be a fierce protector of his running mate regardless of gender. This means that the attacks, whether on gender or race, have to be vehemently decried by Biden. I expect Biden to do for her what Obama did for him when the missteps of his senatorial career and other things were brought up during their race.

And Biden should really stick to his main talking points and say less. When he gets too familiar, he tends to make his most boneheaded comments, like what he said on The Breakfast Club. I’d tell Biden to stick to the talking points and lean on Senator Harris as she is a formidable campaigner. I think these things will continue to haunt his campaign, but they don’t have to be fatal.

Fabiola Cineas

Biden, in a surprise to some, immediately addressed the attacks Trump made about Harris during his first appearance with her last week. He said that we are all going to have to have Harris’s back. What would it look like for Biden, Democrats, and America to actually have Kamala’s back?

Niambi Carter

It’s going to look a lot different than it did in 2016. When you have people saying things like, “She’s a nasty woman,” or that she’s not a real Black person, you don’t sit back and say, “Oh well, that was a terrible thing you said.” Even calling it birtherism is problematic — it’s racism! We cannot be euphemistic about the very dangerous things that this president says. Having her back means that you don’t have to like her, but when you see someone saying something that you know is patently false about her, then you stand there and you correct it. Don’t let it go by.

In 2016, what we saw was a lack of comment about the things that Donald Trump was saying that were patently untrue, whether it be about Benghazi or the server. It took up so much oxygen. Then after the election, all of these news outlets said that Hillary Clinton was exonerated in this instance, that there was nothing there. But it was too little too late! That man had basically been allowed to say these things for over a year. Those are the kinds of things we are going to have to have Kamala’s back on. That means you don’t get to go after her personal life. That means you don’t get to go after her heritage and her nationality. I think there is a way that we could be principled in our opposition to one another.

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