There’s a saying that almost every black person in America is familiar with: “You have to work two times harder, and be twice as good.”
This phrase has been passed down for generations from parents and grandparents to young black people. It’s not just an explanation; it’s a warning. America was built for white people, so if black people want something, it will be much harder.
This was certainly the case for senator Kamala Harris, from the moment she announced her plans to run for president in January 2019 on the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
It began with subtle racism and microaggressions, such as being seen as “not likeable” and being called “overconfident”. And it escalated from there.
From the start, many had fair questions about Harris’s policies, the platform she’d be running on, and her prosecutorial record (specifically in relation to people of colour) as former district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California. Those were all very important questions – but nothing that would ordinarily be insurmountable for a candidate with her experience and pedigree.
When her campaign began, many political pundits referred to her as “Trump’s nightmare”; some even went as far as to call her the “next Obama”, or to compare her to Shirley Chisholm. She was a woman of colour with moderate policies and all the makings of someone who could have broad appeal.
With acclaim and surging support would also come strategic moves by her opposition to throw her campaign into disarray. Such things are typical in politics; however, the specific narratives used against Harris were anything but typical. Enter, “Kamala is a cop”.
In an era where social justice and movements such as Black Lives Matter enjoy much-needed visibility, Harris’s opposition saw an opportunity to pounce. They criticised her record, her language and her connections with the establishment by spreading exaggerated and often false information about who she was and what she stood for. At one point, it even appeared that social media bots were maliciously spreading tweets claiming she wasn’t “black enough” and questioning her ethnicity.
Harris’s campaign struggled to find a strategic counter-move for that narrative – which gained further traction when congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard attacked her over her prosecutorial record publicly at the Democratic debate in July.
During that time, Harris’s polling numbers dropped steeply. At one point she was polling at 19 per cent while frontrunners Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden were polling at 12 per cent, 15 per cent, and 11 per cent. In fact, current Iowa caucus polling leader mayor Pete Buttigieg was polling a mere 3 per cent in the same summer poll.
Many theorised that that drop-off in numbers was due to a “confusing” message being put out by Team Kamala. She had been criticised by progressives for not supporting Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all bill, and she had been condemned by moderates for not committing herself fully to being a “tough on crime” Democrat. People seemed confused about where she stood.
From the outside looking in, one could say both her and her campaign were flawed. Those people would be right. But you should also ask yourself: what candidate and campaign isn’t flawed?
Tulsi Gabbard has been chided as a Republican “plant” for her consistent appearances on Fox News; Pete Buttigieg has been called out for not properly addressing a history of police brutality against black people in South Bend; Amy Klobuchar has a prosecutorial record that is arguably worse than Harris’s – and the list goes on. But none of these candidates faced such coordinated attacks. None of them had their very identities so consistently called into question.
A few days ago, political commentator Avis Jones-DeWeever wrote a thread about how atypical the attacks and criticisms against Kamala Harris are. It makes for urgent reading.
“Kamala’s coverage is so singularly and consistently negative it seems to me the goal may be beyond this specific campaign cycle and ultimately meant to do permanent damage to her political career as well as serve as a warning to any future black woman considering running for president,” Jones-DeWeever wrote.
Kamala Harris started out from behind, operating in a system fuelled by double standards. She tried to be the first woman of colour to become president in a country with a legacy of racism. She tried to do it during the xenophobic presidency of Donald Trump.
This isn’t a defence of Kamala Harris as a politician, nor is it a defence of her record. This is a defence of her as a black woman who was treated unfairly; a defence of black women everywhere who are treated unfairly. The black women who work twice as hard and are twice as good, yet still receive less.
These are the black women who have helped build this country – but America made sure that it wouldn’t let one run it.
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