Kamala Harris is a black woman living in the United States, so the assertion that racism or sexism couldn’t have possibly factored into negative perceptions of her is absurd. But I’m unconvinced that misogynoir alone sunk her presidential campaign. And I’m alarmed that the hurdles black women go through are being weaponized—especially by white liberals—to deify Harris in the aftermath of her presidential run. So naturally, both of the aforementioned are happening on social media and in editorials, where discourse on the end of Harris’s 2020 presidential run sounds increasingly alarmist.
An op-ed in The Independent called the “Kamala is a cop” meme racist because it held her record to a higher standard than her white primary challengers. Salon lamented the online backlash Harris and her loyal fans received from nasty Bernie Bros and the red rose emoji brigade. Human Rights Campaign’s Charlotte Clymer said that Harris’s campaign was “meaningful to countless Black women” and scolded those who were gloating over its demise. News of Harris’s dysfunctional campaign was derided as a racist hit piece. Media commentator Avis Jones-Deweever told CTV that she suspects Harris received disproportionately negative press, which doomed her campaign, and worries about what her treatment means for the next black woman who will run for president.
It’s a grim assessment that feels a bit dramatic coming from Harris supporters, and absolutely baffling coming from people who were never planning on voting for Harris in the primary in the first place. Where was all this energy for Harris in the last few months? And I don’t just mean on Twitter in the hours after one of her great debate performances. Will it be maintained if Booker or Castro drops out? Will people tweet their disappointment even though they’ve been team Warren for months? Performative wallowing in Harris’s absence from the 2020 race is like the morose sibling of #BlackWomenWillSaveUs and #ListenToBlackWomen, and it’s cloying coming from non-black people eager to let black women know that they’re agonizing over the overwhelmingly white candidates who will fill the December debate stage.
It’s true, the December debate will likely look very fucking white, and it’s appalling that billionaire latecomers like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have effectively bought their way to the debate stage. But as embarrassing as it is that the debate stage will not represent the racial diversity of the Democratic party, the truth is that most Democrats—of all races—have been supporting one white candidate or another since the primary season began. Despite articles and tweets clamoring about how inspiring Harris’s campaign has been for black women, the numbers haven’t really proven that: Black women overwhelmingly support Joe Biden, followed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Harris had the opportunity to convince black voters that their attachment to Biden was superficial, that she’s tougher than Warren, that she would be a more effective party leader than Sanders, and that she could sweep the floor with Trump in a debate. But after some tentatively promising numbers early on, she eventually fell flat. Something just wasn’t working, and it became hard to pinpoint what she could offer voters that would have been significantly better than what other candidates were selling.
There have been solid critiques of Harris navigating the racist landscape that she occupies and that white candidates take for granted. Professor Brittany Cooper made the argument that it would be difficult for Harris to run on the same kind of progressive platform that left-leaning candidates like Sanders or Warren have when “the right has constructed the welfare state as synonymous with a Black and Brown undeserving poor.” We don’t know how far left Harris’s politics are in her heart, or whether political calculus overwhelmed her desire to push leftward, and I’m uninterested in playing guessing games. But Cooper is right: The optics are different and it could be enough to make a campaign apprehensive of pushing too far on progressive reforms.
Still, at a time when unabashedly progressive black women politicians like Ayanna Pressley and Stacey Abrams can be taken seriously—and, in the case of Abrams, even make strides in a red state—it feels defeatist to lean on the specter of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen as justification for less progressive policy from a black woman running for president.
And it’s Pressley, Abrams, and the black women politicians who will follow in their footsteps that make the overly maudlin response to the end of Harris’s presidential campaign absolutely baffling. Harris will continue to be a successful and popular senator, and black voters—especially post-Obama—will use more than fictive kinship to steer their political decision making. This isn’t the end of black women’s presidential aspirations. This is the end of one black woman’s; it just so happened that not enough of us fucked with her vision.