After Kamala: activists fear Democratic primary whitewash

The California senator pulled out this week and the next debate stage looks set to be minority-free. Progressives see a problem

When Democrats won a Senate seat in Alabama two years ago, their chairman declared that black women are the backbone of the Democratic party, and we cant take that for granted. #ThankBlackWomen began trending andthe backbone metaphor has been an applause line ever since.


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Yet when Democratic candidates for president debate in Los Angeles later this month, there will be no black women on stage following the sudden exit of Senator Kamala Harris of California. Unless something changes quickly, there will be no candidates of colour at all.

Its galling for people that are on the stage to not acknowledge and speak to black womens issues, said Aimee Allison, the founder and president of She the People, a network dedicated to elevating the political power of women of colour.

You dont have to be a black woman like Kamala Harris to carry issues important to us. But you do need to acknowledge youre not going to get anywhere without our vote.

In late 2017, 98% of black women who voted in Alabamas special Senate election cast their vote for Doug Jones over Roy Moore, a Republican accused of sexually assaulting multiple teenage girls while he was in his 30s.

Allison added: Remember, we black women were never acknowledged as the backbone of anything until it was irrefutable that we delivered the victory two weeks before Christmas in the special election in Alabama, in the deep south, where the Republicans had dominated for 25 years.

Donald Trumps Republican party has leaned into white identity politics. Democrats elected the most diverse candidates yet in the 2018 midterms, including the first two Muslim women in Congress. Their presidential primary also broke new ground: last June it featured six women, six people of colour and an openly gay man.

But the debate qualifying rules set by Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman who two years ago coined the backbone claim, are said by critics to have disadvantaged candidates of colour by putting too much emphasis on access to financial support. So far only white aspirants have met the polling and donor thresholds to participate in the 19 December debate.

Its a terrible look for the Democratic party, Allison said. Weve got a party thats half people of colour and 25% black. Women of colour are six times more likely to vote Democrat than a white guy. Women of colour are more likely to vote Democrat than white women because a majority of white women voted for Trump.

So we need a standard bearer for the Democratic party who speaks the language of solidarity, whos able to organise a multiracial coalition, and when you have an all white stage youre missing lived experience, expertise and policy that helps to both inspire and speak to the very people we need to turn out to win in 2020. Its a terrifying prospect.


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Harris and Cory Booker, two African American senators, are both in their 50s and should be in their prime. Yet they have trailed three white septuagenarians Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of a small city who would be the first US president under 40.

Harris made a flying start in January, drawing more than 22,000 to a rally in Oakland and raising a not-to-be-sneezed-at $12m in the first three months. Some dubbed her the female Obama and hoped she could rebuild the former presidents coalition, which may be essential to beating Trump.

But some observers argue that like other candidates of colour, Harris found herself subject to double standards. She was hammered for at first suggesting she supported abolishing private health insurance, then executing a U-turn and releasing a plan that preserved it. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, performed arguably an even bigger reversal with considerably less blowback.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris speak during the second Democratic primary debate, in Miami in June. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Harris also came under fire over a June debate in which she upbraided frontrunner Biden over his past opposition to school desegregation busing with an anecdote about her own experience that culminated: That little girl was me.

Leah Greenberg, the co-executive director of the grassroots movement Indivisible, said: When there was a very memorable exchange between Harris and Biden, a lot of the readout was about how Joe Biden was very hurt that he had been personally criticised on the debate stage, which is a very odd direction to go in considering that it is a debate.

When you look at things like the way that some of the post-debate spin has been covered, you definitely see some of the ways in which candidates of colour end up being received differently from white candidates.

Im not a billionaire

Throwing in the towel, Harris explained to supporters that she had run out of cash. In a parting shot at rivals Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who are spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads, she said: Im not a billionaire. I cant fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, its become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.

It was a theme taken up by Booker, who pointed out that currently more billionaires than black people have qualified for this months debate.

It is a problem when an immensely qualified, widely supported, truly accomplished black woman running to lead the party, a party that is significantly empowered by black women voters, didnt have the resources that she needed to continue here to Iowa, Booker said at a campaign event.

What message is that sending that we heralded the most diverse field in our history, and now were seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign not because Iowa voters had the voice? Voters did not determine her destiny.

People of colour, and women of colour in particular, face unique barriers to political fundraising and have to work harder to win over sceptical donors, Greenberg said.


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We see across the board that people raise concerns about candidates who do not fit the mould of what they think of as an electable candidate and given the biases of our society, given the ways that power is structured, were often thinking about electability in the mould of whos come before and that usually looks like a white guy with good hair and a lot of money.

Fundamentally, weve seen that in races at every level, that really talented and really impressive candidates can struggle when people are trying to apply their own inner pundit lens and say, Are they electable? rather than Am I excited about this candidate?

The vicious circles include media commentary, second guessing whether a woman of colour is seen as a viable commander-in-chief, all but one of whom have been white men since 1789.

LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: I think America has the image of a president that is traditionally a white male. We have been trained in this patriarchal framework to think we are in a crisis with Trump and the only way to beat him is with another white male.

Harris told New York magazine: Are there four words who would describe who I am? Theres no frame of reference. Like, we have terms for that guy. Hes the boy next door. Thats your uncle, whos at the Thanksgiving dinner, who does this thing and that. There are images. The girl next door, theres an image for that, too.

We should change who starts our primary

An additional factor is that the first caucus is held in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire, both overwhelmingly white states, skewering early polling and warping expectations. Candidate Julin Castro, a former US housing secretary who is Latino, has demanded reform.

Cory Booker speaks at the Teamsters Vote 2020 Presidential Candidate Forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Coby Owens, a civil rights activist and candidate for city council in Wilmington, Delaware, said: White candidates are going to do better in polling in Iowa and New Hampshire. We should change who starts our primary, not only so it looks more like the Democratic party but more like America.

In Harriss absence, the candidates who have qualified for the final debate of the year are Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, Steyer and Amy Klobuchar all of them white. Booker, Castro, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang are still striving to make it.

By contrast, a Republican debate in December 2015 included Ben Carson, who is African American, and senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Latino.

Owens said: Its a huge slap in the face to different demographics in the base of the party. It makes the Democratic party look weak if were not utilising our diversity of different identities and ideologies.

There hasnt been a single vote cast yet so to exclude people is really going to handicap the party. The party is going back to its good ol boys era and I think its going to hurt us in the long run.

Greenberg summed up the feelings of many in a tweet.

No matter your candidate, you have to recognize that going from the most diverse field ever in January to a potentially all-white debate stage in December is catastrophic, she wrote. The implicit racism and sexism of electability is deeply damaging to democracy.


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