Harris is the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket and the only person on this year’s slate who is not a White man. Her identity has meant she’ll face built-in and unique pressures and challenges. Americans just aren’t used to seeing people like her at this level of politics, and Wednesday night will be one of the few times that she has the nation’s attention during a chaotic campaign, meaning all that pressure will come to a head here.
Harris is taking on a role that is familiar to many Black women in government, corporate America and other industries: that of being capable of attracting the support of Americans from diverse backgrounds without coming off as an “angry Black woman” and risking alienating White Americans. Biden has a significant national lead against an unpopular president, and Harris is now tasked with not denting that in the dwindling days of the campaign. She undoubtedly knew this would be the case. Wednesday night is a reminder of the unfair expectations and pressures historically put on Black women in politics and perhaps especially now as millions of Americans yearn for the end of a presidency that many believe is rooted in racism and sexism.
Trump began calling Harris “nasty” and “angry” almost immediately after Biden named her as his running mate is a reminder that there really is nothing Harris can do to avoid being stereotyped by those committed to reinforcing racist and sexist ideas. Trump’s history caricaturing other Black women critical of his politics — such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), media mogul Oprah Winfrey, journalist Jemele Hill and former national security adviser Susan E. Rice — made his attacks on Harris unsurprising.
“The words ‘nasty’ and ‘mean’ are much more pejorative when directed at a woman,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama, previously told The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker. “There’s this whole sense that women need to be likable, and when you say they’re nasty or mean, that is intended to cut them deeply, whereas men are not subjected to the same likability test.”
Perhaps Trump, who once donated thousands to Harris’s California attorney general campaign, knows that the lawmaker has the ability to win over voters.
Since officially clinching the nomination, Harris has been working to convince voters about the necessity of their support if Trump is to be removed from the White House. She is perhaps particularly equipped to improve the turnout among Black voters from 2016, given her identity and personal connection to Black institutions and communities. Last week, Harris visited Shaw University, a historically Black university in Raleigh, N.C., as well as hosted a roundtable with Black men hoping to improve support among two groups that weren’t as supportive of Biden — or Harris — in the primaries as the Democratic Party might need to capture the Oval Office.
But as attractive as Harris is to some voters, concerns remain that she could be off-putting to other sections of the demographics that the Biden and Trump campaigns are both targeting. She has mostly been deployed in swing states with sizable Black populations and more progressive voters such as North Carolina and Michigan. Her profile has been less significant in the states (such as Arizona and Florida) where former Trump supporters — many of them White and working class, and White seniors — could be key to a Biden victory.
Biden is leading in national polls, but concerns that stereotypes about Black women in leadership combined with racism, sexism and xenophobia might be insurmountable obstacles in the states — and with the voting blocs — that could determine the election. Being qualified has never been the real issue. Like Vice President Pence, Harris has a law degree and experience in Congress and in statewide elected positions. Disagreements about what a leader is — even of a country as diverse as America — have been at the foundation of the administration that followed the election of America’s first Black president.
Robyn Autry, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University, wrote an op-ed for NBC about how people — including American voters — view Black women in positions of leadership and influence.
While there’s some overlap, women of color are stereotyped differently from white women. While Harris is praised as a “gifted cross-examiner” who’s been known to fluster Trump allies, as with so many Black women her facial expressions, tone and body language are likely to be used to paint her as hostile and aggressive. Former first lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to this treatment, and neither am I, nor is any other Black woman working in predominantly white spaces.
The majority of White working-class voters — one of Trump’s most faithful voting blocs — said they backed him in 2016 out of their own fears about America’s changing demographics, according to Public Religion Research Institute. Shifts in gender roles, faith and values, and the ethnic makeup of various communities drew many of them to Trump, a candidate whose conviction is that it is the America of yesteryear that is “great.” Harris, a biracial woman born to parents from Jamaica and India who immigrated to the United States, is arguably a manifestation of the trends they disapprove of.
As polls have repeatedly revealed since Harris launched her own unsuccessful presidential campaign, her path to the most powerful rooms in Washington won’t be because of the backing of more conservative and White Americans. But in the final weeks until the election, the pressure to not make any missteps that could jeopardize her ticket’s standing with these voters could intensify as the campaign attracts more eyes and her opponents constantly seek opportunities to hurt her standing with these voters.