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Activists who defended VP Harris now mobilizing for Supreme Court pick

Black activists and women’s groups banded together when Harris was targeted by racist or sexist attacks. Now they are organizing in anticipation of Biden picking a Black woman to sit on the high court.

U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is among the prospects President Biden is considering for his upcoming Supreme Court pick. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Black activists and women’s groups that banded together to protect Kamala D. Harris from racist and sexist attacks before and after the 2020 election are remobilizing for the battle over President Biden’s upcoming Supreme Court nomination, concerned that the president’s pledge to pick a Black woman has sparked racially charged challenges that are already impacting potential candidates.

UltraViolet, a women’s rights group, will announce Monday it is reactivating the Women’s Disinformation Defense Project — launched during Biden’s search for a vice president — to combat racist posts on social media. The She Will Rise initiative, which has worked to establish a Black woman on the high court since before Biden was elected, is also stepping up efforts on behalf of the prospective nominee. The Black Women’s Roundtable is planning a rally at the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington and regular huddles with the White House, among other actions.

“If you are not thinking about the next vacancy until the vacancy arises, you’re about 10 years late,” said Kim Tignor, who helped found She Will Rise. “So we thought that it was really important for communities of color to be thinking about the shortlist constantly.”

The efforts, which also involve numerous other groups, reflect the turbulent politics surrounding the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, whom Biden plans to pick by month’s end. Civil rights groups note that this will be only the eighth person in the court’s more than two centuries of history who is not a White man, but some Republicans are casting Biden’s pledge as a form of racial tokenism.

President Biden is committed to his campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Here’s a list of his top contenders. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

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Some of the back-and-forth is reminiscent of the emotions that surrounded Biden’s choice of Harris. Then-Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) mocked her name at a rally, calling her “Ka-ma-la, Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever” — a line that Democrats called racist but Perdue’s office said was a simple mispronunciation.

“Unfortunately as we break these glass ceilings, women of color, and specifically Black women, have always had a tough battle,” said Melanie Campbell, who leads the Black Women’s Roundtable and has long pushed for Black women in high positions. “In the climate we’re in, we don’t assume anything is going to be easy. It’d be great if it was.”

Some activists privately worry Biden and the Democratic Party are not moving fast enough to name the nominee and push her through, repeating what they say is a mistake made during Biden’s drawn-out process for selecting a running mate, which gave detractors time to marshal their attacks.

“I hope they’re prepared to move quickly,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, who rallied support for Harris and is also part of a coalition backing Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court. “We’ve been already seeing efforts to diminish a nominee who has not yet been named.”

Some conservatives argue that Biden is engaging in racial discrimination by declining to consider candidates who are not Black women. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) recently called Biden’s pledge “offensive” and an “insult to Black women,” saying it tells the rest of the population they don’t matter.

Conservative academic Ilya Shapiro said on Twitter that because Sri Srinivasan, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was the “objectively best pick,” Biden’s nominee would be a “lesser black woman” and “will always have an asterisk attached” to her name. He later apologized and deleted the tweets.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced last month that he would retire at the end of the Supreme Court’s term this summer. Among those being considered as his replacement are Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Leondra Kruger, who sits on the California Supreme Court; and U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs of South Carolina.

All have extensive legal experience. Jackson is a former public defender and member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission; Kruger served in the U.S. Justice Department, arguing 12 cases before the Supreme Court; and Childs was a state judge and received high-level gubernatorial appointments. All also spent time in private practice.

The White House argues that there are numerous highly qualified Black women, but that for two centuries only White men were considered for the Supreme Court. There has never been a Black woman on the high court.

“The fact that no Black woman has been nominated shows a deficiency of the past selection processes, not a lack of qualified candidates to be nominated to the Supreme Court,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month. “ … And so the president’s view is that it is long past time to have a Black woman on the Supreme Court.”

Those who went through Biden’s running-mate process agree that speed is crucial.

“You’re interviewing for a job, so do you want your employer to call sooner? Absolutely,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta, who was considered by Biden in the vice-presidential process. Still, she added, “your employer has the right to take as much time as they want to take.”

The activists are reactivating Slack channels, Google groups and Signal chains that helped them coordinate and push back against what they saw as racist and misogynistic attacks against Harris.

In a sense, the effort never stopped. Since Biden’s inauguration, several groups have been closely monitoring attacks on nominees of color for lower-profile slots, pushing back when they see what they consider dog-whistle language or viral misinformation.

During a hearing for Andre Mathis, nominated by Biden to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asserted that he had “a rap sheet with a laundry list of citations.” She was referring to decade-old traffic tickets and framed it as a legitimate issue concerning a judicial nominee, but Mathis’s supporters saw the comment as a racially charged effort to characterize a Black man as a criminal.

“The tactics very, very, very quickly spread,” Tignor said, requiring an equally rapid response.

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The groups involved in the Women’s Disinformation Defense Project include Higher Heights, Media Matters, NARAL, Planned Parenthood and Women’s March, among others, according to a preview of the plan sent to The Washington Post.

The coalition is reissuing a media guide it sent out in 2020 during the vice-presidential process, updated for the Supreme Court nomination.

Tips include a recommendation that news organizations avoid using the word “radical” to describe a person of color, saying it “is a catchall phrase often used to undermine people of color by implying that people of color are too different from the White norm to be trusted.”

The groups also warn that referring to Biden’s decision as “affirmative action” is a trope that ignores a larger reality, which is, as they put it, “that qualified Black women have been kept off the court for over a century.”

One tricky call is determining when exactly to call out an attack, since doing so can amplify and spread it. To make this determination, the groups developed a “threat matrix” to assess how quickly an attack is spreading online and whether it is sufficiently piercing through to a wider audience that it needs to be addressed.

“In some ways, sometimes it is a judgment call,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet.

She recalled one particularly inappropriate image, focusing on Harris’s dating history, that was ultimately taken down. “Unfortunately, it was having a real impact,” Thomas said.

In an interview, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who was vetted by Biden as a potential running mate, said she turned to her competitors for support at times. Bass, along with Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Susan Rice, a former ambassador to the United Nations, would text one another when negative news stories came out.

Messages were jokey and supportive. “ ‘Your turn! Your turn to get hit!’ ” Bass recalled them saying to each other after a critical article. “ ‘I guess they’re after you this week.’ ”

Toward the end of the selection process, Bass noticed that a narrative had developed suggesting animosity between her and Harris, a U.S. senator from her home state. Bass discussed it with Harris when they both attended a memorial service for Rep. John Lewis in Washington, assuring Harris it wasn’t true.

“I just said, ‘You know, I’m standing with you, and I’m not going to let anybody pit us against each other,’ ” Bass recalled.

Bass, who is now campaigning for mayor of Los Angeles, said that the process has helped her in her current race and that Angelenos come up to her and remember that she was under consideration.

Bottoms, the former Atlanta mayor, said the women under consideration should be prepared for some bruising. “No one said it would be easy, no one said that it would be pleasant,” she said in an interview.

Bottoms added that she, too, ultimately benefited from being in contention to be Biden’s running mate. “I grew tremendously just by going through that process,” she said. “It also elevates you professionally because there are more people who take notice of you who otherwise may not have even have known your name.”

Demings, the Florida congresswoman, is seeking to oust GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. One of her supporters, John Morgan, a Democratic donor, credited the exposure of the running-mate search with helping her significantly outraise other Democratic hopefuls.

Demings has raised more than $20 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while the next closest Democratic candidate has brought in less than $1 million. That also puts her far ahead of Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who had raised about $5 million for his Florida gubernatorial bid as of December, according to local news reports.

“I know at the end Val thought the whole process had been very good for her,” Morgan said. “I believe that national push that she got from Biden is resulting in a lot of this money that’s coming to her early in this race.” Demings declined to be interviewed for this article.

The strategists who are readying for attacks are also trying to keep some perspective.

“This is a historic moment for our country,” said Karen Finney, a member of Ultraviolet’s board of directors who was a spokeswoman on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “It is a joyful moment that should engender pride in all of us.”