President Donald Trump quickly jumped on the offensive against Sen. Kamala Harris following last week’s announcement that she would be Joe Biden’s running mate, with the president and his allies seeming to lean into persistent stereotypes of Black women that are seen to undercut their ambition or assertion of power.
During an interview last week with Fox Business network anchor Maria Bartiromo, Trump launched into a bevy of attacks on women he’s deemed his top 2020 targets of the election season. He said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., “goes out and she yaps,” was “not even a smart person” and called her a poor student. He also said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was “ stone-cold crazy.”
Yet, his distaste for Harris, who identifies as Black and Indian American, stood out as he took most of his time to assail the senator’s character.
"And now, you have — a sort of — a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told Bartiromo. “I mean, I've never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group and they were all angry. ... These are seriously ill people." He was referring to Harris’ pointed questioning toward Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, after sexual assault allegations from a professor, Christine Blasey Ford, surfaced.
The “mad woman” remarks followed comments Trump made to White House pool reporters the day before. Trump called Harris a “nasty” woman and said she was “probably nastier than even Pocahontas to Joe Biden” during the Democratic debates, referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Trump’s remarks raised eyebrows for their depiction of a Black woman as inherently and irredeemably “angry,” a trope that encourages people to dismiss the qualifications of a candidate or the otherwise valid political criticisms they raise.
According to Tamara Winfrey Harris (no relation to the senator from California), author of "The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America," the stereotype is rooted in ideas from slavery and has persisted to the present day.
“The idea emerged when Black women in this country were enslaved that we were harder and heartier than other women,” she said. “At the time, the idea was that [white] women are delicate and need to be protected, but Black women were expected to work in the field alongside men and as hard as men, so there was this idea that Black women were sturdier and less feminine than other women.”
She added that it became even more of a fixture in the mid-20th century turning into a character trope known as the “Sapphire,” based on a character of the same name on the show, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Sapphire, Winfrey Harris said, was portrayed as nagging and aggressive, which played into this stereotype.
“It causes Black women, especially if they’re navigating in a mainstream space, to shrink themselves to not get that blowback.” She added, “Sometimes, it results in staying quiet when we have every right to speak out, to swallowing our anger when we should be angry.”
Trump’s “mad woman” quips are hardly the first time he or other GOP operatives have deployed the “angry Black woman” trope, with some elected officials other than Harris being dismissed as uncouth while their white male counterparts largely evade similar characterizations.
In 2018, after Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., denied any involvement by her staff in a data breach that included the personal information of some U.S. senators, Ari Fleischer, who was the White House press secretary under former President George W. Bush, tweeted that her denial was “angry” and “suggests she doesn’t have the temperament to be a Member of Congress.” Yet in the same week, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and others repeatedly affirmed Kavanaugh’s “right to be angry” over the sexual assault allegations.
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On several occasions, Waters, a frequent and vociferous Trump critic, has been described by the president as a “low IQ” individual whose “crazy rants” make her an unhinged face of the Democratic Party. In similar fashion, Trump also levied insults at Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., after she criticized the president for being insensitive during a call with Myeshia Johnson, a whose husband, an Army sergeant, was killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017. The president called Wilson “wacky,” and John Kelly, then-White House chief of staff, followed by describing Wilson as an “empty barrel.”
As for Harris, Trump’s campaign maintains that his attacks on the Democratic vice presidential pick have no racist ties. Notably, Trump and his daughter Ivanka donated a combined $8,000 to then-prosecutor Harris when she ran for California attorney general. On Tuesday evening, Trump senior adviser Katrina Pierson noted that the past contribution should neutralize any accusations of prejudice.
“I’ll note that Kamala Harris is a Black woman and he donated to her campaign,” Pierson told reporters, “so I hope we can squash this racism argument now.”