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Kamala Harris is already facing sexist and racist attacks — and they'll only get worse

From a birther screed to critiques of her racial identity and performance of gender, the presumptive vice president nominee faces a rocky road.
Kamala Harris at a campaign event with Joe Biden in Wilmington
Kamala Harris at a campaign event with Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Immediately after the announcement Tuesday that Sen. Kamala Harris was Joe Biden's selection for the vice president's slot on the Democratic presidential ticket, the attacks and criticisms began flying across the web from conservatives and liberals alike. She’s "extraordinarily nasty." She’s "a cop." She’s too conservative — or she’s too liberal. She changes her mind constantly.

Funny how a competent, successful woman accomplishing something heretofore unprecedented seems to do that to people. If a white man had a backstory like Harris', conservatives would openly consider him a formidable opponent and worthy of at least some respect.

Harris’ story and rise to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president — and the first Asian American and the first Black woman on any ticket — should be a story about the first-generation child of immigrants rising to the top of the political world through intellect, strategy and wit. Instead, the quest to tear apart her identity, her accomplishments and every single one of her missteps will continue on both sides of the aisle and in the media until Election Day in November.

For instance, being of Jamaican and Indian descent has exacerbated criticism of Harris' record as district attorney of San Francisco and California state attorney general: She is not judged strictly on her accomplishments or failures in those roles, but on what she did or did not do on criminal justice reform as a Black woman in those roles — even though it's just as likely that, had she been seen at the time as acting on her identity in those roles, she never would have been elected to them at all.

We don’t often discuss how women like Harris face these kind of double-edged swords, or what compromises and struggles these dilemmas require of professional women in order to achieve success in their fields.

Harris, a California Democrat, is furthermore now being singled out by conservatives because she is a child of immigrants from Jamaica and Indian: In the toxic racial environment of America, a past which was once lauded as American exceptionalism is now a reason to revive birtherism — the same ahistoric, anti-constitutional thinking once intended to deny President Barak Obama his elected office because of his father's immigrant status.

A particularly despicable article in Newsweek inferred — without legal justification, in defiance of commonly understood constitutional law — that, as a result of her parents' immigrant backgrounds, Harris might well not qualify to be vice president. While Newsweek has issued an “apology” of sorts for the piece, while denying it qualified as birtherism, it will clearly be the start of more to come, especially given the imprimatur of Newsweek.

(Of course, Democrats and lefties have not been immune from debates intended to deny Harris' identity, with Desi Twitter both lauding and criticizing her, and Black people arguing over whether she is Black enough.)

Then there are the criticisms of Harris — as with Hillary Clinton before her — as being too apt to change her mind. As Peiter Beinart aptly wrote in The Atlantic, it is a false dichotomy to ask if Harris’ stance has changed because of political calculations or personal feelings. People can change, and we should want them to if they are wrong.

But the troubling aspect of this criticism when applied to Harris is that it is often meant to convey to voters that they can’t trust her because she flip-flops. But women — and especially women of color — are often deemed untrustworthy compared to men, and Black women are supposedly even more untrustworthy than white women. Repeating this canard about Harris because she chose to learn from criticism of her political positions plays into our implicit sexist and racist biases — and liberals especially ought to know better.

After all, the Twitter hashtag #TrustBlackWomen got started in part because of Black women’s political savvy during the 2017 Alabama Senate race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones and our understanding of which candidates are worthy of our votes. (Black women also overwhelmingly voted against Trump in 2016.)

If Harris were a man, there would assuredly be some of this scrutiny, but there would be less of it and it would come without much of the context and subtext that comes from her being a woman of color.

America, however, is one of the last remaining countries in the world to not have had a woman at its helm: Israel, India, the United Kingdom and Germany, among others have had women in the highest position in government. America, meanwhile, is still clearly roiling from having had exactly one African American president, having thereafter, with the overwhelming support of white people, elected a president who made his love for Confederate paraphernalia and its fans well known rather than a well-qualified white woman.

So, despite the common theme among professional pundits that Harris was a "safe" choice, the truth is that, in a country that has widely embraced open racism and sexism, she was truly not. She achieved her presumptive nomination because of her skills and intellect — as well as her publicly demonstrated ability to dissect through the lies of this administration. Her elevation at this moment serves as bridge between the old politics of the Democratic Party as represented by men like Biden and the newer, progressive politics of the party represented by women like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and others. (And, as a woman on the cusp of Gen X, Harris quite literally is a bridge between the Baby Boomer and millennial wings of the party.)

Kamala Harris is a woman of color, stepping up to serve a nation that has seemingly forgotten that it was built not only on a revolution against a tyrannical power, but on the tyranny of slavery and because of immigration. E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — does not apply to just men, and it never has. Women are an important part of the many here in America, and it is time that we have a woman near the top (if not quite yet at the top) of the executive branch.