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 can’t take that for granted”. #ThankBlackWomen began trending and the “backbone” metaphor has been an applause line ever since.
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.
“It’s galling for people that are on the stage to not acknowledge and speak to black women’s 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 don’t have to be a black woman like Kamala Harris to carry issues important to us. But you do need to acknowledge you’re not going to get anywhere without our vote.”
In late 2017, 98% of black women who voted in Alabama’s 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 Trump’s 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.
“It’s a terrible look for the Democratic party,” Allison said. “We’ve got a party that’s 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, who’s able to organise a multiracial coalition, and when you have an all white stage you’re 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. It’s a terrifying prospect.”
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 president’s 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.
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.”
‘I’m 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: “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s 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 month’s 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, didn’t 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 we’re 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.
“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, we’re often thinking about electability in the mould of who’s come before and that usually looks like a white guy with good hair and a lot of money.
“Fundamentally, we’ve 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? There’s no frame of reference. Like, we have terms for that guy. He’s the boy next door. That’s your uncle, who’s at the Thanksgiving dinner, who does this thing and that. There are images. The girl next door, there’s 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 Julián Castro, a former US housing secretary who is Latino, has demanded reform.
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 Harris’s 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: “It’s a huge slap in the face to different demographics in the base of the party. It makes the Democratic party look weak if we’re not utilising our diversity of different identities and ideologies.
“There hasn’t 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 it’s 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.”