Senator Kamala Harris Drops Out: What It Means for Women of Colour

Kamala Harris was doubly disadvantaged in the US presidential race on account of her being a woman of colour.

Published10 Dec 2019, 10:15 AM IST
Opinion
5 min read

Kamala Devi Harris is not the first Indian-origin person to run for the highest political office in the United States (Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal had a short-lived Republican Presidential bid in 2016). Nonetheless, she is definitely the first Indian-origin woman whose message resonated with countless women and people of colour — polling fifth among the top-tier Democratic candidates.

Last Tuesday, she decided to end her campaign.

Senator Harris, a woman of many firsts, became the first Indian-origin and Jamaican-origin woman in American history, to run for the highest office in the country. She is also the first and only Indian-origin American to have ever been elected to the US Senate. Last week, she went viral on the internet for making dosas with writer and actor Mindy Kaling, and talking about their shared heritage as Indian-Americans.

What Caused Kamala Harris’s Campaign to Collapse?

For many years, political pundits have equated Harris to ‘a female Obama’. Earlier this year, her campaign announcement drew a crowd of around 20,000 people in Ohio. In the first debate, her questioning of the ex-Vice President and current front-runner Joe Biden on the issue of race, sent her leaping ahead in the polls.

Nevertheless, what started as a promising campaign could not retain its early momentum, and the polls had been steadily declining since.

Harris’s ‘electability’, confusing stances on important Democratic political issues, and the struggle with fundraising, are some of the reasons given for the fall of the campaign.

In the coming months, Harris may become the top Vice-President pick for many candidates. Last week, Joe Biden announced that he would “of course” consider Kamala to be his running mate.

“I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete,” wrote Harris in a Medium post explaining her decision to no longer run.

The US President Donald Trump reacted to his outspoken critic Harris' withdrawal with a mocking tweet: “Too bad. We will miss you.” Senator Harris clapped back at the President with her signature wit: “Don't worry, Mr President. I'll see you at the trial.”

Gender, Race and the Politics of Electability

Before she called off her campaign, Kamala Harris was the only non-white candidate to qualify for the December Democratic debate. The candidates that now remain are four white men (one self-financed billionaire) and one white woman Elizabeth Warren — a visual reminder of the politics of the nation.

“There are more billionaires than black people who've made it to the December debate stage,” said Cory Booker, an African American Presidential candidate, in an interview after Kamala's departure.

There is a large disparity in political representation by race and gender across America. Barack Obama is the only person of colour to have been elected to the office of the President and America is yet to elect its first woman president or even a black woman governor.

According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 71 percent of elected officials are men, 90 percent are white, and 65 percent are white men, even when women make up half the population, and 37 percent of the American population are people of colour. In comparison to women and people of colour, white men in America hold four times the political power.

The perception of electability remains a big hurdle for women and people of colour — even more so when the stakes are as high as beating President Trump in 2020. They not only affect the polls but also who gets the funds.

Just like the 2016 elections with Hillary Clinton, gender also continues to play a major role in determining the electability of candidates. Of the people who believe gender to be a major determinant of electability, 62 percent doubt that the American voters would vote for a woman candidate. Past research by Rebekah Herrick and Kim U Hoffman, Carrie Palmer and Ronald Keith Gaddie, has shown that women need to be “more qualified” and “raise more funds” to achieve the same electoral results as men.

The Glass Ceiling

Kamala Harris, being both a woman and a woman of colour, was doubly disadvantaged. It is best summed up by her recent interview:

“Are there four words who would describe who I am? There’s no frame of reference,” Harris said to the New York Magazine. “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.”

Fundraising, a factor also related to the voters’ perception of Senator Harris’s electability, became a major impediment to her campaign.

Harris reached fifth among the Democratic candidates in the second and third quarter, after starting as the second-largest fundraiser in the first quarter. By early November, Harris was already laying off her staff and struggling to keep her campaign afloat.

Sarah Bryner, the Research Director at the Center for Responsive Politics, and Grace Haley, the Center’s Gender and Race Researcher, find that black women face more disadvantages in fundraising, especially from large individual ‘political mega-donors’ who often tend to be white men. In their working paper Race, Gender, and Money in Politics: Campaign Finance and Federal Candidates in the 2018 Midterms, they also observe that black women raised the least amount of money in the 2018 midterm elections. The average black female candidate raised 46 percent less than the average white male candidate, and 55 percent less than the average white female candidate in the midterms.

Among women candidates, Bryner and Haley conclude that while white Democratic women get more from female donors than white Democratic men, it is not the same with Republican candidates who enjoy the same support from both genders.

Politics of Discrimination

As the campaign progressed, Senator Harris undeniably struggled to expound on the message of her campaign and explain her policy stances. In the 31 July debate, Harris had a tough time answering Tulsi Gabbard's questioning of her past as a criminal prosecutor and her support for anti-truancy legislation. Critics were quick to paint Harris complicit in the criminal injustice against people of colour, particularly black and brown men.

Some like The Atlantic's Peter Beinart and CNN's Rafia Zakaria have questioned the ‘progressive purity’ demanded of Kamala Harris, and why other candidates like ex-VP Joe Biden and the other centre-left candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg are not held to the same standards.

Furthermore, Kamala Harris could never fully articulate her position on ‘Medicare for All’.

She started her campaign with a vocal endorsement and co-sponsorship of another Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All’ bill. However, after increasing criticism, she reversed her position and revealed a new Medicare expansion plan with a continued role of private insurers and the long transition duration. Critics argued that she flip-flopped too often on the issue that has become central to the Democratic debates.

Additionally, many of her innovative ideas, like her education proposal to modernise the school day to match the work schedule of parents, got overshadowed by other news. The Harris campaign also suffered from major management and staffing problems, as revealed by a New York Times investigation.

Nevertheless, despite the end of her campaign, Senator Kamala Devi Harris has shown many women of colour across America, what their President could look like.

(Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Boston, USA. She specialises in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues. She tweets @BansariKamdar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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