Leah Hollis

The week of Aug. 9 brought the historic moment of a Black woman being named the vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in advance of the 2020 election.

Women of all races have fought and died for the right to participate in national political processes. Joe Biden’s panel of possible candidates for this vice presidential position reveals that he was inspired to nominate women from different regions, races and experiences.

Further, students, alumni, faculty and staff from Historical Black Colleges and Universities swell with pride that an HBCU graduate from Howard University is poised to join the nation’s executive branch. The new direction in American politics ignites an exuberance in populations that are typically ignored or forgotten.

While we celebrate this milestone, this prophetic letter of support forecasts a treacherous path to the White House for Sen. Kamala Harris.

Clearly, after the Democratic presidential debates where Harris truthfully told her then competitor Biden about her experiences with school busing, the world saw that Harris is a fighter. As a prosecutor and advocate, she knows how to stand her ground with poise.

With her nomination to the vice presidency, she will need those skills more than ever.

Like any woman of color in the spotlight, Harris will be met with countless trolls, bullies and miscreants. During this first week, not even seven days after her nomination, she has been hit with racist/sexist markers such as being “angry,” and “the meanest, most horrible, disrespectful senator.”

Her American citizenship already has been challenged, just as President Donald Trump challenged the citizenry of former President Barack Obama.

This initial treatment hurled at Harris in these first days of the campaign will only mushroom, continuing with trolls riding the recent wave of bad behavior. I do not wish such vilification upon anyone. Nonetheless, in our not too distant memory, Michelle Obama was the target of trolling in the media during her husband’s first campaign.

In July 2008, a sexist and racist cartoon of the Obamas appeared, mocking their greeting as a “terrorist fist bump” with then-candidate Obama donning a Middle Eastern headdress and Michelle Obama laden with machine guns and ammo.

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams spoke out about a racist robocall sent to constituents during her campaign to suppress voter participation.

Women of color in politics have been the constant targets of racist and sexist statements through cyber abuse, bullying and mobbing. For example, the president lead the verbal attacks against four progressive women of color who were elected to Congress – Reps. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts. Trump claimed that these women were not American and should return to their homes overseas.

Maxine Waters, a congresswoman from California, also has been the target of aggressively racist death threats. In the summer of 2018, Stephen Taubert, a 61-year-old white man, launched racist death threats at both Waters and Barack Obama. For his terroristic threats, Taubert, who also called a Capitol police officer a “boy” more than 30 times in an interview, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Events during the summer of 2020 illustrate that such racist and sexist behavior does not only emerge from the public at large. One’s colleagues construct pathways of incivility and disrespect.

Ted Yoho, a Republican congressman from Florida, called Ocasio-Cortez a derogatory name while coming down the capital stairs.

After Yoho misrepresented his character assassination of Osacio-Cortez to the press, she poignantly took the Congress floor the next day to give the following statement:

“What I do have is an issue with using women – our wives, our daughters – as shields and excuses for poor behavior. Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters. I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter, too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of this House toward me on television. And I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men. What Mr. Yoho did has permitted men to use that language against their daughters. ... Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. This kind of language is not new. I have tossed men out of bars that have used language like Mr. Yoho’s. ... This is not new, and that is the problem.”

A familiar cliché notes, past behavior predicts future performance. The performance of too many people in reaction to women of color in politics has exuded incredibly violent and disrespectful behavior. These instances not only disparage the women in the aforementioned scenarios, these examples chronicle a lapse in humanitarian behavior for those who perpetrate such aggression and incivility.

One may ponder: What part brings this vitriolic hatred – the race, the gender, the age? These women politicians are at the intersections of a diversity of demographic markers and remain in the crosshairs of constant incivility. Perhaps the bullies and trolls motivated by hateful xenophobia do not recognize that while these women have proven they are resilient enough to withstand such attacks, the damaging language erodes the general civility in our communities.

I could continue with other women of color in various sectors – such as Venus Williams, Megan Markle, Leslie Jones – who have endured and continue to deal with racist and misogynist hostility in the press. Though I have every confidence that Harris will continue with the same poise and determination that she has exuded in this campaign season, I see she, like most women of color, will need to transcend this tremendous gulf of bullying behaviors and racist/sexist slurs to emerge victorious on the other side.

Leah P. Hollis is an associate professor at Morgan State University, and a board member with the Johnstown African American Heritage Society.

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