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'Won't Stand for It': Women of Color Prepare for Biased Attacks on Kamala Harris

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Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris talks with Gov. Gavin Newsom near the Creek Fire burning outside Fresno on Sept. 15, 2020. (Alex Hall/KQED)

Days before Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden's running mate, a group called We Have Her Back sent a memo to news directors, editors, reporters and others putting them on notice about their coverage of the vice presidential nominee.

"Women have been subject to stereotypes and tropes about qualifications, leadership, looks, relationships and experience," they wrote. "Those stereotypes are often amplified and weaponized for Black and Brown women."

Among the leaders of the group is Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center Action Fund. She says their goal is to watchdog media coverage that relies on racial or gender stereotypes.

"Every single day in this campaign, journalists and opinion editors should be reminded that they actually have a role to actively ensure that their reporting and their content commentary is not sexist, is not racist," Graves said.

She said unless gender and race-based stereotypes used by the media against Harris are called out, "Then it becomes OK for a lot of other people. And that's why we had to name it for what it is and continue to say we have her back."

Shortly after Biden announced Harris was his pick, President Trump portrayed her as an extreme liberal who would support what he called socialized medicine and huge tax increases, neither of which Harris has endorsed. And on Harris’ role questioning Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump said, "She was nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing."

'Nasty' is a word Trump often uses to describe politicians and journalists, especially women of color.

Another offender, according to Graves, is conservative Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson. In his commentary one night, Carlson said, "America is indeed ready for a Black president. We elected one twice. But is America ready for a shallow and hectoring rich lady whose only real fans work at hedge funds and MSNBC?"

In an interview with a Democratic campaign operative, Carlson also seemed to deliberately mispronounced Harris’ first name and argued that saying it correctly didn't matter. Graves notes that the deliberate mangling of "Kamala" — which Trump also does — is quite intentional.

"I think that sort of mispronunciation is designed to 'other' her. It is designed to show that she is different," Graves said. "And it is designed to disrespect her. It is for sure racist and sexist."

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Graves said not correcting the mispronunciation would be a mistake.

"It sends a message to other women who may run for office, it sends a message frankly, to young women of color," Graves said.

Aimee Allison, who founded She the People to encourage women of color to enter politics, says the women who formed We Have Her Back realized those kinds of attacks are aimed at discouraging women from participating in politics.

"When there's an attack on Kamala Harris, there's an attack on 38 million of us women of color, and we're not gonna stand for it," Allison said.

In any case, Allison said the purpose of We Have Her Back isn’t to change the minds of voters who doubt Harris' qualifications — it’s to boost turnout of Democrats. And defending Harris is also a way of encouraging other candidates like her, Allison added.

A group called We Have Her Back is warning against the media using gender and race-based stereotypes toward vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. (Alex Hall/KQED)

That sentiment is shared by Alida Garcia, an activist in the Latina community who worked on Harris' 2010 campaign for attorney general.

Garcia notes that the Latinx community are often told to work hard, keep their head down and not be too ambitious. That charge of being "too ambitious" was leveled at Harris by some who didn't want Biden to choose her.

"It feels like it's an opportunity for all of us, not just for her. It's an opportunity for generations of Americans to see what leadership looks like in a way that is new and is different," Garcia said.

None of this is to say all criticism of Harris is racist or sexist. Fairly critiquing or attacking her policy positions, her record as district attorney or attorney general are all fair game. In fact, Graves welcomes that kind of scrutiny and says her group is just asking for Harris and other women to be treated the way men are.

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"It’s actually not that big of an ask when covering women candidates, deal with the substance, don't deal with the assorted stereotypes and tropes about their looks or likability," Graves said.

There is a lot on the line in the November election and voter turnout is everything — who votes and who doesn’t, Allison said. After the 2016 election, she and her allies aren’t taking anything for granted.

"In just over 50 days, women of color are going to turn out. And we're focused on having a conversation among each other about what that's going to take," Allison said. "It's not going to be Election Day. It's election season."

She says the goal of groups like hers is to get women in their networks to vote by mid-October and spend the final two weeks making sure their friends and family do, too.

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