California senator and vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris will walk onstage this evening with a critical task ahead of her: to make her case for the Biden presidency. Specifically, she will need to take the number-one issue on Americans’ minds — Covid-19 — and use it t prove the Democratic case.
On the surface, it seems like that shouldn’t be hard to do, given Trump’s history of dismissing the lethality and seriousness of the virus and his recent Covid diagnosis. Indeed, what she should emphasize is even more alarming is how the President coped with his diagnosis: showing a radical disregard for the health of those around him by coming back to the White House mask-free while still presumably infectious, as well as going for a Sunday photo-op outside Walter Reed Hospital in a closed car and then tweeting to his followers that they shouldn’t fear the virus. Nevertheless, sympathy among committed Trump voters is high and some conservative pundits have even begun to suggest that Trump’s “experience” in having Covid might somehow make him and Pence a better-equipped team during the pandemic than Biden and Harris.
It still looks like coronavirus might be an easy-issue win for Harris. The second task facing the California senator is much harder, however, and that’s to convince Trumplandia and other undecided subtly and not-so-subtly racist voters that a Black woman, however successful, intelligent and prepared, is just as capable as a white man of being vice president — or president, should the need arise.
Regardless of one’s take on her decisions as a politician – first as California’s Attorney General and later as a senator, Democratic presidential candidate and then running-mate pick – Kamala Harris has always been treated differently because she is a Black, south Asian American woman. Recent studies showed that at least 25 percent of the media coverage about her is either racist or sexist. Anticipating the trolling, supporters long ago started an online campaign to defend Harris from attacks, with the hashtag #wehaveherback. The organization Time’s Up, led by former Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen, wrote in a tweet posted Tuesday: “Sen. Harris is facing the kind of unfair coverage, double standards & coded language that has derailed the political ambitions of women, esp. WOC, for generations.”
And that’s just the more obvious attacks from the right. On the left, the “angry Black woman” trope is alive and well. In a recent BBC article which speculated about tonight’s event, for example, Harris was described as “a hardened former lawyer who has left congressional witnesses bloodied after tearing into them in Senate hearings”. Pence, on the other hand, was described in the same article as a “softly spoken, deeply religious man”. While I’m sure the writer’s intentions were good, the framing was not. And for the record, Harris identifies as Baptist and attends a Baptist church in San Francisco.
In another CNN op-ed, Harris was warned to “tone down the grandstanding”, while Pence was lauded as “solid, calm and reassuring”. Personally, I would describe him as the man with so little self-control that he won’t let himself have dinner with a woman if his wife isn’t present, but hey, why be negative?
This is certainly a historic debate – with both presidential candidates over 70 years old (Biden is 77 and Trump is 74 and sick with Covid), even if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic the winner’s age would still present an issue. Harris has to convince Americans that she’s up to the task of the presidency if Biden also was to get sick from Covid-19 or something else that rendered him unable to fulfill his executive duties. And Pence has to do the same, considering that “long Covid” is now an illness shown to have effects for months in some.
Convincing Democrats and undecided voters that Trump has no plan for the pandemic is an easy sell with over 200,000 dead and the President shamefully falling sick himself. But no matter how shiny and polished Senator Harris’s debate performance is tonight, no matter how well she walks the line of “smart but not too smart”, “assertive but not too assertive”, informed and confident but without “grandstanding”, the bias was stacked against her long before she walked into the room. She walks in with a much lower presumption of competency than Pence because of such prejudice — and she will have to work twice as hard to look like that “calm and reassuring” presence.
What we know is that her debating style is honed by years in the legal system, and that tends to appear sharper and more intellectually rigorous than Pence. She should be able to knock it out the park — and if she does so, she could steal the election for Biden, whose own debating technique against Trump was left wanting (even if the President looked like the real fool overall.) We just have to hope that enough of those watching aren’t blinded by what she looks like.