Kamala Harris waving while wearing a blazer
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Fear of a Second Black President

Four years of attacks against Kamala Harris aren't lessening, they're picking up. I wonder why?

When Kamala Harris was a U.S. senator and sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she established a well-earned reputation for being formidable. Nobody wanted to face Harris' fierce questioning—witnesses left flustered and babbling included Bill Barr, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, and Brett Kavanaugh. Harris, the former Attorney General from California, proved herself intelligent, prepared, and a rising star in the Democratic party. Some believed, however, that she was rising a bit too fast.

Harris' political ascent was meteoric. She served two terms as a district attorney in San Francisco before being elected attorney general in the Golden State. In 2017, Kamala became a U.S. Senator following the 2016 election; she was endorsed by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Once a senator, though, she was the junior member of those serving on the Judiciary Committee. Harris became its most visible presence. Her interrogations were what people came to see.

Kamala threw her hat into the ring for president in 2019. She'd served just one term as senator, just as Obama had done before taking the Oval Office himself. A crowd of more than 20,000 people watched as Harris announced her bid. She would be competing against several candidates in the Democratic primaries, including former Vice President Biden.

Harris' announcement was generally well-received by Democrats. On the other hand, many Republicans despised her. There was some grumbling about her not waiting her turn. Eleven days later, Cory Booker also joined the race, making him the second Black candidate besides Harris. Neither Harris nor Booker did exceedingly well in the polling, but many believed their votes would take away from those of Biden, aiding fellow Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. It was then that South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn made the first of two big moves to support Biden by dissing the two Black candidates in the race:

  • “Booker and Harris have been a little bit of amazement to me as well, because I thought for sure that there would be much more of a surge and I can’t quite figure that out yet.”

    “Of course, I just thought Kamala because this just seemed to be the year of the Black woman. I thought she would be surging a little more than she is.”

    “I think Booker is suffering from the shadows, coming out from under the shadows of Barack Obama.”

A week later, the televised debates began. Kamala took on Joe Biden, asking him to explain his collaboration with and support of segregationists and his opposition to school busing to achieve integration. Harris had attacked the Democratic favorite, and there would be repercussions.

Harris picked up considerable support after the debate, rising from 8 percent to 17 percent in the polls. She garnered financial support, raising $2 million in the first 24 hours after the debate. She picked up endorsements from several members of the Congressional Black Caucus and much of the California delegation. Her fundraising was going well through the third quarter, and things were looking good. But despite the endorsements, she collected enemies within the party—some within her campaign.

While campaigning in Iowa over Thanksgiving weekend, a New York Times article described Kamala as an "uneven campaigner" and anonymously quoted several staffers about the various factions within her camp and the lack of funds that almost every campaign experiences. Harris was labeled ineffective and weak. It was the Democrats delivering the blows. ("You can't run the country if you can't run your campaign,” Gil Duran, Harris' former aide, told the New York Times) Four days after the article's publication, Harris suspended her presidential campaign, citing a lack of funds.

Once eliminated from the race, Kamala was welcomed back into the fold, as she still had many supporters. Whoever ultimately became the Democratic nominee would need her full-throated support if Trump were to be defeated. Biden struggled in the first three Democratic primaries and was in danger of watching his presidential hopes expire when the fourth primary came to South Carolina. James Clyburn stepped in again—breaking his vow not to endorse any candidate—and supported Biden. It was enough to give Biden a resounding victory heading into Super Tuesday. His wins there were enough to convince others to drop out, giving Biden the Democratic nomination. His next decision was who to select for a running mate.

All of the reasons Harris was feared as a candidate made her an excellent nominee for vice president. She had charisma and support and was a conduit to the Black vote—especially Black women who many believe are the Democratic party's most dependable voters. Harris garnered support from Black voters, including HBCU grads and members of the Divine Nine, the Black Greek letter organizations. The attacks on Harris now came from the Republican party, which only four years earlier saw the end of the eight-year reign of the nation's first Black president.

Republicans condemned Harris' record as a San Francisco prosecutor, claiming she was both too soft and too hard. They attacked her as ultra-liberal and an enemy of the progressives. It was the first time the idea floated that if Biden died while in office, we'd be left with a President Kamala Harris, which we were all to believe would be something to fear.

Once installed as vice president, Harris' enemies on both sides never relented. When Harris was given a significant role in immigration policy, she was attacked by Republicans for not personally solving a decades-long problem. Democrats piled on with a steady drip of leaks about Kamala's staff's complaints and her unsuitability for office. Perhaps the Democrats were associated with potential candidates for president who watched Kamala skip to the front of the line. Maybe they resented her calling out Biden and the Democratic party for bigoted deeds of the past. After all, Democrats can be as evasive about past racist measures just as Republicans try clinging to a glorious past that doesn't apply to the GOP's current configuration.

The field for the 2024 presidential election is shaping up. No realistic Democratic contender has come forward, and Kamala Harris is certain to be Biden's running mate again when they face the Republican challenger. Republicans have spent the past four years denouncing Harris's effectiveness, while Democrats have done little to support her. As the Republican focus has turned to Biden's age, some have come straight out and said there's no way he survives a second term and that to re-elect Biden is to slide Kamala Harris into the presidency.

For her part, Kamala Harris has mostly done what vice presidents do. She has remained loyal and quiet. She hasn't gone rogue to promote her visibility. She's supported official policy and not secretly exposed any differences between herself and Biden. She took attacks mostly in silence. She didn't lead on those who suggested she might run against Biden in 2024. Harris supported the Democratic party, even when it didn't support her.

The reasons for negativity sent Harris' way has various causes. Jealousy, envy, misogyny, and racism come to mind. I don't know how to rate the issues. I know the whitelash to the last time we had a Black president, and I have an idea of the percentage of voters who couldn't bring themselves to pull the lever to support a woman. The four years and counting of attacks against Harris aren't lessening, they're picking up. I wonder why?

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.