A recent story about Kamala Harris has unleashed a storm of controversy, with Harris’ defenders labeling her critics as sexist and racist, purity-politics-obsessed, privileged, whiny or just plain “stupid.”
Personally, I’m not in the “never Kamala” camp. An important part of organizing is pushing politicians and seeing how they respond, and in framing critiques in systemic terms that do not demonize individuals, especially women and people of color, who face double standards, racism and sexism. Also, let’s stop using the word shill because it’s become an overused cliche and sounds shrill.
But there’s another story here that’s less about Harris than it is about the way people are responding to her critics. And it’s part of a larger story in which a chorus of outraged pseudo-woke liberals use accusations of racism and sexism and smears like “Bernie Bro,” and the “Alt Left” to distort the actual Left into a movement of straight, white, men. The narrative ignores women and people of color or pathologizes them as self-loathing or tools of the patriarchy. Universal programs like single payer health care or even economic justice itself are discredited as inherently racist and sexist. Using the language of social justice, these liberals punch left at the very programs and policies that empower the people they claim to champion.
THE SHOT SHARED AROUND THE WORLD: OR THE ALLEGED HIT PIECE
The controversy began last week with a piece by journalist Andrew Joyce, which declared in its headline, “Democratic rising star Kamala Harris has a ‘Bernieland’ problem.” The media and some Democratic donors are already starting to treat Harris like a 2020 presidential candidate. But, Joyce warns,
not everyone on the progressive left is feeling Harris-fever, and if the Senator wants to win the Democratic presidential primary in three years, she’ll have to start making inroads with a growing grassroots movement that remains highly skeptical of Harris’s progressive bona fides.
Joyce presents Harris’ record as mixed, which it is. He credits her with “pushing back against the Obama administration during negotiations on a major settlement for homeowners and holding out for a better deal.” And, he points out, Harris opposed the nomination of Treasury Secretary and former Wall Street mogul Steve Mnuchin.
But, Joyce notes, as Attorney General of California, Harris refused to prosecute Mnuchin and his bank, even though her own prosecutors recommended she file a civil enforcement action over evidence of “widespread misconduct” they found. Harris, Joyce informs us, was the only 2016 Democratic Senate candidate who received a donation from Mnuchin.
Harris’ connection to Mnuchin gives some pause. Joyce cites three skeptics, all of whom are women and one of whom is a woman of color. Roseann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, describes Harris as “one of the people the Democratic party is putting up… In terms of where the progressives live, I don’t think there’s any ‘there’ there.” Nomiki Konst, a member of the DNC Reform Commission, warns, “follow the money. The Democrats will not win until they address income inequality, no matter how they dress up their next candidate… If that candidate is in bed with Wall Street, you may as well lay a tombstone out for the Democratic Party now.” Co-founder of People for Bernie Winnie Wong describes Harris as “the preferred candidate of extremely wealthy and out-of-touch Democratic party donors.”
Despite harsh criticisms, none writes Harris off completely. Wong, in fact, explicitly lays out what Harris would need to do to gain support from progressives and to actually make the Democrats a more successful party: “If she wants to advance her political career, she will have to come out authentically and honestly in support of universal healthcare, free college, a federal $15 hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform and the expansion of social security programs… Anything less than this means the party will continue to bleed voters.”
CALLING OUT MISOGYNY BY INVISIBLEIZING WOMEN
It’s not that Harris hasn’t and doesn’t face racism and sexism. But it’s a little infantilizing and sexist to suggest that three women critical of a person’s record are being driven by racism and misogyny and not their own politics. And yet that’s what some people did, like journalist and Clinton partisan Victoria Brownworth, who presents herself as a feminist and big time white ally. “Erasure,” appears in her twitter timeline 150 times, alongside other favorite words like “marginalization,” “invisible-ising” and “gaslighting.”
She also responded to the Harris piece by invisibleizing and erasing three women.
Kamala Harris, biracial senator & fmr AG of the most populous state, faces misogynist white men defaming her.’ Fixed your headline.
Brownworth’s employing feminist anti-racist language to literally erase the gender and ethnicity of three women she transforms into white men is not only cynical and dishonest; it’s hilarious unintentional self-parody. Because, it turns out, Brownworth is working on a book about… wait for it… erasure.
So, taking a page from her book, I took the liberty of fixing her tweet:
“white so-called feminist @vabvox invisibleizes 3 women,1 WOC, calling them misogynist white men.”
LEFTIST FEMINISTS: THEY’RE A LOT LIKE WHITE SUPREMACISTS
MSNBC’s Joy Reid also chimed in, and attempted to dismiss both the piece and the Harris critics it cites as irrelevant.
This piece would have been more convincing had it quoted Millennial voters, rather than 3 alt left activists.
Reid’s tweet would have been more convincing had she gotten the identities of the people in the article right. Though far less offensive than Brownworth’s misgendering, Reid missed that Konst, one of the three Harris critics cited, at age 33, is an indisputable millennial.
Reid is also wrong to call the three women “alt left activists.” The term Alt Left, coined by James Wolcott in a Vanity Fair piece that, of course, erased women on the Left, has turned into a smear that equates the part of the left that believes in things like #medicareForAll and raising the minimum wage with the part of the right which believes in things like white supremacy.
MAKE LAZY INSINUATIONS OF RACISM AND SEXISM
The article also provoked a twitter exchange between Tom Watson, who is such a fan of Hillary Clinton that he co-founded “Hillary Men” with Peter Daou, and Neera Tanden, the head of Center for American Progress, the largest liberal Think Tank, and a close Clinton ally. When Watson got word of the piece, he called out the racism and sexism for which he had no evidence,
“Something … woman … something … Democrat of color … something … Bernie wing not down with it #shocked.”
Not surprisingly, the tweet didn’t really catch fire. So Watson went back to work and dispatched another:
“Oh, it’s Nomiki Konst and RoseAnn DeMoro who are “skeptical” of Kamala Harris. Well, that’s it then. Pack it in.”
This one caught the attention of Tanden, who tweeted back “So odd, no, that these folks have if [sic] in for Kamala Harris and Cory Booker…. hhhhmmm,” she said.
“Yeah,” responded Watson. “And so early and virulently.” In a team effort, Tanden and Watson suggested the Bernie Wing, and people like Konst and DeMoro, pick on Black Democrats like Harris and Booker because, well, they’re sexist and racist.
If that’s true, then Watson is sexist and racist too. Because he has no problem attacking Nina Turner, which he has on multiple occasions, Ben Jealous, and, back in 2008, Barack Obama, whom he accused of having a messiah complex and criticized for not speaking out against what he called The Media’s Sexist Lynching of Hillary Clinton.
Once again, though, there’s a flaw in the logic. It’s hard to dismiss the Bernie Wing, Konst, DeMoro, or Wong as racists sexists hell-bent on destroying the political aspirations of politicians of color when they have all supported, rallied, and stumped for people like Keith Ellison, Nina Turner, Ben Jealous, Lucy Flores, and Khalid Kamau.
THROW WOMEN AND PEOPLE OF COLOR UNDER THE BUS
There is a reason Brownworth resorts to outright lies, Reid engages in smears and Watson and Tanden make illogical claims of racism and sexism. Their claims serve to insulate people from legitimate criticism, distract from the issues, smear the Left as privileged and spin neoliberalism as woke.
These are people who spent the primary attacking Sanders as racist and sexist and hailing Clinton as the champion of women and people of color. They still do. They cared more about what happened to Clinton that what happened to the majority of women in the country, let alone the world. They cared more about how Sanders spoke and how he wagged his fingers than they did about where the candidates came down on the issue on minimum wage. Anybody who claims to “center” women of color and people of color should support #FightForFifteen—the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. More than 50 million workers, or 44% of the workforce, earn below $15 per hour. And women make up more than half. A majority of Black workers and an even greater majority of Latino voters earn under $15 hourly.
Clinton had to be pushed to support the #FightFor15. By Sanders. The racist sexist. From Wikileaks we know how Tanden felt about the issue. In April 2015, NY mayor Bill deBlasio emailed Tanden and Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta a progressive agenda, which included the demand for $15 an hour. When Podesta asked Tanden, “should we care about this,” Tanden was hardly enthused.
“Substantively, we have not supported $15 — you will get a fair number of liberal economists who will say it will lose jobs,” she said, citing a talking point used by the Right. As for signing onto the rest of the progressive agenda, Tanden said, “Politically, we are not getting any pressure to join this from our end. I leave it to you guys to judge what that means for you. But I’m not sweating it.”
And that’s precisely the problem. Both off and on the record, through words and deeds, Tanden has resisted the #FightFor15, and other programs disproportionately affecting women and people of color, thereby throwing them under the bus. To be fair, Tanden wasn’t alone in “not sweating,” a progressive agenda, as we saw through the DNC’s platform drafting committee to which she had been appointed by Clinton. She and all the other Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz appointees, with the exception of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), fought Sanders’ appointees tooth and nail over the minimum wage (as well as a host of other issues.)
This week’s media and social media frenzy inspired by Joyce’s even-handed article is just the latest example of the hijacking of identity politics perfected during the 2016 primary. Bernie Sanders, along with any Dem who brought class to the agenda during the primary, was smeared—by people who claim to be intersectional in their analysis—as indifferent to the issues of race and gender and to the oppression of women and people of color. Sanders supporters were smeared as Bernie Bros—sexist, straight, privileged white men who erased, diminished, and disrespected all others. The sad irony is that this narrative erased the women, people of color, and LGBTQ people supporting Sanders. We simply didn’t exist, or if we were seen it was only as sad instances of self-loathing suck-ups to the white patriarchal order. Or we had weird grandpa issues.
Calling out the media’s discrediting of the Left, distortions of its goals and erasure of its membership is not a distraction. It’s a crucial part of the fight for racial justice and gender equality.
Katie Halper is a writer, radio show host, filmmaker, comedian and former history teacher who identifies as a feminist Bernie Bro. You can find her writing and videos at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice, and catch The Katie Halper Show on on WBAI Wednesdays at 7pm, the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes and extra bonus content at Patreon, and follow her on Twitter.