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Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president

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Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president

Feb 25, 2024 | 4:17 am ET
By Susan J. Demas
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Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president
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Vice President Kamala Harris holds a roundtable at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Feb. 22, 2024, as part of her Fight for Reproductive Freedoms tour. (Photo by Andrew Roth)

When campaigning in her home state of South Carolina earlier this month, former Gov. Nikki Haley said the words millions of women have longed to hear: “We will have a female president of the United States.” 

But then the Republican’s speech took a much darker turn, as she added, “But the hard truth is it’s going to be me or [Vice President] Kamala Harris.” 

That was met by boos from the GOP crowd, presumably not because it’s in poor taste to declare President Joe Biden is going to kick the bucket soon, but because the prospect of Harris ascending to the Oval Office is so distasteful.

Former President Donald Trump, the current GOP frontrunner, managed to cram a whole lot of racist and sexist stereotypes into a 2020 rant about Harris for grilling his Supreme Court pick accused of sexual assault, Brett Kavanaugh, while she served on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

“And now, you have — a sort of — a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump said. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group and they were all angry. These are seriously ill people.”

While Republicans have never been big fans of the nation’s first female, Black and Asian-American VP, she also has a fair share of other detractors, from pundits who thought she lacked the experience to be Biden’s running mate to progressives who wanted him to tap someone in the orbit of U.S. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president
Kamala Harris takes selfies at an SEIU rally for security officers in Detroit, July 24, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Since Harris has taken office, there’s been a steady stream of stories about her being difficult, out of her depth and invisible (“Where’s Kamala?” is a running right-wing taunt) — all of which are pretty standard attacks against any powerful woman, especially a woman of color.

But that’s the thing about breaking barriers. You have to fight so much harder to be taken seriously at every step, with every move scrutinized and mocked. 

My world is far smaller and less significant than Harris’ is. But as a columnist and the first female political editor and publisher in the state, I’ve been subject to rape threats, creepy comments about my looks and repeated questions if my daddy really owned Inside Michigan Politics. I was even recently told that as a married woman, I’m responsible for what my husband says. And yes, some of those remarks came from so-called progressives.

In reality, Harris has been a strong partner to Biden on the world stage, delivering a powerful speech last week at the Munich Security Conference slamming Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “brutality” after opposition leader Alexei Nevalny’s death and decrying Trump’s nihilistic vision of authoritarianism and isolationism. She also gave a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Perhaps most significantly, Harris is the face of the administration’s reproductive rights policies, which was one of the top issues in the 2022 midterms where Dems defied conventional wisdom and thwarted the red wave. And with the Alabama Supreme Court ruling last week that frozen embryos are “children” — shutting down IVF at several clinics — it’s clear that reproductive rights will dominate the 2024 election, as well.

While some activists have criticized the hesitancy of Biden, a staunch Catholic, to even say the word “abortion,” Harris has no such qualms. As part of a nationwide tour, kicked off on what would have been the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, Harris traveled to Grand Rapids Thursday and declared that “this is an issue that is about fundamental freedoms and liberty and it is an issue about harm, real harm that is happening to people every day.”

So the 2024 presidential race has been a snoozefest in both parties, with Trump driving out almost all his competition even before the Iowa caucuses. Now Haley is the last person standing, but she wasn’t even able to eke out a victory in the independent-friendly New Hampshire primary.

We’re all but assured of another Trump vs. Biden election, which political analysts want as much as another pandemic. And many voters still don’t think that the rematch is going to happen, even though we’re headlong into primary season.

Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests during a rally at Clinton Middle School on January 06, 2024 in Clinton, Iowa. Iowa Republicans will be the first to select their party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential race when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trump, who plotted every which way to stay in office after his 2020 loss to Biden, stumbles into his third election with some serious baggage. His speeches, while always wrathful and rambling, have become increasingly difficult to follow, as he called his wife “Mercedes” on Saturday, has mixed up Haley and former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and seemed to think at several points that Barack Obama was still president. 

And then there are his legal woes.

The self-described billionaire faces 91 charges across four criminal cases, including trying to overturn the 2020 election, mishandling classified documents and falsifying business documents while paying “hush money” to adult film star Stormy Daniels. He’s already been found liable for sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll and is on the hook for $88 million for defaming her. And this month, a New York court ordered him to cough up roughly $450 million in his business fraud case.

But oddly, Biden is the one subject to more criticism that he’s unfit to run again. His cardinal sin? He’s old. And at 81, he is. He looks far older than he did when he first became vice president in 2009 (time will do that) and the stutter and verbal gaffes, which have always been part of the Biden package, are now viewed as sinister evidence of his declining mind.

Somehow, however, Biden has managed to ensure that the U.S. economy emerged from the pandemic stronger than any other world powers, make the biggest investment in fighting climate change in American history and keep Putin’s anti-west aggression at bay (unless the GOP House succeeds in sabotaging freedom).

Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president
President Joe Biden speaks about electric vehicle manufacturing during a stop at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Not bad for an old guy. It’s not fashionable to say these days (don’t try this on TikTok), but sometimes institutional knowledge can be a big asset. 

At almost 78, Trump isn’t exactly spry, but outlets like the New York Times tend to ignore his corpulence or alleged odor, instead weirdly asserting that his brassy hair dye and being “unnaturally tan” are youthful assets. “He uses his physicality to project strength in front of crowds. Speeches replete with macho rhetoric and bombast that typically last well over an hour in a display of stamina,” a recent NYT story gushes.

Portraying angry, garbled tirades from a wannabe dictator as a sign of virility is a rather disturbing endorsement of toxic masculinity from the paper of record.

Nonetheless, there’s zero talk of replacing Trump on the GOP ticket. Instead, there’s no shortage of far-flung fantasies about Biden dropping out a la LBJ in 1968, setting up a dramatic convention fight (ask your grandparents how that election turned out). 

That’s led to pundits playing their favorite parlor game: pontificating about who should run in Biden’s stead. There’s been plenty of swooning over Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Portraying angry, garbled tirades from a wannabe dictator as a sign of virility is a rather disturbing endorsement of toxic masculinity from the paper of record.

– Susan J. Demas

But Kamala Harris, the most obvious and qualified choice — she has been the second-most powerful leader in the nation for almost four years — rarely makes the list. Some point to her poor poll numbers, although no one knows how any Democrat would fare once they go from being a concept to a candidate. 

Others insist that Dems just can’t take their chances on Harris, but are usually loath to say (out loud) that it’s because of her race and gender. It’s maddeningly similar to arguments many made about Obama, who, for what it’s worth, went on to win the 2008 election in a rout.

As attorney Elie Mystal writes in The Nation, “You can get to the left of Harris, but the people floated as Biden replacements are not to her left. They’re just white. Their singular electoral advantage over Harris is their whiteness.”

The 2024 election is about the fight for our future, our multicultural democracy. Too many people already seem determined to forget that.

Susan J. Demas: Fear of a Black female president
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris observe a moment of reflection, Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. | Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz