This week’s presidential debate will be whiter and more male than Democratic voters—fired up by the 2018 midterm congressional elections and the most diverse field of presidential hopefuls ever—could have imagined at the start of 2019.
Had she remained in the race, Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) would have been one of two nonwhite people who’d qualified for tonight’s debate (the other is Andrew Yang, who’s never held elected office). But she dropped out of the race on December 3. Her campaign, as she explained, “simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.”
Harris’s problems weren’t limited to her fund-raising, of course. Low poll numbers, a reportedly disorganized campaign, and persistent criticism among some progressives of her track record as a prosecutor all contributed to her campaign’s demise. So did, however, weak coverage of her campaign in the press and a general discounting of the women candidates’ chances in this race. In April, Christina Case Bryant made that connection explicit. In the Christian Science Monitor, she wrote, gender bias “may be depriving the half-dozen women candidates of the media coverage they deserve, which at this stage in the race can dramatically influence their polling and fund-raising numbers,” she noted.
“No matter your candidate,” tweeted Leah Greenberg, a co–executive director of the national progressive group Indivisible, after Harris stepped down, “you have to recognize that going from the most diverse field ever in January to a potentially all-white debate stage in December is catastrophic. The implicit racism and sexism of ‘electability’ is deeply damaging to democracy.”
The diminished prospects (and in two cases, swift exits) of candidates like Harris, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro reflect how embedded whiteness and white male fraternity are in our politics, from the aforementioned media biases (political reporters are also disproportionately white and male, and have a demonstrable interest in candidates who are also white and male) to the complexities of campaign financing and donor fickleness.
To recap: While billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who entered the race in November, will be able to self-fund his new campaign, Castro has not been on the debate stage in months. Booker failed to clear the barrier for tonight’s event. Neither of the men, both nonwhite, has been able to raise enough money or garner enough support to make the cut. Gillibrand, like Harris, ended her campaign because she didn’t see a path to remain in the race. And over the past few months, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has suffered in the polls, even after a significant rise over the summer. Each week, it seems, there’s some new speculation on whether or not her affect and approach will make her too unlikable and unelectable for voters to support.
As critics have pointed out, those stories are published in the same publications that often lavish coverage on white men who remain in the race. (In April, media outlets gushed over Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s ability to speak Norwegian while seemingly ignoring Gillibrand’s complete fluency in Mandarin. And much has been made of the fact that Buttigieg was a Rhodes scholar, though far fewer have noted that Booker was too.)
Harris and Gillibrand both brought up issues, in their campaigning and during debates, that are less likely to be discussed in detail in their absence. Both women were unapologetic in their support of women’s reproductive freedom, for example, and both, in their advocacy, highlighted the relationship between systemic racism and sexism. Booker and Castro, who remain in the race but will not be on the debate stage, have also demonstrated a willingness to discuss women’s rights and how those issues are related to other concerns, such as immigration, mass incarceration, and gun violence.
During the first Democratic debate in June, for example, both Harris and Booker took former vice president Joe Biden to task over his history of opposing school busing. Harris took the lead in the confrontation, referencing her own childhood experiences with segregation. Her direct approach, as well as her ability to draw on a personal narrative, won the night. After the debate her poll numbers moved into double digits for the first and ultimately only time.
The issues that Gillibrand and Harris chose to adopt further reflected what feminists have maintained—that having women in a race doesn’t just bear on how we talk about so-called women’s issues, but also affects policies with a less obvious gender slant. When Harris unveiled a proposal to increase teacher pay using federal tax funds, for example, she was clear about the fact that 77% of teachers are women. And at the October debate, Harris noted that in all five of the previous Democratic debates “not nearly one word, with all of these discussions about health care, [was devoted to] women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today.”
“It’s outrageous,” she added.
After Harris’s withdrawal, both Booker and Castro publicly addressed the increasingly homogeneous Democratic field, noting the double standards that candidates of color and women encounter. “We started with one of the most diverse fields in our history,” tweeted Booker. “It’s a damn shame that the only African American woman in this race is no longer in it, and we’re spiraling toward a debate stage without a single person of color.”
As candidates, Booker, Castro, Gillibrand, and Harris drew on experiences seldom elevated to the level of presidential races. Can other candidates, who lack their perspectives, effectively incorporate their perspectives? And whether or not that’s possible, do the terms of the race itself need to change? Are, for example, the debate-qualifying criteria “neutral” or do these strictures reward “conventional” candidates and penalize others?
“Of course it’s different to run for president as a black woman,” Harris told a reporter during an Axios interview earlier this year. Later, she wondered, “Is America ready for a woman, and a woman of color, to be president of the United States?”
For now, the answer to her question is a depressing and resounding no.
A recent study conducted by the Women Leaders Global Forum and data consultancy firm Kantar revealed that Americans are less likely than voters in 10 peer countries to trust a woman as commander-in-chief. Men are particularly hostile to the idea of a woman president, with fewer than 50% saying they are comfortable with the idea. Similarly, racial bias leads most people to associate leadership with whiteness.
Maybe, in the absence of hopefuls like Gillibrand, Castro, Harris, and Booker, the remaining candidates can talk about that.
Soraya Chemaly is the director of the Women’s Media Speech Project. She is also a media critic and author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.
Originally Appeared on Glamour