In accusations of being too ambitious, some Black women see a double standard

The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey wrote about reports from several media outlets that some campaign insiders have expressed concern about Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is on Biden’s shortlist for vice president. They have done so with the intent of promoting other Black women being considered, such as Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

In recent days a Politico report surfaced that former senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is on Biden’s vice-presidential vetting panel, told donors that Sen. Kamala D. Harris “had no remorse” for her attacks on Biden while on a debate stage. One donor implied to CNBC that Harris has too much “ambition.” And former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Biden friend, told CNN that Harris can “rub people the wrong way.”

“It bugs me that people want to pit these two Black women against the other,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a key Biden confidant, told Linskey. “Nobody is trying to pit [Massachusetts U.S.] Sen. Elizabeth Warren against [Michigan Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer. And both of their names are being mentioned every day as being in the search.”

“It is messier than it should be because somebody is trying to create a story,” Clyburn added.

That stories about ambition appear to be less prevalent when discussing women interested in the No. 2 spot who are not Black is often about who gets to have ambition in the political world and who doesn’t, said Keneshia Grant, a political science professor at Howard University.

“This worry about ambition or worry about running for VP is not part of the narrative we’ve heard about Warren, Whitmer or [Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy] Klobuchar although it would seem to be the case that they, too, would have ambition,” she told The Fix. “This narrative that explicitly puts Sen. Kamala Harris in a special place to suggest that her ambition is wrong or not welcomed is problematic. And I think it signals a worry about a Black woman president and whether it’s time for a Black woman president.”

To some voters, interest in the vice presidency is not just about whom Biden could pass the baton to, but also fears about the direction of a country led by someone from demographic groups not historically represented at the highest levels of government.

“In this instance, I think they have something in their minds about who is supposed to be next or whatever’s supposed to happen after Biden, and Harris troubles that narrative,” Grant added. “I think ‘ambitious’ is a ruse. I don’t think they care about ambition. I think she is trying to do something that they don’t want to see.”

The idea that Harris or another Black woman might not fit some insiders’ idea of what a vice president should be is a worldview that has led some Black women seeking political office to assert themselves in ways that seem, in fact, to be too ambitious. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is said to have been extremely vocal about her desire to be Biden’s running mate even before he became the presumptive nominee because if she did not aggressively pursue the position, she would be overlooked. For many Black women, asserting oneself in an environment where White men are more often than not the gatekeepers is one of the only ways to ensure that you are considered, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an organization focused on increasing Black voter turnout.

“Ambitious women have always been a problem for those who have wanted to maintain the status quo — the White male patriarchal power structure,” she told The Fix. “The interesting piece though about this is that if Black women didn’t have a measure of ambition, there is no way that we would be able to navigate the highly patriarchal environment that we’ve been forced to endure since arriving on these shores as enslaved Africans.”

“Part of that ambition is driven by our innate ability to survive and be on the vanguard of democracy and social change,” Brown added, before noting how Black women throughout history, including abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first Black woman to run for a major party’s presidential nomination, were driven by ambition.

But the idea that ambition is inherently negative and something unique to women in general is ahistoric at this level of politics. To have ambition is a common trait of anyone seeking to be the second most powerful person in the world, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, recently told The Post’s Jonathan Capehart.

“What vice president of the United States in our nation’s history wasn’t ambitious,” she asked. “What vice president didn’t want to be president? All of the men did. So why do we have a different standard for the women?”

Reporting on how some in Biden’s world may be responding to Harris is a reminder of the challenges that women — particularly Black women — continue to face even within spaces that are supposed to be the most inclusive on matters of diversity. Black women have been quite vocal about the need to push back against the Trump presidency because of accusations of rampant sexism and racism coming from the very top of the administration. But reports that accusations of ambition are being used to pit Black women against one another within the party that consistently wins Black women’s votes is a reminder of the work still to be done to combat racism and sexism within more liberal spaces.