Essence could have chosen to critically engage Kamala Harris’ campaign as a way to actually support and serve Black women.
By Vanessa Taylor
On Sunday evening, Yesha Callahan, Essence’s Editorial Director News, Politics & Issues, announced that Kamala Harris will now have a monthly feature on Essence. Called #KamalasCorner, Callahan described it as a space where Harris will “pen an op-ed to the readers of Essence”. Although the tweet ended with Callahan declaring Essence’s excitement, the announcement should be met with scrutiny.
The 2020 presidential candidates are no stranger to op-eds. Just last month, Elizabeth Warren wrote about the need to invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for Blavity. However, Essence is the first platform to extend a monthly feature to one of the presidential candidates. By doing so, Essence has essentially offered itself up as a PR playground for Harris’ campaign, rather than a platform that can offer real answers and accountability.
Often, supporters of Harris rely on shallow representational politics to counter criticism. The logic goes: if Harris is a Black woman running, and Essence is a site for Black women, then she has to have a column. As Callahan herself tweeted in response to criticism, “But that’s ok if you want to end up with another 4 of Trump or with 2 who are closer to going senile. But what we won’t do is ignore the top two women running.”
However, there are numerous issues with this type of thought. To start, Harris’ politics must be honestly and critically engaged with. Being a Black woman doesn’t mean that Harris is unable to harm other Black people or their communities, especially those who are marginalized in ways that Harris is not. For example, Harris opposed state-funded surgeries for incarcerated trans women while she was California’s Attorney General. Although Harris has since taken “full responsibility” for those legal briefs, when asked by the Washington Blade if she thinks trans inmates should receive state-funded surgery in general, Harris didn’t really answer the question.
In addition, Harris campaigned for tougher truancy laws which essentially only served to police marginalized families. At her 2011 inauguration, Harris said, “We are putting parents on notice. If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.” Many advocates pointed out that bringing police and jail time into the picture doesn’t solve truancy. It’s a punitive measurement that can be expected from a prosecutor, but it isn’t an adequate response to structural inequalities and their impact on families.
Regarding Harris as a savior of Black people simply because she’s Black ignores the scholars and activists who have warned against doing just that. After all, all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. But beyond Harris’ questionable political track record, Callahan’s tweet suggests that the only way to pay attention to Harris as a candidate is by essentially giving them complete narrative control. But, what does it say when you cannot fathom how to critically engage with politicians?
Essence has a dedicated pool of freelance journalists who are capable of interviewing Harris, analyzing her policies, consulting experts, the communities directly harmed, and more. Rather than handing Harris a monthly feature, Essence could have commissioned writers to engage with her campaign. It is not Essence’s job to serve as Harris’ “yes man”. Essence could have chosen to critically engage Harris’ campaign as a way to actually support and serve Black women.
Instead, Callahan recently sent an e-mail to Essence freelancers, saying that the site would no longer accept op-eds. The e-mail stated, “In studying the trends of what our readers consume, original reporting has a higher reach then op-eds.” Essence handing a monthly feature that consists of nothing but op-eds to Harris after the e-mail left a sour taste in many people’s mouths.
There is no real reason to let presidential candidates pen their own op-eds and handing any candidate a monthly feature is dangerous. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Essence has ignored criticism to prioritize a single politician on the basis of representation politics. In 2018, Essence included Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh on its “Woke 100” list. Essence described the list as intending to honor the women “who are proven change agents, shape-shifters and power players across the nation and beyond.”
However, Black activists and organizers in Baltimore have been very vocal about the dangers that Pugh poses to their communities. After running her 2016 campaign with a promise to raise the minimum wage, Pugh ultimately vetoed the bill that would do so in 2017. Her decision to do so directly impacted — and harmed — low-income communities within Baltimore, where 22.4% of people experience poverty. This year, Pugh resigned after it was revealed that she sold her children’s book series entities that the city itself has business deals with. According to the Baltimore Sun, Pugh made more than $800,000 from her books. The women selected for the Woke 100 list “continuously fight the good fight”, according to Essence.
Essence describes itself as “where Black girl magic comes alive”. But, this move to extend nearly unfettered audience access to a presidential candidate poses questions about who is regarded as magical. With this decision, Essence has made it clear that Black girl magic only rests with those closest to power. The Black girls who are harmed by Harris’ policies and actions cannot look to Essence for any sense of accountability anymore. They are nothing but collateral damage.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.
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