Last weekend, Lucy Flores demonstrated extraordinary courage in speaking out in The Cut about her uncomfortable experience with then–Vice President Joe Biden. And then, just days later, he issued an unimpressive response. In a two-minute video, he did just what The Onion has made him famous for: trying to use charm to make a big problem seem small.
The truth is that this isn’t just about some inappropriate touching. (If Biden were truly contrite in offering his informal video response, perhaps his team could have skipped the all-out media assault on Flores.) What Flores speaks to is a much larger issue.
Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill while serving as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which asked for her testimony, is the first example of his tone-deafness toward women, specifically women of color. His disrespect of Hill inflicted deep pain on women of color at that time. From his refusal to allow testimony from witnesses who could have corroborated her story to his inability to control disrespect in the hearings, he was a key player in shaping how a generation of women approached the possibility (and severe discouragement) of coming forward on sexual harassment and assault. What’s more, his voting record against abortion rights has never fully been scrutinized.
We don’t need more explanations from him; we need an apology. More than that, we need a comprehensive plan for how he will address gender discrimination and racial inequality.
As Flores wrote in The Cut, Biden “stopped treating me like a peer the moment he touched me. Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful.”
As a woman of color, I know this story. I’ve lived that story, as have most women. We know what it means to be treated as less than, as an object, as non-credible.
Polling might put Biden near the front of the Democratic pack, but with women of color making up a massive percentage of the Democratic primary electorate in key early states, let’s not be too quick to judge how important it is for a candidate to address our real concerns to make it to the finish line. Women of color demand that candidates lead on racial and gender justice to win our support.
Women of color made up 19.3 percent of self-reported 2016 Democratic primary voters. In the 2018 midterms, nearly 88 percent of women of color voted Democratic, compared with only 38 percent of white men.
So while Biden’s missteps might seem like a media blip to political elites, and his explanation video sufficient, changing voting demographics, particularly women of color, could amplify this moment into something much bigger. That’s because women of color are paying attention not just to Flores; we are also remembering Hill. And we are now one of the most politically powerful constituencies in the Democratic base. This isn’t 1991 anymore.
We are also key deciders in several early states that will be critical in this crowded primary: According to data from She the People, in 2016 women of color accounted for roughly one-third of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina and nearly one-fifth in Nevada. And in the Super Tuesday prizes of California and Texas, the 2016 Democratic electorate was roughly one-fourth women of color.
Here’s the reality: No Democrat will win the nomination, or the White House, without female voters of color in 2020.
Pundits and political insiders—the vast majority of whom in the media are white and male—underestimate women of color in this moment at their own peril.
Our country can not afford a national leader, let alone a president, who is slow to react to and address entrenched and outdated power structures that favor white men over everyone else. Women of color demand equal representation, and we are voting as if our lives depend on it.
Biden might not be dead in the water, but his missteps should certainly be viewed as a cautionary tale for other contenders. Think big when it comes to courting women of color, because we could very well make or break your candidacy. That means apologizing and accounting for bad behavior and ensuring that those apologies come with plans to make things right.