What Does This Country Demand of Black Women in Politics?

WASHINGTON — The first black woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, considers Senator Kamala Harris something of a political soul mate. When Ms. Harris announced her White House bid in Oakland, Calif., in January, Ms. Breed was one of the 20,000 supporters there loudly celebrating, and she endorsed the campaign from the beginning.

But in the days since Ms. Harris dropped out of the race last week, Ms. Breed has been reflecting on the moments that were less celebratory, like the questions that continually dogged Ms. Harris about whether a black woman could win.

They are questions Ms. Breed has heard herself. When she first considered making her first bid for elected office at age 37, with a run for the San Francisco board of supervisors in 2012, several people urged her to go for a lower position or move to another district, one with a larger African-American population.

The message then — and now — was clear to her: Limit your sights. There’s only so much a black woman in politics can do.

“I keep going back to a lot of people telling me there’s no way I can win in my district, they thought I could never get elected to my seat,” she said. “Why is it more natural for a white man to be electable than an African-American woman?”

Ms. Breed is far from alone in wondering what Ms. Harris’s aborted run means for the political standing of black women in Democratic politics. The California senator’s decision to exit the race before the first round of voting has sparked an emotional reckoning, as the small sorority of prominent elected black female officials, strategists and candidates find themselves grappling with how Ms. Harris fell from a top contender to near the bottom of the pack, why she failed to attract black supporters and wondering what it will take for one of them to not only run, but also win, the White House.

For the first time in their political lives, many saw their own identity reflected in Ms. Harris’s bid, in the photos of her as a young girl in braids, her membership in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, her stories of being bused into a white school district and her drum line dance moves.

They also saw in her effort a Democratic Party establishment unwilling to fully back its candidacies, even as black women remain the party’s most loyal supporters. And they saw confirmation of how much more difficult it can be for a black woman to raise money from people who like her but just aren’t convinced she should be — or could be elected — president.

Representative Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland, said the possibility of an all-white slate of top-tier candidates — and the likelihood of an entirely white roster at this month’s presidential debate — after Ms. Harris’s exit from the race demonstrates a lack of respect for black women at the highest levels.

“The issues that will be brought up will not be brought up from a black woman’s perspective,” said Ms. Lee, who was one of Ms. Harris’ campaign co-chairs. “We’ve elected everyone to office, so why shouldn’t we be the commander in chief?”

While Ms. Harris’s bid wasn’t a historic first, her candidacy was groundbreaking for how seriously her effort was taken by the political establishment. The third black woman to run for the White House, she cast her campaign in the direct shadow of the first, opening her effort with a red-and-yellow logo that was a nod to Shirley Chisholm’s bid.

“She broke a glass ceiling for women of color,” said Representative Karen Bass, a Democrat from California and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “There will be more African-American women running in the next presidential race. Maybe it will even be Kamala herself.”

Supporters acknowledge that many of the problems faced by Ms. Harris’s presidential campaign were self-inflicted, having little do to with her race or gender. They list failings like strategic miscalculations that had her ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire for the first months of the race, a lack of leadership within her operation and an inability to articulate a consistent rationale for her candidacy. Her critics argue that those missteps suggested to voters that Ms. Harris was unprepared for the presidency, lending credence to arguments questioning her electability.

But her supporters note that she faced a level of scrutiny that unsuccessful white male candidates, like former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, seemed to escape.

“There was a particular focus on her, which just speaks to the double standard that all women candidates and candidates of color face,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC focused on African-American Democrats, who is unaffiliated in the race. “That scrutinizing of missteps in the campaign isn’t applied equally.”

While record-breaking numbers of black women were elected to Congress last year, they have struggled to break into higher positions. A black woman has never served as governor, and only two have served in the Senate, Ms. Harris and Carol Moseley Braun, of Illinois.

Last year, Stacey Abrams, of Georgia, became the first black woman to win her party’s nomination for governor in United States history.

Within the limited academic research detailing the barriers black women face, there is a broad consensus that there are additional obstacles. Their efforts can become a circle of self-defeat: Political strategists, party leaders and donors doubt whether they can win majority-white areas, so they don’t support their bid. Because they don’t have early support, it creates more skepticism of their candidacy from the political establishment.

Aides who worked on Ms. Abrams’s campaign said they waged a “concurrent campaign of belief.” They needed to win voters the way any candidate would, by meeting people and putting forward appealing policies. And they needed to convince skeptics that just because a black woman had never won in a Southern state, that didn’t mean she couldn’t.

Those problems were supersized for Ms. Harris, who ran in a campaign cycle in which Democratic voters are intensely focused on their ideas of who can defeat President Trump.

“This whole electability conversation I think is super tone deaf,” said Representative Lauren Underwood, who became the first woman and first person of color to represent her majority-white Illinois district last year. “We can win, and we do all across the country.”

Ms. Harris tried to tackle that concern directly, bringing up what she called the “donkey in the room” at town hall meetings and rallies. When she addressed her race and gender, she cast her candidacy in aspirational terms, urging voters to “believe in what can be unburdened by what has been.”

She also argued that the path to winning back the Midwest could run through black voters in places like Detroit as easily as the white suburbs. Yet risk-averse older black voters worried that Ms. Harris’s race would be a difficult sell to white voters in key swing states.

Still others argue that Ms. Harris’s bid shows that the real risk is not leaning enough into identity, something future candidates will have to do to succeed.

“The advice for black women who are running is to lean into the fact that fellow black women are the most powerful Democrats, we have a unique position and strength,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a group focused on increasing political power among women of color

Yet perhaps the most significant challenge facing black female candidates, according to strategists, is one that eventually undid Ms. Harris’s effort: money.

As her campaign dropped in the polls, aides to Ms. Harris frequently pointed to former Senator John Kerry’s primary campaign as an example of how a candidacy can rebound. During his 2003 primary effort, Mr. Kerry fell in the polls throughout the fall before rebounding to win the Iowa caucuses. At the lowest point, Mr. Kerry lent his effort $6.4 million of his family fortune to keep his campaign afloat, a financial infusion Ms. Harris was unable to supply or raise from donors.

“There’s a huge racial wealth gap, so you don’t have a level playing field,” Ms. Lee said, pointing to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s ability to raise money from wealthy gay donors. “You look at the wealth gap and you look at the donor base and you look at who has the money and who doesn’t have the money, these are some very deep questions that we should be talking about.”

Now with clear evidence on how much this limits politicians at even the highest levels, Ms. Lee said, donors and politicians have to confront it directly.

Ms. Bass said that when she raises money for her re-election in Los Angeles, she often faces skepticism. She imagines that Ms. Harris faced similar difficulties.

“People question why I need money, but they don’t bat an eye when a white man from a very similar district” makes a similar request, Ms. Bass said. “Typically there’s just an assumption that a man needs the money. Usually if I point that out they immediately recognize the discrepancy, but that doesn’t mean I always get the check.”

Many saw clear challenges in Ms. Harris’s run, but they also remain hopeful. The third black woman to run for the White House will not be the last, they say confidently.

There are clear signs of progress in recruitment and the public discussion about diverse leadership, for example. Others see different signs of advancement.

As Ms. Moseley Braun, the second black woman to run for president, watched Ms. Harris campaign, she couldn’t help thinking how much less uncomfortable, at least physically, the whole ordeal seemed.

When Ms. Moseley Braun ran, candidates sat on stools at campaign events that were so tall that they left her legs dangling off the side, she recalled. And then there was the practice of the candidates locking hands and raising them over their heads at the end of each debate, like a human chain of rivals.

“As the only girl in the race at that time, it made my boobs look crooked on television,” recalled Ms. Braun, who is backing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden in the primary race. “It seems there has been progress.”