Jurisprudence

The Double Standard for Biden’s Nominees Who Are Women of Color

Only certain types of people are allowed to be angry about politics.

Vanita Gupta speaks at a lectern.
Vanita Gupta delivers remarks after being nominated to be associate attorney general by Joe Biden at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Jan. 7. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Asked at her confirmation hearing Tuesday about past tweets directed at Senate Republicans, associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta apologized: “I regret the harsh rhetoric that I have used at times in the last several years. … I can pledge to you today that if I am confirmed, you won’t be hearing that kind of rhetoric for me.” Last month, before her nomination as head of Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget was withdrawn, Neera Tanden apologized as well, telling the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that “I do think the last several years have been very polarizing and I apologize for my language that has contributed to that.” Tanden added: “For those concerned about my rhetoric and my language, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for any hurt that they’ve caused.” Kristen Clarke, Biden’s nominee to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, has also apologized over the course of this confirmation process—for having invited anti-Semitic author Tony Martin to speak at Harvard in 1994, when she was the 19-year old president of Harvard’s Black Students Association. “Giving someone like him a platform, it’s not something I would do again,” Clarke told the Forward in January. “I unequivocally denounce anti-Semitism.”

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As Merrick Garland sailed to near-bipartisan confirmation as attorney general, a clear pattern has emerged: Women, and particularly women of color, are being pilloried for tweets, speeches, old op-eds, and decades-old actions by Republicans in the Senate in ways their white male counterparts are not. One explanation for all this is that Garland, as a sitting federal judge for over two decades, just hasn’t been tweeting or making fiery partisan speeches. But the better explanation is that public anger is still the sole province of men, especially white men, and this state of affairs isn’t going to change any time soon.

During Garland’s own confirmation hearing, some Republicans spent their time focusing not on the next attorney general but on Clarke and Gupta, who, if confirmed, would serve alongside him. Sen. Mike Lee, for instance, tried to get Garland to condemn these women and their ostensible anger, but Garland refused to play along. Still, as Elie Mystal pointed out at the time, the persistent attacks on women of color, and the insistence that they publicly apologize, recant, abase themselves, and take personal responsibility for the incivility of public discourse, is all part of a long-game effort to “delegitimize the quest for social and racial justice and accuse anybody who strives for equality under the law to be harboring anti-white (which to them means ‘anti-American’) views.”

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Much has been said and written about the glaring double standard that allows Joe Manchin to merrily confirm someone like Richard Grenell—a vicious and gratuitous insult comic and Trump enthusiast who used Twitter to hector reporters and demean female politicians—while expressing horror at the incivility of Biden’s nominees. When Sen. Susan Collins said she wouldn’t vote to confirm Tanden, based in part on her “temperament,” it is worth remembering her vote to confirm a nominee like Brett Kavanaugh, who spent a portion of his own confirmation hearing personally insulting Senate Democrats, screaming, and spouting conspiracy theories. It’s plainly the case that temperament and bipartisanship are only owed on a sliding scale and that they are required of some nominees and not others. And if the real complaint about Tanden was that, rather than insulting all Mexicans, all immigrants, all women, and all Democrats (as the former president did on a near-hourly basis), she instead primarily insulted the senators themselves, then the problem isn’t so much incivility as it is fantastically thin skin. If ugliness in public discourse only rises to the level of disqualifying or alarming when it’s aimed at you directly as an elected official, you may just be doing governance wrong.

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But beyond the double standard around demands for comity and bipartisanship and civility, these broadsides against women for their expressions of anger are telling in that they reinforce the notion that when women—particularly women and especially women of color in public-facing political roles—express political anger, they are somehow lacking in “temperament,” whereas men who leverage rage as their only public-facing emotion are reasonable and justified. If, for instance, one were to tally the many, many, moods of a Sen. Ted Cruz, it would quickly manifest that those moods consist almost solely of umbrage, fury, rage, and scorn. Seething GOP outrage—the crack that feeds the kraken—isn’t merely confined to alleged events that took place decades ago but encompasses and includes events that never happened at all, from a stolen election to false-flag antifa protesters who stormed the Capitol. Indeed, if Tanden, Gupta, and other women of color who are being critiqued for their lack of sugary niceness in public life are guilty of anything, it’s of having reactions to government actions that are actually proportional and commensurate with the wrongs they allege. It’s hard to imagine what a “polite” or “bipartisan” way to draw mass public attention to family separations or racialized police violence looks like. But when Sen. Josh Hawley is seething over imaginary cancel culture, we treat it as healthy polemic.

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And to suggest that maybe women who are angry about injustice should stop tweeting altogether and cede the field to men is not even worthy of consideration. Donald Trump’s banishment from Twitter is all the proof we need that the medium is essential to broad public messaging. Punishing women for their “mean” tweets while men are advanced for them (beyond the point at which those tweets are so bad they might be violence-provoking) is not a solution. It is a reinforcement of the problem, and of an unequal messaging playing field.

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There is a last gender element to disqualification by Twitter that warrants contemplation. Both Clarke and Gupta have been leaders not just in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, and equality—they have been leaders in broad national coalitions. Over their respective careers, both have made a practice of bridge-building, cooperation, creating alliances, and organizing across divergent interests and agendas. One of the reasons Gupta has garnered support from major police organizations is that she has very consistently eschewed big splashy reforms for enduring cooperative fixes. One of the reasons Clarke has been such an effective advocate is that she manages to work via broad coalitions. Dismiss these as “soft” or “gendered” skills at your peril; the ability to subordinate ego and solo credit to long-term wins has been a hallmark of their leadership and their respective successes. And it’s precisely the kind of broad leadership that women, from AOC to Stacey Abrams, have been modeling for years. This isn’t unhinged anger; it’s the opposite of destructive energy. Despite the current sliming they are receiving at the hands of dark-money ad buys, these women are not “toxic” outsiders but rather skilled political organizers. They are effective, which is exactly why they are painted as bomb throwers. When Sens. Tom Cotton or Mike Lee attempt to paint these women, falsely, as politically correct cancel culture warriors, or as anti-Semites and racists, or as nihilists who want to end policing and government, their critique is a deliberate distortion: This is a generation of female leaders trying to solve real problems in systemic, cooperative, and workable ways. The toxicity—to the extent there is any—lies in the dark-money opposition and nihilist whining about cancel culture, and that noxious stuff is coming from inside the house.

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Civility, as Adam Serwer has written, is not an end in itself, and it has been used, more often than not, in service of racism, misogyny, and greed. It’s not just something to be demanded from others so much as a quality we also owe others. Demanding apologies and abasement from some “uncivil” civil rights leaders as one floods the zone with insults, lies, and threats doesn’t get us closer to sober or respectful governance. It’s just old whining in new bottles—a claim about who is entitled to be angry, who is entitled to scoff they were just joking, and who is permitted to express horror in public. You’d think that the self-obsessed princelings of “cancel culture” would appreciate the irony inherent in silencing and sidelining the women seeking to shore up the civil rights, the votes, and the dignity of all Americans. But when the last coin of their realm is outrage, it makes perfect sense that the fight to staff up the Biden administration has devolved into an effort to hang on to the monopoly on who gets to be mad.

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