As former vice president Joe Biden contemplates who his running mate should be, people in the decision-making and vetting process have talked on the record about what they seek in a vice presidential candidate and what they find unacceptable. When it comes to the Black women on the shortlist, Democratic insiders have raised illogical concerns that appear to be manufactured to mask the real problem some seem to have but won't state publicly: They believe it is too soon for a Black woman to be president. That kind of belief is not just sexist — it is also racist. Which puts the Black women on Biden's shortlist in a bind that Black women everywhere know all too well.
Biden's selection committee is looking for a "loyal" running mate. Although Biden and former senator Chris Dodd, who's now running the search committee, both took shots at then-Sen. Barack Obama during a 2008 presidential debate when they were his rivals, insiders are seeking a person who is humble — where humility includes an apology for a past debate performance that put Biden on the defensive. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also attacked Biden in one of the presidential debates, accusing him and "others who opposed Medicare-for-all of running in the wrong party's primary."
The selection committee has noted that a vice presidential candidate should not be too "ambitious" as to outshine the top of the ticket, but she should be ready to be president of the United States on day one. However, the language about whether candidates are already planning ahead to be president has not been part of the narrative about the non-Black women on the shortlist: Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Surely, however, each one of these talented women, who range in age from 48 to 60, would be thinking about a presidential bid for 2024 or 2028, when they would all be younger than Biden is today. The vice presidency has long been a steppingstone to the presidency. But the vetting committee appears to be celebrating decisions to forgo future political office in ways that would have been unthinkable for any of the other would-be vice presidents in modern history.
These claims about loyalty and ambition seem to be applied to the Black female candidates, exclusively, by men. (One Politico article even lauded Whitmer for appearing ambitious.) The comments with the most traction came from Dodd and Democratic donor John Morgan — two White men. Unfortunately, these claims are not limited to White men, though, as Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., joined the chorus of men questioning whether Sen. Kamala Harris of California might be able to balance future presidential ambitions with her potential role as the vice president. One is left to wonder whether Richmond himself would be subject to questions about his intentions for higher office if he were on Biden's shortlist. That this is a question highlights the bind that Black women face: They must endure doubts about whether the time is right for them to lead because they are both Black and women.
Harris, in particular, has been chided in the press for the fact that she might be "running for president as soon as we finish the inauguration." If she were, though, she would just be following a long tradition of White men who have preceded them in American politics. For example, in the lead-up to the 1956 election, John F. Kennedy campaigned harder and more explicitly than Stacey Abrams has this year to be named the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket alongside Adlai Stevenson. In fact, Kennedy began positioning himself to run for vice president almost immediately after he was elected to the Senate in 1953. He and his father were so committed to the position that the elder Kennedy offered to finance a presidential run for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson if he promised to choose JFK as a running mate for 1956. When the Johnson candidacy failed to materialize, and the 1956 Democratic presidential nominee threw the choice of Stevenson's running mate to the convention, Kennedy expended great energy working to have himself nominated. He narrowly lost the nominating contest, but that story of ambition ends with Kennedy being elected president four years later.
Biden himself and leaders of his campaign have distanced themselves from the comments disparaging the potential candidates, but political observers have rightly sounded alarms that these statements from the committee were sexist and impractical. If insiders are worried about the electorate's willingness to vote for a ticket with a Black woman on it (and, implicitly, a potential Black female president) they should just say so instead of making excuses that hold Black women to a different and unfair standard.
As is often true with racist thinking, choosing a vice president who will not run for president would also be shortsighted. Why would members of a political party hesitate to plan for the next 12 or 16 years, rather than limiting their planning to the four-year term that faces them most immediately? That Rep. Karen Bass of California has been praised for sharing that she has no intention to run for president following a potential Biden administration is not something to be celebrated; it's something Democrats should implore her to reconsider if she is chosen as the vice presidential candidate or elected vice president. The same Democratic leaders who tout a different vision of this nation — where we work to solve big problems over many decades — should jump at the opportunity to engage in succession planning. Discouraging a potential vice president from running for president would be a disservice to all Democratic voters who understand that intractable problems like climate change, rebuilding the middle class and achieving racial equity will take multiple presidential administrations to solve.
Many people will vote for Biden because they believe he has the will and capacity to be a better president than Donald Trump. Hopefully, the conversation about the Black women on the shortlist is not a sign of things to come from Democratic Party leaders and influencers. Individuals that allow these kinds of ideas to guide their decisions about leadership are often the same ones who fail on other parts of electoral strategy — and then blame Black people for losing the election.
Grant is an associate professor of political science at Howard University and author of "The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century." This piece was written for The Washington Post.