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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

White Men and the Media: A Love Story

On Friday, Gallup released a report on the favorability ratings of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The article was entitled “Rep. Ocasio-Cortez Better Known, but Image Skews Negative.” After I read the headline, I was disappointed believing that the hype around the new congresswoman was dissipating. Then I actually looked at the numbers. It’s true she is growing unfavorably among three audiences: men, white people, and people older than 55. However Ocasio’s popularity is increasing with women, people of color, and people ages 18–35.

Last time I checked women are still 50% of the population and white people only make up a little more than half of the population. This headline and the surrounding conversation shows how the media considers white men the default. Since the beginning of modern times, mostly white men have controlled the world’s power, just look at 44 of our last presidents. The assumption Gallup was making is not new. Because men and white people are finding Ocasio-Cortez less appealing, her image must be considered overall negative. The white guys set the narrative. Because in the media’s eyes, without men and white people, a politician could never stand a chance.Apparently, only certain opinions matter, only their experiences define normal. As we near the 2020 election, I feel uneasy with media coverage that continuously and overwhelmingly favors white male candidates.

Last Thursday, Beto O’Rourke, currently the candidate with the least experience and whose claim to fame is his narrow loss to Ted Cruz, announced his intention to run for president. Now let me be clear — I have nothing against Robert “call me Beto” O’Rourke, however the way he has been embraced by the media with little to no criticism compared to the other candidates confirms my fears for this election.

Consider how Amy Klobuchar’s announcement was greeted. Immediately stories about her reputation from being a difficult boss emerged. And while I don’t admit I know what it’s like to work for Klobuchar, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that no male senators have had New York Times exposes citing their workplaces as difficult. Or when Kamala Harris launched her campaign in Oakland and and estimated at 20,000 people came, where were the headlines?

Prior to his announcement, O’Rourke was given the star treatment — an artsy spread in Vanity Fair complete with photos taken by Annie Leibovitz. The fact is none of the women in the race or people of color (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar) got the same media attention that Beto has.

Particularly glaring for me is the contrast between O’Rourke and Julián Castro. I single out Castro because of their natural similarities. First, obviously, they are both straight men from Texas. Yes, despite Beto’s claim that “There’s one candidate who’s there who can talk about the profoundly positive impact that immigrants have had on our safety and our security, as well as our success and our strength,” he is not the only one. Castro not only comes from an immigrant family but was born and raised in San Antonio. San Antonio is not only the home of the Alamo, historically it was a part of Mexico, and currently over 60% of the population is Hispanic or Latino. At the age of 26, Castro became the youngest city councilman to serve in San Antonio’s history. In 2009, he became the youngest mayor of a top-50 American city and was named Time magazine’s 40 under 40 list for America’s up and coming political leaders.

Yet, time and time again, white men continue to get the upper hand in the name of charisma, wide appeal, and a “fresh perspective.” It seems that Beto, unlike some of the other candidates, has the option to lean and run on personality rather than a list of detailed policy plans and decisions. This week, it was released that O’Rourke raised $6.1 million online in the first 24 hours of him campaign according to The New York Times. This officially surpassed Bernie Sanders for the most money raised in one-day by a Democratic candidate. It seems every news outlet across the country plastered this headline over and over. However, while this statistic shows promise it definitely isn’t indicative of who will win, or who should win, particularly when considering gender. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, while women make up half of the population, they donate less than 30% of all campaign contributions. Last year, NPR discovered that democratic men running for congress out-raise democratic female candidates on average by 500,000 dollars. The fact is that mostly men hold the purse strings to political money in this country and to use the amount of money raised as an indication of success is not accurate. So yes, O’Rourke raised an outrageous amount of money, but he did so without a detailed policy plan or outline of what he was running on.

Not only is O’Rourke one of the least experienced, according to Vox, his voting record is actually more conservative than the average Democrat. In the 113th U.S. Congress, from January 2013 to January 2015, O’Rourke voted more conservative than 76 percent of Democrats. And in the 114th Congress, he was more conservative than 79 percent of Democrats. And in the 115th Congress, he was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats. This is more conservative on average than Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, and Warren. So the idea that O’Rourke is somehow a liberal breath of fresh air to the Democratic party is built on personality, not substance.

In this upcoming election, the coverage and hype factor has consistently favored white men. Whether it’s the young newcomer from Texas, Beto O’Rourke or two veteran politicians like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, candidates who are people of color or women are not given the benefit of the doubt. Instead they are consistently expected to politely step aside and wait in line. Too often political coverage is gendered. Too often female candidates receive coverage for their clothes, makeup choices, or a lip syncing breakfast club style music video. Too often people of color are criticized for using divisive language or have to endure coded racist descriptions. Too often women of color are dismissed or worse forced to endure racist actions from their own constituents. Too often men receive the benefit of the doubt, leaving policy decisions in the background while reporters anoint them with labels like charisma and electability.

I hope in 2020 we do not repeat the mistakes of the past — that our media covers and outlines policies instead of personalities. Elizabeth Warren has already released a plan to end Washington corruption. Kamala Harris has released her plan to fight inequality with LIFT the Middle Class Act, while Julián Castro has called for universal health care and reparations. These are the issues that reporters have a responsibility to cover. We cannot have another election where an escalator ride receives more coverage than a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform. We cannot have another election where the media plays right into the hands of a racist and sexist President. America might not survive it.

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The Joy of Watching Women of Color in Power

Wednesday, many of us watched, as former personal lawyer to Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight committee. In his opening statement, Cohen called President Trump a “racist, conman, and a cheat.” Unfortunately, watching a white man being called out appropriately is never as satisfying as it should be. Usually, these events tend to be traumatic *cough Brett Kavanaugh cough* — reinforcing the status quo that accountability never looks the same for white men as it does for the rest of us. Yet, this hearing, while not without moments of ridiculousness, exceeded my expectations, thanks to three new congresswomen: Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

During the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows, a white Republican congressman from North Carolina, brought Lynne Patton, a black woman who works in the Trump Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development . By bringing her, Rep. Meadows hoped to challenge Cohen’s labeling of Trump as a racist using the oh-so-popular “Black friend card.”

Seem problematic? Dare I say racist? I thought so too. But even in 2019, I expect these situations to be ignored by our representatives, leaving most of us to flock to Twitter to debrief and find validation for our frustration.

However, this year is a little different. Why? Women. Or more specifically, women of color. Granted, women still only make up 23.4% of the US House of Representatives. But believe it or not, this is a vast improvement from 20% before the midterms. To be clear, that’s a total of 102 women and just 43 women of color. Don’t get out your confetti just yet. We still have a long way to go before Congress reflects what our country actually looks like.

Image courtesy of NPR

When you zoom in on the demographics of the Oversight and Reform Committee, iit gets a little better. Of the 42 members, 13 are women (31%) and 7 are women of color. Three of those women were newly elected this year.

It is these three women who transform the direction of this hearing. A couple hours after Rep. Meadows introduced Trump’s token Black friend, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez began her questioning. Her interrogation of Cohen was so compelling, The New York Times’ headline was “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won the Cohen Hearing” and Slate’s “Did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Just Lay Groundwork for Democrats to Subpoena Trump’s Tax Returns?” To watch a Latina from the Bronx, newly elected to Congress, appear on television in front of a committee of largely white men and conduct the best line of questioning, validates what we already know — women of color are not only capable, we excel. We’ve worked twice as hard to get half as far and AOC’s performance proves it.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley shined too, taking a different approach to dealing with Cohen. Like so many of us, she knew Trump was racist long before Michael Cohen decided to announce it to the world. So she asked Cohen during the hearing, “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘shithole countries,’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend, and still be racist?” “Yes.” Cohen replied. Not only did Rep. Pressley make a statement about how racism actually works, she showed quickly and concisely that simply presenting your token Black friend proves nothing.

And finally Rep. Rashida Tlaib took the stage and addressed Lynne Patton’s presence directly. “Just because someone has a person of color — a black person working for — them does not mean they aren’t racist,” she said. “And it is insensitive that some would…use [as] a prop a black woman in this chamber, in this committee. [That is] racist in itself.” Immediately, Rep. Meadows demanded a retraction from Rep. Tlaib for her daring to appropriately label his racist behavior.

I don’t know about you, but this interaction didn’t seem foreign to me. Certainly Rep. Meadows was more concerned with being called racist than examining the ways his behavior WAS racist. And the person of color, here Rep. Tlabi, spent all her energy restating, in excruciating detail, her comments — even though she was right all along. THIS is the POC twilight zone so many of us live in. So many times people of color, especially women of color, are forced to educate white people about racism, often times at their own expense. I am sure it’s not the first time that Rep. Pressley or Tlaib have had to have this type of conversation. I know it won’t be the last. As I watched them on TV, I felt a natural connection. I’ve had these conversations myself and it was invigorating seeing someone who looked like me — in the halls of Congress no less — reflecting my experience.

The fact is these women are now in the room where it happens, where the laws and decisions that govern our country are shaped. It wasn’t long ago when rooms like these wouldn’t have allowed in women like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib. They stand as living testaments to the generations of women who’ve made their journey possible. Watching these three Congresswomen of color felt like the opening of the door through which so many more women will enter the halls of power. And I can’t wait to see what that room looks like.

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