We Have Her Back

Memo from We Have Her Back Coalition Members: Your Duty to Call it Out

Changing Culture, Equity, Power, TIME'S UP 2020, We Have Her Back

September 3, 2020

When we launched the We Have Her Back campaign, we did so in anticipation of the deluge of false and derogatory attacks that would be levied at the Democratic vice presidential nominee, simply by virtue of her being a woman in politics.

Sadly, our worst fears were proven right.

One egregious example: The false and offensive insinuation — and outright attack —  that Sen. Kamala Harris used romantic relationships with men in power to advance her career. This false and inflammatory narrative was one of the most dominant we observed in recent weeks, and also one of the most dangerous.

Rooted in the same offensive, long-held stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality that contribute to the disproportionate incidence of sexual violence against Black women, this line of assault was rooted first in mainstream media coverage during the primary and was quickly meme-ified, commodified, and advertised through the appalling phrase, “Joe and the Hoe.”

To be clear: this narrative isn’t just on the fringe; political reporters, surrogates, and opinion makers from highly-respected, mainstream media outlets have amplified the kinds of gendered racism that has derailed the political ambitions of women, and particularly Black women, for decades. TIME’S UP Now measured and evaluated U.S., English-language online news, blog, Twitter, and broadcast coverage around women candidates this cycle. 

According to TIME’S UP Now’s analysis, in the two weeks after Sen. Harris was announced as Biden’s vice presidential pick, stories about Sen. Harris’s romantic past and repeating the phrase “Joe and the Hoe” received 1,400 mentions across both mainstream media (online and broadcast) and Twitter, with 12 million engagements (people liking and sharing these stories) and a potential reach of 14.2 billion people.

Here’s how the meme turned mainstream:

  • On August 8, San Francisco Chronicle ran an op-ed by the former San Francisco Mayor suggesting that Sen. Harris turn down a potential offer for the vice presidency, saying the position is a “dead end.” This was later cited several times throughout online and broadcast news, as reporters sought to describe their prior consensual romantic relationship.
  • On August 11, the very same day Joe Biden announced Sen. Harris as his pick for Vice President, Sheryl Swoopes posted to Facebook her outrage in seeing a “Joe and the Hoe” meme shared by NBA photographer Bill Baptist across multiple social platforms. She called for the NBA and Houston Rockets to sever their professional relationship with Baptist.
  • On August 11, Tucker Carlson referenced Harris’s past relationship in his segment, crediting the former San Francisco mayor for “launching her career.” Carlson also described Sen. Harris as “the single-most transactional human being in America.” At the same time, local California broadcast stations also reported Sen. Harris and the former San Francisco mayor dated and interviewed him.
  • On August 13, the American Spectator, a conservative online magazine, published opinion pieces by Dov Fischer, claiming that Harris “slept her way,” calling her “a very public escort and mattress for California Democrat Kingmaker Willie Brown.”
  • On August 14, the NBA responded by terminating Bill Baptist’s contract – mainstream media then picked up the story, further disseminating the “Joe and the Hoe” meme, often without contextualizing it as racist and sexist.
  • On August 14, Rush Limbaugh mentioned the NBA firing in conjunction with the American Spectator articles, amplifying the meme but also reinforcing and legitimizing the narrative of Sen. Harris “sleeping her way up” in politics.
  • On August 18, “Joe and the Hoe” merchandise appeared for sale on Amazon.com and other online retailers, prompting further news coverage (1, 2, 3, 4) on August 19 when Amazon finally took them down.
  • On August 29, President Trump made the offensive insinuation when falsely calling the Senator “not competent” to be Vice President, saying: “You know, I want to see the first woman president also, but I don’t want to see a woman president get into that position the way she’d do it.”

Attempts to invalidate Sen. Harris’s accomplishments through this sexist and racist line of attack would only be leveled against a Black woman elected official. They are inextricably linked to the long history of oppression and hypersexualization Black women have — and continue to face — in this country. Yet the vast majority of coverage we’ve seen has not critically examined why this narrative is so offensive and harmful – a place where you could play a key role.

We urge you to consider the ways in which past or future reporting of this narrative could inadvertently spread these damaging messages, further infecting our culture at large. And if you must report on inflammatory attacks such as those leveled against Sen. Harris, we urge you to contextualize them within our country’s shameful history of sexism and racism.

We said it in our original letter and we’ll say it again: As much as you have the public’s trust, you also have great power. With less than nine weeks until the Election, we urge you to use it wisely. Because no matter our politics, on this we should all agree: these racist, sexist lines of attack should have no place in our society.


Tina Tchen, President and CEO, TIME’S UP Now
Jordan Brooks
Julie Burton
Glynda Carr, President, CEO, and Co-founder, Higher Heights for America
Karen Finney
Fatima Goss Graves, President, National Women’s Law Center Action Fund
Amanda Harrington, Vice President of Communications, TIME’S UP Now
Gwainevere Catchings Hess, President, The Black Women’s Agenda
Ilyse Hogue, President and CEO, NARAL Pro-Choice America
Valerie Jarrett
Alexis McGill Johnson
President and CEO, Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Judith Lichtman
Melanie Newman, Senior Vice President of Communications and Culture, Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Debra Ness, President, National Partnership for Women & Families
Christina Reynolds
Cecile Richards, Co-founder, Supermajority
Hilary Rosen
Stephanie Schriock