Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren apologized for the negative experience of six women of color, who quit the senator’s Nevada campaign staff and cited a “toxic” work environment riddled with tokenism.
“I believe these women completely and without reservation, and I apologize that they have had a bad experience on this campaign,” Warren told reporters Thursday night after an event in Derry, New Hampshire. “I try to build a campaign and an organization that is diverse and welcoming, that celebrates people, that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work every single day.”
She continued: “I also understand the long legacy of racism in this country and what it means and how it creates power dynamics and inequities that are toxic and dangerous. And that’s why it’s so important that we be constantly vigilant and determined to do better. I take personal responsibility for this and I’m working with my team to address these concerns.”
When asked how she would specifically address the concerns, Warren said, “I want to create enough space in our offices to make sure that we’re hearing from everyone and to determine where there may be concerns.”
This news comes two weeks before Nevada holds its Democratic caucuses on February 22.
A Politico report revealed Thursday afternoon that six staffers, all women of color, have left Warren’s Nevada campaign since November. Three said they were marginalized by the campaign and felt that their problems only worsened when they were addressed to higher-ups and human resources. Megan Lewis, a field organizer who left in December after a seven-month stint, said that there despite filing an HR complaint about the off-putting atmosphere of the Nevada campaign, she felt that she was pressured to make herself “smaller” and “fit into the office culture.”
Lewis wasn’t alone in her discomfort. From Politico, emphasis ours:
Another recently departed staffer, also a field organizer, granted anonymity because she feared reprisal, echoed that sentiment. “I felt like a problem — like I was there to literally bring color into the space but not the knowledge and voice that comes with it,” she said in an interview.
She added: “We all were routinely silenced and not given a meaningful chance on the campaign. Complaints, comments, advice, and grievances were met with an earnest shake of the head and progressive buzzwords but not much else.” A third former field organizer who was also granted anonymity said those descriptions matched her own experience.
On top of this, the former staffers noted that the campaign failed to hire more Spanish-language organizers, despite their requests for more—a critical oversight that added to their invisibility.
The other three women did not respond to Politico’s request for comment, though one stated that she declined to avoid potential repercussions in a field that is already difficult for women of color.
Despite Warren’s strong response to the staffers’ grievances, it’s troubling that it could be read as offering the very same string of progressive buzzwords that the former staffers complained about. This isn’t to say that Warren wasn’t sincere; Warren’s apology pleased Lewis, who told Politico’s Alex Thompson that she loves Warren and is “more excited than ever to caucus for her.” But one of the downsides of the spread, popularization, and predictable commoditization of social justice parlance is that the lingo can become toothless and hard to trust. It’s how you get powerful people—in campaigns, at nonprofits, and other supposedly left-leaning organizations—regurgitating liberation vocabulary and saying what they think the marginalized want to hear without having the politics to back their words up.
This appears to have been the case in Nevada, where these left-of-center white campaign staffers evoke a disturbingly common archetype: the person who thinks that the existence of systemic racism and tweets “listen to black women” every now and then absolves them of complicity in a racist system that is harmful to their non-white colleagues.
Presidential campaigns are shitshows, but it would behoove the Nevada campaign staff to assure that if they’re going to be any kind of shitshow, that they’re not the racist one. Warren’s numbers going into Nevada are already quite low, and there are reports that the campaign has already pulled over $100 thousand in ads from the state and will likely focus its resources elsewhere. But while the specifics of Nevada might be an afterthought in the coming weeks, this acts as a cautionary tale for the other Democratic campaigns, and leftist institutions at large: If you enlist women of color into your ranks, don’t just use them as decoration. Either listen to them and their insight—or don’t bother hiring them at all.