AP Politics

Fani Willis’ testimony evokes long-standing frustrations for Black women leaders

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is used to prosecuting high-profile, challenging cases. But as she parried questions about her own personal conduct from the witness stand against the legal teams for defendants her office has accused of election interference, many Black women recognized a dispiriting scene.

“It absolutely feels familiar. There is no secret that the common sentiment among Black women in positions of power (is that they) must over-perform to be seen as equals to their counterparts,” said Jessica T. Ornsby, a family litigation attorney in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Here, Ms. Willis is being scrutinized for things that are not directly related to her job performance, in ways we see other Black women regularly picked apart,” Ornsby said.

Willis testified during an extraordinary hearing that could result in her office being removed from the state’s election interference case against former President Donald Trump. She was questioned Thursday about her relationship with the attorney leading her office’s prosecution, Nathan Wade.

Willis and Wade have acknowledged they had a “ personal relationship ” but have denied any improper conduct.

Regardless of the legal merits of the claim by Trump and his co-defendants that Willis’ conduct was improper, relationships between coworkers are often prohibited or must be disclosed in many workplaces, including at major private law firms. Willis has faced criticism from many legal experts otherwise supportive of the case due to her relationship with Wade.

Still, few people who find themselves in such circumstances have the most intimate details of their lives aired so publicly.

In interviews with The Associated Press, many Black women leaders expressed frustration and disappointment that public attention had turned from the merits of the criminal case to the personal conduct of the Black woman overseeing the prosecution. For them, the court challenge to Willis echoes familiar experiences of tests of their authority, competence and character.

“I love that she stood up for herself, but I hate the fact that she had to,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. She said that when she saw video of the testimony she felt: “Why are you all treating her like SHE’S on trial?”

“Black women feel like we’re under attack. And that’s a fact,” Campbell said.

Willis, who has a reputation as an incisive trial attorney, was visibly upset when she took the stand Thursday to reject allegations that she improperly profited from the prosecution because of the relationship.

“It is a lie,” the district attorney said of allegations in court filings.

“You’ve been intrusive into people’s personal lives. You’re confused. You think I’m on trial,” Willis testified. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

For many Black women, the inquiries into Willis’ romantic and financial life were rife with tropes and accusations often unfairly levied at Black women.

Keir Bradford-Grey, a partner at the law firm Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia, found the questions about Willis’ personal life “disgusting.” She also said the episode had disturbing implications for Black women in leadership roles: “I can’t imagine a world where we have to continue to be treated like this as we seek leadership roles, and we do them well.”

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of voting rights group Black Voters Matter, despaired of the fact that Willis was having to answer questions about “whether she has money, whether she has cash or not and why she has cash, who she sleeps with, who is she flying on an airplane with.”

“So, what is this really about?” Brown added. “When white power, particularly white men, are being held to account … the first thing to do is to disqualify the people that are holding them accountable,” especially when those people are Black women.

Scrutiny of Willis’ personal life has diverted attention away from the allegations against Trump.

He has been indicted four times in the last year, accused in Georgia and Washington, D.C., of plotting to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, in Florida of hoarding classified documents, and in Manhattan of falsifying business records related to hush money paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels on his behalf. Trump has railed against individual prosecutors, judges and the legal system as a whole. But he reserves special, often coded rhetoric for his attacks on women and people of color.

“Donald Trump knows that he can make an easy target for his base out of a Black woman,” said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a racial equality activist and podcast host. “What we should recognize is that across many indictments, this particular attack to disqualify through her personal activities is uniquely pointed. Of all the prosecutions that he has endured, this is not the approach he has taken. But he took that in particular with a Black woman.”

The testimony from Willis also reminded many of similar public questioning of Black women’s leadership, including the recent ouster of former Harvard University President Claudine Gay and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“Images from the court proceedings also reflect many of our day-to-day experiences: defending ourselves against a sea of individuals who do not share our background and harbor biases both implicit and explicit,” Ornsby said.

On Friday, Willis’ team did not call her back to the stand. While the court weighs whether she will be disqualified from the criminal case, it remains largely in limbo.

“We’re not talking about the things that actually matter, which include, but are not limited to bringing this country at least a tiny step back from the brink of fascism. No, instead we’re evaluating a Black woman’s looks, character and professionalism when all she did was do her job,” Cunningham said.



“The standards by which they are judged, with their actions scrutinized at every turn, just seem to be a little different, not a little, a lot different than what I see of our male counterparts,” Bradford-Grey said. “I wish there would be a day that women stand together and say we want the same bar of treatment that men get.”

___

Matt Brown is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.

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