Sen. Kamala Harris has made history as the first Black woman to be selected for a major political party presidential ticket — but she’s also wading into a political quagmire. Harris’s record stands at odds with some of the most urgent racial justice issues today.
Her biography mirrors many of the Black women who anchor the Democratic Party’s base and who endure the brunt of America’s racism. Harris was born into a segregated United States, famously talking about her own experience with busing. Her parents organized in the civil rights movement. She attended a historically Black college. She belongs to a Black sorority. In symbolic virtue and stature, her candidacy already embodies the grandeur of electoral trailblazers like her friend Barack Obama and her muse Shirley Chisholm.
For months, journalists, activists, and pundits have emphasized Biden’s need to choose a Black woman candidate. Headlines like Barron’s “After George Floyd, Pressure on Biden to Pick Black VP” or the Boston Globe’s “Joe Biden already was under pressure to pick a Black woman running mate. The outrage over George Floyd’s death adds to it” capture the angst.
Many of these assertions rest on the premise that Black women remain uniquely equipped to wrangle the racial inequality festering in the United States — particularly as protests against police violence continue across the nation. Yet many of the policies and institutions (particularly in the criminal legal system) that have drawn the ire of Black activists have Harris’s support. (The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
For example, on drug policy, Black activists have broadly called for more empathic and health-based interventions. Just this week, a letter signed by a coalition of Black men pressed this point. The petition, which pushed for a Black woman vice president, skewered former Vice President Biden for not showing more “remorse for the 1986 or 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse bills, which established mandatory minimum sentencing and subsequently crack cocaine sentencing disparities, and by his own admission, led to mass incarceration.” Yet until at least 2014, Harris supported the criminalization of marijuana, which the ACLU argues disproportionately harmed minorities.
“Of course this nomination is historic, but something else historic is going on right now — we are in the middle of the largest protest movement in American history. It’s a protest movement that’s all about finding non-punitive non-carceral solutions to the kinds of economic problems that are plaguing proportionally black and brown communities,” said Briahna Joy Gray, former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign, on Democracy Now in reaction to the choice of Harris as Biden’s running mate.
Gray underscored that there is a “great deal of frustration” among activists at the seemingly ironic choice.
“Kamala Harris is someone who has had these criticisms leveraged at her throughout very early on. … To many people in the activist community, she has done very little to assuage people’s concerns about her previous stances or demonstrate the level of growth that we would like to see,” Gray said.
Why criminal justice advocates are skeptical of Harris
A 2019 New York Times op-ed from law professor Lara Bazelon pushed back on Harris’s claim that she was a “progressive prosecutor,” arguing that she was responsible for enforcing regressive policies as California’s “top cop.” Harris opposed measures to investigate shootings involving officers, appealed a judge’s effort to end the death penalty, and “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors,” Bazelon wrote.
Similarly, law professor and civil rights attorney James Forman Jr. expressed dismay last year over how policing policies that Harris supported as San Francisco’s district attorney, such as arresting truant parents, harm those who are “overwhelmingly poor, black and brown, and struggling.”
Harris’s historically expansive view of the police and incarceration are not aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. She has pantomimed protesters’ signs and chants calling for more schools and fewer jails. “There’s a fundamental problem with that approach, in my opinion,” she said at a 2013 policy talk. “I agree with that conceptually, but you have not addressed the reason I have three padlocks on my front door.”
“There should be a broad consensus that there should be serious and severe and swift consequences to crime,” she continued.
This is in sharp contrast with the Black women leading the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists are demanding radical transformation in the country’s criminal legal system. This includes responding to crimes like truancy and murder as public health problems requiring well-funded communal intervention.
As a prosecutor, Harris believed in the utility of state force to discourage antisocial behavior. She noted that as a “prosecutor in law enforcement, I have a huge stick” she could use to enforce things like school attendance, insisting that other arms of the government had carrots as incentives to action. Many Black activists, however, remain highly skeptical of this type of policymaking. For those who have been systematically excluded from social welfare programs and overloaded with state-sanctioned violence, their policy demand remains more carrots, fewer sticks: more schools, fewer jails.
Although moderate throughout her career as a California prosecutor, Harris has tacked left during her time in the Senate. She has been a voice for police reform and against police brutality. Earlier this year, along with prominent senators like Cory Booker, Harris introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, aiming to decrease racial discrimination and increase accountability in policing with a bevy of reforms. Last year, during her presidential candidacy, Harris’s move left on criminal justice was evident in her policy platform, which adopted increasingly popular reforms including eliminating private prisons, ending mandatory minimums, reducing the use of cash bail, and legalizing marijuana.
What the Kamala Harris pick was supposed to accomplish for the Biden campaign
All of this makes Harris a somewhat puzzling choice for the Biden campaign, when considering the current centering of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, there are some ways in which Harris does balance Biden’s ticket. Where Biden has drawn criticism for his gaffe-ridden, halting speech, Harris remains renowned for her sharp questioning and rhetoric. Harris is a generation younger. Her lived experience as a Black and Indian American woman speaks to a rapidly diversifying country.
But both Harris and Biden struggle to overcome their tough-on-crime past in a party that has swung hard against those impulses in recent years. Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie, though, tells Vox the hurdle is not insurmountable — even during this protest movement against excessive policing.
“There’s going to be tension, and Harris and Biden will have to navigate that. But their gamble relies on their willingness to have a conversation and compromise,” Gillespie says. “That is the strategy that’s going to cast the widest net for voters. It’s intended to blunt Donald Trump’s invocation of ‘law and order’ and his attempt to terrorize white suburbanites away from the Democratic ticket.”
Counterintuitively, it could be enthusiasm among white suburbanites for Harris that helps Biden drive up turnout. Just as Donald Trump’s 2016 outreach to Black voters may have helped increase his palatability to white Americans in the suburbs, Biden’s Harris pick affords him a similar opportunity. As Vox’s Li Zhou reported, Harris ranked the highest among potential VP candidates in a recent poll of Democratic voters.
Suburban voters may embrace Harris’s candidacy in a spirit of tolerance of diversity that many have gravitated toward in the polarizing Trump years. And while she may not be a favorite among Black activists, Harris is a paragon of representation that Black women in the Democratic Party have been demanding in recent years.
Harris is a politician, not a racial justice activist
The upshot is clear: Harris is not a movement candidate. She does not relate to Black Lives Matter the way that Bernie Sanders relates to Occupy Wall Street, the way Sen. Ted Cruz relates to the Tea Party, or the way Cori Bush relates to the Ferguson, Missouri, uprisings.
Harris is not an activist. She is a very talented Democratic politician who has spent the lion’s share of her career within mainstream party politics pushing many mainstream policy positions. The most generous interpretations of her career describe Harris as an official open to the racial justice agenda but not a consistent champion of it. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained:
A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.
Harris’s presidential debate performances during the primary captured this duality. Last June, Joe Biden stood onstage across from Harris, flat-footed as she lobbed a scathing attack on Biden’s record on segregation.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said, referencing the segregationists Biden held relationships with early in his career. “And it was not only that — you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Biden floundered with a defense of states’ right to eschew civil rights laws.
HARRIS: Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then? Do you agree?
BIDEN: I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed. I did not oppose . ..
HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.
HARRIS: So that’s where the federal government must step in. That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA, because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.
That exchange dragged up Biden’s mixed record on racial justice, reminded the country of the evils flowing from continuing segregation, and it arguably won Harris the debate. Yet, just days later, when her position on federal intervention to enforce desegregation through busing was interrogated by reported, she appeared to hold views closer to Biden’s.
Harris’s muddied messages persist. Whether talking about federal government intervention for integration or responding to activists’ demands to shift large-scale funding away from policing and toward community care, Harris has remained lukewarm in her support for bold racial justice policies.
For many Black women, this is not a deal-breaker. Representation matters.
“If you look back at Shirley Chisholm, she ran so that Kamala could lead at this moment,” a Black female Harris supporter told the AP’s Kat Stafford. “I think it’s important for us to look at that and see other young women of color realize that they can go after their dreams and really make change in our world.”
But there is still lingering disappointment. As Derecka Purnell wrote in a column for the Guardian, “If we must support politicians of color seeking office, let’s especially protect the ones … who risk their lives resisting white supremacy, Republicans, and moderate Democrats.”
If Democrats seek to capture the energy of the protest movement led by younger Black women and supported by a diverse coalition of allies, the party likely has a way to go. The movement was built on seeking justice, not symbolic representation.
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