The Careless Conversations Surrounding Kamala Harris

As expected, many went into a tizzy when Senator Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. And as expected the country unleashed the violence that typically follows a black woman who dares to reach for success. Familiar racial tropes and sexist overtones were renewed against Senator Harris like a broken record and once again another black woman is forced to “go high”, with supernatural grace, while navigating a world where she is the least protected citizen. Will this ever change? I have no idea. But most alarming is how her supporters have embraced rhetoric typical of the opposition where race and gender is used as a divisive tool to distort her qualifications and create disdain for what she represents.

Kamala Harris isn’t black black.

When Kamala Harris was picked, I was able to relate to her in ways others could not.  I too am a daughter of a Jamaican parent, have Indian heritage and a father who is black. I was born in America but raised with Jamaican principles and on Indian cuisine. I was educated by Howard University (School of Law) and am also an attorney licensed to practice law in California. So when the derisive attempts to distance Harris from her black-ness began, I was thrown back into my childhood. My hair said I was never black enough to sit at the back of the bus. Even though I have a half-white grandfather, the one drop rule could never let anyone see past the color of my skin. I was raised on Jamaican principles, but without the accent no one could tell. And even though I joined a Bhangra dance team in college, to grow closer to my roots, Punjabi would be the last culture anyone would have identified me with. Nevertheless, even if I wanted to accurately check “other” on demographic forms and plunge myself into racial obscurity, society (i.e. the majority white) always chose “black” because, let’s face it, your skin determines your experience in this world. The opposition knows that representation matters, so they have taken care to call into question the purity of Harris’ blackness, weaponizing her multi-cultural heritage as a talking point of division. With confidence we know Senator Harris has been and knows what it is like to be the only black woman in a whitewashed room and feel unwelcomed and disrespected. To discuss how many drops of slave blood it takes to be considered African American or the threshold of immigration that allows blackness to encompass different nationalities is irrelevant and hurtful because it ignores the fact that Senator Harris was the little colored girl who helped integrate Berkley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School. The opposition would have you forget that she lives life through the frame of a black woman even if that label does not fully complete her picture.

Kamala Harris is a bad cop.

We can agree Senator Harris represents centrist ideals filling in a milder position on several traditionally divisive policies. However, she made clear on the campaign trail that her current stance on police reform (the issues that affect black and brown people) is fully progressive, adopting the vernacular of the liberal left. While she described herself as a “progressive prosecutor” when she filled the roles of San Francisco district attorney and the Attorney General of California, many argue that is simply not the case, particularly when reviewing her record with respect to police accountability. And rightfully so… her record should be scrutinized and she should answer for any questionable if not contradictory stances. However, what the opposition has done is characterize her prosecutor role as a “bad cop” to garner the attention of the black community that is currently emotionally charged in light of recent black murders.  The rhetoric generalizes Harris’ prosecutor career as “failing” to increase police accountability; “dedicated” to policies that imprisoned parents of color; and “aggressively” prosecuting misdemeanors leading to the mass incarceration of black and brown people. This is a fundamentally flawed approach because it sows seeds of ignorance regarding the complex nature of a prosecutor’s office, which is a bureaucratic machine that relies on the cooperation of subordinate attorneys. For instance, Justice Department policy at the time did not require lower level prosecutors to seek approval of the attorney general (i.e. Kamala) in cases such as Daniel Larsen’s where Harris’ office argued against his appeal after he was proven innocent.

The overgeneralized rhetoric also oversimplifies the political process in which we operate.  To understand Harris’ evolution, one must understand the political context of her time as a prosecutor, a time where addressing police abuses was not politically palatable and could have been a death knell for any black politician attempting to gain political traction.  Even Barack Obama boasted his support for “150 pieces of legislation that toughened penalties” for violent criminals as a part of his 2004 Senate campaign, and took a position more supportive of the death penalty.  This was Harris’ reality and accordingly her actions were a mixed bag.  But by the standards of the early 2000s, whatever “change” she was able to accomplish was progressive in the criminal justice realm.  In one instance, it almost ended her career when she opposed the death penalty, ultimately leading to her avoiding police issues all together. Whether her avoidance was because she was apathetic, or because she was playing the political long game, reserving progressive policies once landing a more protected political role, we may never know.  But what we do know is that after Michael Brown was murdered in 2014, and the Black Lives Movement took off, she began calling for sweeping police reform.

“The implication is that if politics has influenced Harris’s views on criminal justice, progressives shouldn’t support her for vice president. But that’s naive. Because if politics hadn’t influenced Harris’s views, she probably wouldn’t be in a position to join the Democratic ticket in the first place. Commentators can ignore the way American politics actually works. Black women who want a career in national politics cannot.” Peter Beinart – Kamala Harris Did What She Had To Do, The Atlantic

The truth of the matter is that Kamala Harris was the first black woman operating in those prosecutorial positions whose discretion was tempered by a climate hostile to radical change. The fact that she was able to get any liberal agenda items done without being accused of pulling the race card is significant.  As the first black woman in her positions she demonstrated a political savviness that allowed her to navigate and identify politically malleable colleagues in order to push through some progressive agenda items.  Now as a Senator, she has wielded her policy making vote to support reforms in a way that is no longer handicapped by the veto power of a governor or rogue subordinate prosecutors’ ethical failures. This may not be convincing to you because it is difficult not to look at her track record without our 2020 vision.  So here is a non-exhaustive list of Kamala’s positions and policy initiatives over time.  I encourage you to view the whole picture instead of cherry-picking items to fulfill a talking point.

 

“Good”

“Bad”

2002 – 2005: When black people made up less than 8% of the city’s population but accounted for more than 40% of police arrests, Harris told her staff not to prosecute arrests based on racial profiling.

2004: Refused to pursue the death penalty for a gang member who gunned down an officer, believing in part, application of the death penalty was discriminatory toward people of color.

Created “Back on Track”, a re-entry program aimed to keep low-level offenders out of jail if they went to school and kept a job.

2014-2017: Proposed a modest expansion of her office’s powers to investigate police misconduct, began reviews of two municipal police departments and backed a Justice Department investigation in San Francisco.

As CA AG, she began requiring body cameras at the California Department of Justice, the first state agency to adopt them.

Created OpenJustice, a database that provided public access to crime statistics that included data about the use of force.

As SF DA, when enforcing the “three strikes rule” where someone who committed a third felony could go to prison for 25 years to life, Harris required that the SF district attorney’s office only charge for a third strike if the felony was a serious or violent crime.

As CA AG, introduced racial bias and procedural justice training.

As Senator, supported and/or introduced the following initiatives:

  • Bail reform
  • A law to make lynching a federal crime
  • First Step Act
  • Marijuana legalization
  • Decriminalization of marijuana
  • Legalization of hemp
 

2001 – 2004: Even though there were more complaints about use of force in San Francisco than in San Diego, Seattle, Oakland and San Jose combined, Harris pursued few on-duty cases of force-related misconduct.

2007: Did not take a position on legislation that would grant public access to police disciplinary hearings.

2010: Her office was caught up in a scandal over exculpatory evidence.  A police crime-lab technician was discovered to be stealing confiscated drugs and had a past conviction for domestic violence. A court ruled Harris should have released this exculpatory evidence.

2011-2014: Largely avoided intervening in police involved killings, deferring to policy that encouraged local prosecutors to solely handle local cases/investigations:

  • 2012, unarmed 25-year-old, Manuel Diaz, was fatally shot in the back by the police.
  • 2012, fatal police shooting of 23-year- old Mario Romero, in Vallejo.
  • 2014, police officers fatally shot Ezell Ford in LA, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness.
  • 2015, video footage of the police involved shooting of Mario Woods, showed officers surrounding a disturbed Woods, high on methamphetamines and armed, and firing 46 rounds, hitting him with 21.

Harris’ anti-truancy program targeted parents of kids who skipped school and threatened them with prosecution and punishment. Disproportionately affected families of color.

2014: Refused to endorse AB 86, a bill opposed by police unions that would have required Harris’ office to appoint special prosecutors to examine deadly police shootings.

Did not support state legislation that would require all police to wear body cameras.

Kamala Harris slept her way to the top.

The implication: She did not earn her political career. Let’s break this down.

  • Harris’ Career Timeline
    • 1990 – 2004: Alameda County District Attorney’s Office
    • 1994: Appointed to Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission
    • 2004 – 2011: District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco
    • 2011 – 2017: California’s Attorney General
    • 2017 – Present: U.S. Senator for California

Who is Willie Brown? He is a politician who served over 30 years in the California State Assembly, spending 15 years as the Speaker, who later became mayor of San Francisco, and was the first African American to hold that office.  Did Brown jump start Harris’ political career?  Maybe.  He did appoint Harris to the two state commission positions in 1994 when he was the Speaker.  But Brown had a notorious reputation of filling openings with his buddies, it just so happens that Brown had an intimate relationship with Harris. If they hadn’t had a relationship, I’m sure people would have believed one existed because Harris is a woman. In the end Harris dumped him after a year-long, and I emphasize, PUBLIC relationship. But Brown was the mayor of San Francisco and Harris was a San Francisco District Attorney, that can’t be a coincidence? Sorry, Harris was ELECTED to the DA position.  But what about the California Attorney General position? Nope. That is an ELECTED position as well.

Was having a relationship with Brown, prudent? No. Did the relationship benefit Harris after they broke up?  Maybe, but most likely only in the form of meeting California’s elite donors for her campaigns.  So what if Brown introduced her to other potential donors and gave her a vote of confidence?  Unless Brown controls the pockets of other rich elites and can tamper with elections, it is puzzling why people are trying to make her relationship with Brown so scandalous other than to wag their fingers at her again (since this was already aired out when she ran for DA). This critique obscures the fact that Brown exerted the same influence over several other California politicians’ careers such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, it just so happens Harris was his girlfriend at the time he appointed her to the short-lived state assembly positions. Governor Gavin Newsom also, in part, owes his start in San Francisco politics to Brown by his appointment of Newsom to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission.

Society’s obsession with Harris’ short lived relationship with a political heavyweight is based in misogyny and racism that often indicts black women for having a social life. And let’s be clear, it was not an “affair”— Brown had been separated from his wife for over a decade when he met Harris. My closing remarks: If we can have a President that can brag about grabbing pu**y and having extramarital affairs as a recreational hobby, then we can have a female VP candidate who had a public relationship that ended 24 years ago with a man who appointed her to two obscure administrative positions that probably have nothing to do with her success as an attorney.

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Let’s entertain for a moment that it is appropriate to require a black candidate to fit some perceived “black experience and ideology”. The reality is that our whitewashed world makes it impossible for us to do our jobs in a way that purely advocates for our people.  Even if that were the case, we have to make sure we don’t discourage black woman from reaching for these historical moments with piled-on indictments of failing to be the perfect fit. How do I feel about Harris?  I believe she is a political pragmatist that pursues progressive policies when there is social momentum. I’m not fully convinced this makes her disingenuous because she has never denied the reality of her track record.  But what I do believe is that Harris follows through with her word according to the tone she sets and right now she is calling for drastic change.