In the couple of weeks since Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden picked Senator Kamala Harris of California as his vice-presidential running mate, the public forum has been awash with criticism and analysis; positive and negative viewpoints, some baseless viral conspiracies designed to deface her, and some sexist and racist ad hominem attacks. The common thread running through this rhetoric has been one of uncertainty—supporters and critics alike have found themselves befuddled when faced with the complexities of Ms. Harris’ heritage and politics. In an attempt to define who Ms. Harris is and what she stands for, commentators and politicians have been wrestling with false dichotomies in terms of her biracial identity and her “malleable” politics. Few, however, have paused to acknowledge that the complexities of Ms. Harris’ politics are inextricably linked to the unique set of challenges that women of color face in the political arena.
The choice of Ms. Harris has been simultaneously viewed as historic, strategic, and also, due to her more moderate stance, quite safe. Ms. Harris—of Indian and Jamacian descent—is the first Asian American, the first Black woman, and the third woman ever to be added to the bottom of a presidential ticket (Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to be nominated for Vice President in 1984, and Sarah Palin was the second in 2008). If Ms. Harris wins, she will be the first woman ever elected into the White House.
Therefore, at a moment when the country is seemingly at its most divided, Mr. Biden’s choice of a biracial woman is sure to rouse and excite many voters and send a message to the public about what differentiates him from President Trump. And it has. Politico reported that within 24 hours of Mr. Biden’s nomination of Ms. Harris, his campaign raised $26 million. A campaign aide confirmed that the first hour after the announcement was the “best hour of fundraising in the entire 2020 campaign.” The nomination of Ms. Harris has been viewed as a relatively safe choice due to her moderate stance and her political legacy. However, as the campaign progresses and as Ms. Harris’ personality and choices have been thrust into the political spotlight, it has been apparent that defining Ms. Harris is a complex endeavor.
Part of this uncertainty stems from her biracial heritage. Her race has been called into question by people from both sides of the aisle. While many Black Americans and Asian Americans (especially Southeast Asian and Indian Americans) feel incredibly inspired by Ms. Harris’ nomination, others are struggling to grasp the intricacies of her background. She is viewed as not being “Black enough” to be Black, or “Asian enough” to be Asian. Of course, the criticism is a false dichotomy, she is not “either” “or”, she’s both.
In a similar vein, The Trump campaign, evidently baffled about Mr. Biden’s choice, is scrambling for a clear narrative about Ms. Harris. Already, they have painted her as both a “radical” and “too tough on crime.” In response to Ms. Harris’ selection, Mr. Trump himself seemed to be unclear on the line of attack. He went through a short laundry list of reasons why not to vote for Ms. Harris before deviating from the script and reverting to stereotypes, calling her “extraordinarily nasty,” “meanest,” and “most horrible.”
Fresh off of the Republican National Convention, Mr. Trump is continuing with his baseless attacks against Ms. Harris. Funnily enough, his panicked sexist and racist rhetoric is almost ironically juxtaposed with Mr. Trump’s desperate appeals via Twitter to “the suburban housewife.” However, the baseless nature of most of his claims in addition to the mismanagement of the pandemic have repelled some sections of the female base that he is now attempting to regain. Some attacks against Ms. Harris–like claiming that she is “too ambitious” or “rubs people the wrong way”—are simply “misogynoir marked as criticism.”
Many polls show that Mr. Trump is losing the female vote, many of the white women who voted for him in 2016 now swaying towards the Democratic party. Ms. Harris just might be the person to ensure their vote. For the Trump campaign, Ms. Harris is more of a threat than a more progressive choice. Her moderate stance, combined with her biracial heritage, may appeal to swing voters. In fact, she may even be able to sway some Republicans.
While this VP pick seems to have befuddled the Trump administration and energized the Biden campaign, Ms. Harris also faces significant criticism from progressive Democrats, many of whom believe that her track record as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general proves just how much of a moderate “top cop” Ms. Harris is. During her time as California’s attorney general, Ms. Harris was criticized for being tough on crime, not investigating police-related shootings, and for not supporting measures that would have led to increased accountability for the police force. Her prosecutorial past has affected her popularity amongst some Black voters.
If we look back at the 2000s, when Ms. Harris was entering politics as a prosecutor in California, Ms. Harris’s original views on criminal-justice were actually quite progressive. Almost too progressive for the time, the place and even the party. Ms. Harris was an opponent of the death penalty, and when she was San Fransisco’s district attorney back in 2004, refused to execute a man who killed a police officer. This was a radical move back in the 2000s, even for the Democratic party. 60 percent of the Democratic voters supported the death penalty in 2004. Many politicians represented the people by firmly standing behind capital punishment as well. So, in regards to criminal justice, back then, Ms. Harris was a radical.
Ms. Harris was rebuked for the decision not to pursue the death penalty, even by members of her own party. Six years later, when Ms. Harris ran for California attorney general (in a majority Blue state) in 2010, she won against Republican Steve Cooley by less than a single point, proving that her radical stance could end her political career. After that, Ms. Harris did her best not to intervene in police killings and misconduct. As the years passed and the country and the Democratic party shifted to a more reformist stance, Ms. Harris followed suit. Does that make her a political pragmatist? Possibly. However, what is viewed as political pragmatism and opportunism can just as easily be viewed as a survival mechanism to stay afloat and relevant in the political arena.
Many of the criticisms against Ms. Harris fail to grasp the full weight of what it means to be a Black and Asian woman in politics. Especially in the 2000s, it was widely understood that being deemed “pro-criminal” was dangerous for Black politicians. Dangerous enough to end a career. In 2004, Barack Obama himself pointed out that he was tough on crime during a Senate debate and had added, “150 pieces of legislation that toughened penalties” saying, “there’s only one candidate who’s ever dealt with hardened criminals on this stage, and that’s me.” Furthermore, when Ms. Harris did not pursue the death penalty, she was deemed pro-criminal and her political career was nearly halted.
A large part of the skepticism surrounding her also stems from the policy shifts that Ms. Harris had to make in order to survive in the political arena. She has changed her stance on multiple issues, leading to confusion amongst voters surrounding where she stood on many issues. Initially supporting Medicare for All, she then switched towards supporting Obamacare. While she did not initially support the legalization of cannabis, she then introduced a bill that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level.
Therefore, some progressives believe that she may prove to be just as malleable and amenable as Mr. Biden. She appears to be shifting with the times: from supporting the Green New Deal to teaming up with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on a bill that requires the federal government to make environmental legislation with marginalized communities in mind. Along with other Democratic politicians such as Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ms. Harris introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which intends to “hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement and build trust between law enforcement and our communities” by banning choke-holds, racial profiling, and no-knock warrants. Ms. Harris is also an advocate for women’s rights, saying on the podcast Pod Save America, “Women’s issues would be everyone’s issues,” and has introduced a bill to the senate to fund research on uterine fibroids, an issue that disproportionately affects Black women.
According to Elaine Godfrey of The Atlantic, many progressives “don’t really care if those moves were genuine or motivated in part by politics. They just want [Ms.] Harris to make more of them… [Ms.] Harris’s potentially pliable ideology… could prove useful to progressives. It’s something she has in common with her running mate.” So, although many progressives may be skeptical of Ms. Harris, they’re also hopeful that they can continue to push her in a more progressive direction.
In response to many progressive’s critiques of Ms. Harris, Peter Beinart writes in The Atlantic that claiming Ms. Harris is either “a political pragmatist” or a “politician who changed with the times” is a false dichotomy. “If politics hadn’t influenced [Ms.] 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,” Beinart writes. “As a Black woman working in law enforcement, [Ms.] Harris didn’t have the luxury of [Bernie] Sander’s ideological purity…The fact that Ms. Harris didn’t boldly confront police misconduct earlier in her career says less about her than about the country in which she lived.”
The rhetoric surrounding Ms. Harris’ past had focused on her prosecutorial and opportunistic “baggage‘.” Not only is the term ambiguous and misogynistic, but these discussions also seem to focus on pigeonholing Ms. Harris as either a “sober-minded centrist” or a “far-left ideologue.” However, these analyses seem to miss the complexities of not only political expediency and pragmatism but also the challenges that arise with being a woman of color in politics.
Instead of framing Ms. Harris’ policy changes as “malleability”, expediency, or pragmatism we should recognize that she is making steps that aim to unite the Democaratic platform and further align her with Biden’s stance. It can be a privilege for one to be radical and still have the weight of the people behind them. Unfortunately, that is a privilege that many women of color do not have.
Attempts to put Kamala Harris in an ideological box are problematic and unsuccessful because Ms. Harris represents a kind of complexity that America is just beginning to come to terms with. She combines the narrative of a first-generation, biracial descendant of immigrant parents with the savvy political pragmatism of a woman of color navigating the political arena. We must allow Ms. Harris’ personal history and political stance the dynamism and complexity that they deserve, all the while understanding that women of color in politics face a tougher battle than most.
In February of 2020, Senator Mitt Romney received flack from Republicans and applause from Democrats when he voted to convict President Trump on one of two articles of impeachment. He gave a rousing speech about how, although he is in the Republican Party, he took an oath to protect the Constitution, and protecting the country took precedence even though he knew there would be consequences. And now, former McCain, Bush, and Romney staffers are endorsing Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, joining the throngs of Republicans who are rejecting the incumbent president. Considering Ms. Harris has changed to better fit the desires of this country and has shifted to a more progressive stance, shouldn’t more progressive Democrats be as accepting of Ms. Harris as they were of Mr. Romney and other Republicans?
Just like with any public figure with the power to influence and lead, we should be critical of and hold Ms. Harris and all of our politicians accountable for questionable or harmful policies that they either made or enforced in the past. But we should also allow our politicians the chance to change their policies and beliefs, just as the country and the public they represent does.
Now, we need to make sure that the politicians we elect into the highest offices in the country will change with the times, follow through, and not only represent but also champion the people’s needs. After the last four years, that’s exactly the kind of leadership that America is crying out for.