Kamala Harris And The Complicated Nature Of Her Polarizing Campaign
Breaking glass ceilings is different when you're Black.
December 09, 2019 at 8:24 pm
This is the weekly column written by Blavity:Politics Senior Editor Kandist Mallett.
With 20,000 people in attendance for her Oakland, California rally, Senator Kamala Harris announced that she would attempt to make history again by becoming the first Black woman to become president. Harris was no stranger to making history; she was the first Black woman to lead the District Attorney's office in San Francisco, the first Black person and the first woman to be elected Attorney General of California, and if the K-hive has anything to say, down the line she could still be the first Black woman to be president. The Harris campaign ended on Monday, to the shock of her supporters and onlookers. Her announcement came shortly after a New York Times piece that depicted her campaign to be ‘unraveling.’
According to the story, the campaign was riddled by nepotism and plagued by a staff that didn’t know how to run a national organization. Worse, it was hobbled by a candidate unsure of what she stood for and incapable of leading her team. The story presented a narrative from sources that Harris’ focus on South Carolina over whiter primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire ultimately destroyed her campaign.
The piece ends by focusing on attendees at a Harris event in Iowa who were torn between her and other moderate presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg. One voter, Laurie Davis, left unimpressed, mentioning that Harris had lost her vote.
The cherrypicking of sources to punctuate the piece seemed too easy. Maybe even biased. As I read the piece as a whole, I was curious about the racial and gender identities of the campaign staffers who spoke to the Times. That sort of additional information, for me at least, helps create a clearer understanding of elements that could also influence the sources' perspectives.
Being a Black woman is nothing that Harris has shied away from. She made it a point to honor Shirley Chilsom, took time to speak to Black women at conferences like the Power Rising conference (a conference centering Black political women), and created plans that focused on Black mothers' mortality rates. Still, Harris found difficulty securing a large Black base. According to Politico, “Harris has placed no higher than third among black voters in POLITICO/Morning Consult polls since August, behind Biden and Bernie Sanders, and she trailed Elizabeth Warren in fourth in more recent surveys, including a Quinnipiac poll out of South Carolina.”There were many complications when it came to Harris and her campaign with Black voters. As a Black woman, Harris committed three sins: She was a prosecutor that sent Black people to jail, she had a white husband, and she was a political moderate. For the Black Lives Matter generation, being a prosecutor is unforgivable. The “Kamala is a cop” narrative existed long before she ran for president. She was never able to shake it off during her campaign.
For our series The Sit Down, we asked Harris about her time as a prosecutor. The intention of the question was to give Harris an opportunity to address the issue directly, and even perhaps to admit her mistakes. But, as she had done in other interviews, she continued to defend her record. For millennials and zoomers who rightfully see the criminal justice system as a racist institution designed to hurt Black people, we needed to hear her acknowledge that she regretted prosecutorial decisions that made it easier for Black people to be targeted and arrested.
That never happened.
But Harris was not the only prosecutor running for president. Amy Klobuchar was a county prosecutor in Minnesota, yet that hasn’t been an anchoring issue for her campaign. During Klobuchar’s time as a prosecutor, she failed to go after police when they shot Black men. Yet "Klobuchar is a cop" isn’t a narrative that haunts her campaign. Two women, one white, one Black, both of whom climbed the ranks with a tough-on-crime record. Still, it was Harris that had to defend her role during a heated exchange between herself and former Vice President Joe Biden during the June debates.
Was it fair for Harris to face more scrutiny because she was a Black woman?
Harris’ candidacy was complicated by her identity. Her role as a prosecutor defied the idea of the Black woman as a particular archetype: Protector of our community, defender of our Black men. The fact that she was a prosecutor felt treacherous to a community that is harassed and killed by the police and targeted by the criminal justice system.
So was there a double standard for Harris? Yes.
Was that double standard fair? Yes and no. Was Kamala Harris treated differently and held to a different standard because she was a Black woman? Yes. Is that wrong? Yes. Is the standard of not wanting someone who has built a career off imprisoning Black people wrong? No, it’s not.
When news broke that Harris was withdrawing, my curated Twitter feed was filled with Black women who felt wronged. Whether you supported her campaign or policies, the fact that she was the only Black woman and person of color to qualify for the December DNC debates yet still had to withdraw so early felt like a familiar injustice. And while identity alone doesn’t always guarantee political representation—something Obama’s years in office made clear—it does feel like just another Black woman having to work three times as hard, and not being able to get as far. In Harris’ statement to supporters explaining why she was withdrawing, she said, “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign.” Harris’ state operations director, whose resignation letter was published in the Times, left that campaign to join billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s. And billionaire Tom Streyer, who joined the campaign race in July, has qualified for the December debates.
At the end of the day, the lessons to be learned from the Harris campaign are less about campaign management and more about securing a base. Harris was unable to define her candidacy outside of being a former prosecutor, and in the end, it defined her.