Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s rival-turned-running-mate, has often been referred to as the “female Obama,” a lazy, reductive moniker meant to highlight superficial similarities between ambitious biracial attorneys who are now both historic “firsts” on a presidential ticket.
But a much more consequential link between Harris and Obama is the way that both—to avoid being typecast as “too Black”—prioritized white comfort by embracing politics that often neglected, ignored, or straight-up harmed Black folks.
And those efforts to transcend race—in a country where the mere acknowledgement of racism by Black folks is treated as a militant act of rage by white Americans—is an exercise in futility and cowardice. Harris has a chance to learn from Obama’s mistakes and recognize that no amount of support for anti-Black policies will ever do enough to allay white fears of radical Blackness. That there’s no need to try and reason with white supremacy. Just speak the truth instead.
To be sure, Black politicians are often electorally punished by white voters for opposing racism too loudly. That’s undoubtedly a key part of the reason why Obama mostly resisted discussing race, and especially racism—to avoid inflaming the hyper-delicate sensibilities of white voters. During his first two years in office, according to political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion, Obama spoke less about race than any Democratic president had since 1961.
But that meant he was often mum on pressing issues of anti-Black racism and injustice. Though he would become a more vocal advocate of criminal justice reform on his way out the door, Obama’s response to the racial justice uprisings in Ferguson and then across the country in 2014 was to assemble a task force—not to address the national epidemic of police violence in Black communities but rather to “promote effective crime reduction.” As white supremacist violence grew and racial disparities persisted, he often publicly blamed and shamed Black folks for outcomes driven by structurally racist systems they had no hand in creating—a stark reminder of his 2012 declaration that he was “not the president of Black America.”
Similar appeals to whites about supposed Black pathologies—and support of blame-the-victim policymaking—sit at the core of Harris’ tough-on-crime stance, which garnered winning vote margins from San Francisco’s white liberals in her 2003 bid to be City Attorney and the endorsement of nearly 50 law enforcement groups in her 2014 reelection as California Attorney General. They informed Harris’ endorsement of a truancy law that disproportionately jailed poor Black parents of elementary school kids, as well as her opposition to the reform of unequally enforced marijuana laws.
It was Harris who first described herself—proudly at the time—as California’s “top cop” in July 2016, nearly two years into the Black Lives Matter era and just two weeks after the back-to-back racist police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Those events apparently failed to shake her belief that there was still more political mileage to be gained from shoring up her image as a law-and-order prosecutor even as she paid lip service to being a “progressive prosecutor.”
The “top cop” boast was one of several factors, including a poorly run campaign, that helped sink Harris’ presidential dreams. Defenders continue to claim that Harris, as a candidate who was both Black and a woman, could not have promoted progressive reforms lest she be seen as “soft on crime,” a label that would have been career suicide in the overly carceral 1990s and 2000s. Those same defenders say that to overcome race and gender, or more pointedly, race and gender bias, Harris necessarily downplayed—the temptation is to write “compromised”—her deeply-held progressive ideals. In other words, the theory goes, Harris did what she had to do.
But there’s nothing a Black politician can do, no concessions to white supremacy or damage to Black lives, that’s enough to shield that politician from racist condemnations. Obama was accused of being an undercover Marxist, a Muslim double-agent, and a secret Kenyan national. For all his silence on issues afflicting the Black community, white conservatives still blamed him for the worsening of Black-white race relations. The de facto spokesperson for the racist birther movement, Donald Trump, insisted Obama was neither an American citizen nor the deserving recipient of an Ivy League degree.
Don Jr. has been following his father’s birther lead while targeting Harris, retweeting social media messages claiming that her South Asian and Jamaican parentage make her not “American Black.” Meanwhile, a whole other segment of racist white people have dog whistled that Harris is “too Black.” Before Biden picked her, white men in his camp had derided Harris as “too ambitious” and prone to “rub[bing] people the wrong way”—typically racist and sexist complaints that follow Black women who are too uppity to know their place. Harris’s tough-on-crime agenda is a handicap in a way it has never been for Biden, the white male politician who co-wrote the 1994 crime bill and once boasted of authoring legislation that would “do everything but hang people for jaywalking.”
Perhaps Harris’ losing presidential campaign might offer her some clarity now. In vying to become Biden’s second-in-command, Harris seemed to do a kind of priority reassessment—penning essays on the intersection of white supremacy and gun violence, vocally criticizing the system of policing overall and calling for a “reimagining how we do public safety in America,” and apologizing for that overly punitive truancy law. She signed on to legislation that strengthens the social safety net in the time of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected the physical and economic health of Black and brown Americans. Harris staffers contend the shift is not a matter of political pragmatism but evidence that the vice presidential nominee has “always been a progressive,” and is just supporting proposals that “fit with the type legislation that she always supported while in the Senate.” It seems more likely that there is some political calculation going on, but if it leads Harris to promote less harmful policies for Black people and families, that’s headed in the right direction.
It’s just as critical that Harris not waffle here like she did on, say, Medicare For All during the primary. If she wants Black folks that are rightly suspicious of her political motives in this moment to believe this is the progressive she has always been—but felt unable to admit being—her commitment to Black voters can’t be compromised in the lead up to election day.
Harris is likely to be one of the most influential vice presidents ever, arriving during one of the most disastrous periods of this country’s history. Her running mate has a record on race that is, simply, not good. (Also, he keeps adding to the pile with quotes like this nonsense.)
And there are many progressive Black voters who have little to no enthusiasm about voting for the crime-bill guy and the top cop.
What would change that is if Harris uses the platform she has as vice president to address racial inequity in a direct and meaningful way, regardless of the racist slings and arrows that are guaranteed to follow.