The Fall and Rise of Kamala Harris
look at Presidential politics in 2020, you’d think that the one concept unifying the nation was a longing for a befuddled white paterfamilias. There’s the gentle and genial one, tinkering in the basement, and then there’s the other one, ranting, Lear-like, in the helicopter wind. Vice-President Mike Pence, another member of the white-hair club, reportedly, though born in the twentieth century, calls his wife “Mother.”
Then, on Tuesday, Joe Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate, fulfilling his debate-stage pledge to choose a woman, and satisfying an expectation by many on the left that he would pick a woman of color. Several days ago, a hundred prominent Black men, from Bishop William J. Barber to Sean Combs, wrote Biden a letter warning, “Failing to select a Black woman in 2020 means you will lose the election.”
They were following up on the urgings of prominent Black women—advocates, strategists, activists—who had been writing letters and op-eds for months. Jotaka Eaddy, a political strategist and former adviser to the N.A.A.C.P., organized a collective of Black women around the hashtag #winwithblackwomen. “Black women represent sixteen million voters in this election,” she told me. “We are the highest and most loyal voting block in the Democratic Party. There hasn’t been for forty years a pathway to Democratic victory without the work of Black women. It is high time that we are seen not just as the backbone but as the leaders we are.”
Harris, a longtime friend and supporter of President Obama—and someone who has been called, to her annoyance, “the female Obama”—grew up in the East Bay, the child of politically active immigrants from Jamaica and India. She’s the first Black woman and first Asian woman to be on a major-party ticket. Her presence on the ticket is historic: whatever happens next, it makes a relic of the multiple factors that previously would have conspired against her being there.
Firstdom is a role that Harris knows from a political career nurtured in San Francisco, where she served as the county’s first female and first Black district attorney. The same designation applied when she became California’s Attorney General, in 2011; when she was elected to the U.S. Senate, in 2016, she became that body’s first Asian and second Black woman. I Profiled Harris for the magazine in 2019, during her Presidential run, and she espoused confidence that she’d win it, and set precedent again.
There are a number of ways to explain why Harris’s Presidential bid didn’t work: lack of ground game; questions of authenticity; no galvanizing, breakthrough message. But she seemed to be swimming against the tide from the earliest days of her campaign—mistrusted by an influential faction of progressives who resented her attempt to align—belatedly, they felt—with the criminal-justice-reform movement.
In 2018, the social-media activist Shaun King named two Democrats he was “99% sure” he would not “be supporting – primarily because of their dismal history on criminal justice reform over the course of their entire careers.” You got it: Biden and Harris. To the Party’s leading edge, she was an agent of a status quo, whose job it had been to incarcerate men of color in the state with the second-largest prison population. They saw her as, at heart, a cop, someone who had failed to use her executive power as D.A. and A.G. to make significant changes to law-enforcement practices. She was the D.A. who had, once upon a time, threatened parents of truant children with jail. Therefore, not the right Black woman for the job.
As a Black Presidential candidate, Harris didn’t have space to talk about her evolution on race and criminal justice. Instead, she rebuffed critics who implied that she had not sufficiently empathized with or advocated for communities of color by reminding them that she is Black, and grew up in America. There was nothing she didn’t know, from daily experience, starting as a child in Oakland. Her star turn during the primary season was the moment at the second debate when she announced, “As the only Black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.” She did not, she said, consider Biden to be a racist. But. He had made choices during his long Senate career, including recently talking about his friendly collaboration with known segregationists, that were extremely hurtful.
He had also, she reminded the room, opposed school busing in the nineteen-seventies. This was not a controversial position at the time, but she made it so, turning to the camera and saying that there was a girl in California whose life had been changed by busing. “That little girl was me,” she said. He was not a racist, and maybe he didn’t intend it, but policies have people at the other end. His, she suggested, would have denied her the opportunity she deserved.
It was a heady moment of confrontation, in spite of its unspontaneous feeling, and it yielded Harris a nice bump. It was also Harris’s last moment of glory; six months later, she had dropped out of the race. But the moment seemed likely to linger awkwardly, dooming a future political partnership. Biden has the luxury of being a white politician who can come around, with time and through listening, to more enlightened views. He gets points for growth. His choice of Harris is perfectly coherent within the narrative of broadening.
On Tuesday, evolution was in the air. Shaun King greeted Biden’s announcement with a tweet. “That’s it for me,” he wrote. “I am incredibly proud to see a brilliant Black woman, and HBCU grad, chosen as a Vice Presidential nominee. I’ve done political work my whole life. It’s rarely things dreams are made of. Kamala Harris is the most progressive VP nominee in American history.” If others could not praise her, they at least muzzled their complaints. It was a pretty cheerful day on liberal Twitter.
Jess Morales Rocketto, an alumna of the Clinton and Obama campaigns who advocates for domestic workers and family reunification, told me that the selection of Harris, with whom she has worked closely but not always completely agreed, thrilled her in a way it might not have a year ago. “I was so naïve as to what could happen,” she said. “People thought that what Trump was doing a year ago was rock bottom. It turns out that’s not true. That it can get way, way worse. The stakes ratchet up so high.” It is no time for qualifications or asterisks. She said that she looks forward to working with Harris when she’s in the White House, wrestling over policy gaps that might exist between them, like friends do. “Today I’m just going to celebrate,” she said. “We’re in a triple pandemic of racism, a public-health crisis, and an economic crisis. It’s necessary to have joy and celebration.”
Dana Goodyear, a staff writer, was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker from 1999 to 2007, when she began writing full time for the magazine.
(Copied from the New Yorker here)
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