Who does Kamala Harris really represent?

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

Brianna Walsh explores Kamala Harris’ nomination as Joe Biden’s running mate, and the limits of representation.

“She represents my story – my past and my future.” 

The words of Anita Thawani Bucio, a first-generation Indian-American working mother, are rife with respect and promise in the pages of the New York Times this August. 

“I never thought I’d see the day when my next V.P. shared the same skin color, no-nonsense attitude, and even the same middle name.” declares Shakunthala Devi Shiwnath, a 29-year-old Bostonian.

“Representation matters. Role models matter.” says Goerg’ann Cattelona, a grassroots organizer from Indiana. 

And she’s right. Representation matters. Especially in a context where women, and Black and Brown women in particular, have faced serious under-representation throughout US political history. In addition, this demographic encounter serious oppression on the ground, with nearly a quarter of the group living below the official poverty line. The announcement that Kamala Harris would be the first African American and the first Asian American woman on a Democratic Party ticket was therefore a welcome one. Harris’ position as the prospective vice president under the Biden campaign indicates a huge leap for the future of American politics and the fate of marginalized communities. But in the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, Harris’ symbolic potential is only worthwhile if fulfilled. Whether it is likely to be fulfilled requires serious investigation into her track record and political ability, not just her heritage. When the stakes are so high for those most affected, we must ask; is Kamala Harris truly representative of their plight, and more importantly, is she committed to making the structural changes necessary in order to tackle it? 

With an estimated wealth of six million dollars after her marriage to attorney Douglas Emhoff, critics have placed doubts on Harris’ ability to adequately understand the struggles of those who suffer the most; poor Black women. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for the New Yorker, argues that “class position is not an intangible extra that can be discarded when we talk about representation.” Indeed, Harris’ place of privilege could hinder her ability to empathise with those she is expected to vouch for most. 

Intersectionality aside, there is no reason that her elite standing should prevent her from implementing progressive policies, particularly when she was raised by an activist immigrant mother, stood among the first students to attend desegregated Berkeley schools, and still faces discrimination from Republican opposition. 

So, is she likely to administer said policies? Unfortunately, Harris’ race does not guarantee that she will champion a Black-centered agenda. And she certainly has not made any such promises so far. In fact, both she and Biden have done little to explain how their illustrative gestures towards change will morph into the material and systemic reform needed to support millions of underprivileged minority women. Because they have not given us a lot to go on, all that is left to do is examine their histories. 

While Harris impressively condemned Biden’s racist past in a Democratic debate earlier this year, her recent solidarity is evidence of her tendency to bend to the will of superior powers when it suits her own agenda. Her inconsistent support of Bernie Sander’s ‘Medicare For All’ plan, and companionship with Sheryl Sandberg provides further proof. She befriended the Facebook CEO while serving as Attorney General, standing by as California’s tech industry expanded dangerously and affected the lives of the lowest socio-economic class; those she was placed in power to protect. 

Contradictory character established, her actions as California’s lead prosecutor place her further from the core interests of Black and Brown communities. While in charge, she opposed measures to investigate shootings involving officers, appealed a judge’s effort to end the death penalty, and imposed policing policies that arrested truant parents, majorly impacting those who are “overwhelmingly poor, Black and Brown, and struggling”. In the current climate, women leading the Black Lives Matter movement are advocating for radical change in the country’s criminal legal system. Can they really depend on the “top cop” and her moderate, state-force approach to enact the transformation that campaigners desire? 

At the same time, it is injudicious to ignore the political constraints that the biracial candidate has faced throughout her professional life. The context of her rise highlights a time in which her opposition of a criminal execution in 2004 almost cost her career. Barack Obama’s tough penalty legislation against offenders while state senator is further confirmation that during the early 2000s, being deemed pro-criminal was dangerous for Black politicians and their progression. As Peter Beinart notes, “Commentators can ignore the way American politics actually works. Black women who want a career in national politics cannot.” Harris’ cautionary tactics could be the only reason her name is appearing on the 2020 party ticket in the first place. And in a race against Donald Trump and conservative America, no matter how Harris arrived at where she is today, maybe it is more important that she stays there. 

Perhaps Black and Brown female activists would feel more assured if Harris clearly offered such reassurance. Perhaps clarity remains out of reach until her seat in power is secured. But how much power does Harris need before she begins to use her position for good? And how much longer can the Black Lives Matter movement wait? 

Representation matters. But we must not conflate symbolic firsts with the assumption that a biracial woman at the helm will make a meaningful difference in minority lives. That a Black captain equals a Black policymaking plan. For that to happen, Harris must not only be a descriptive representative, she must be a substantive one. She has the experience, debating credentials and potential to affect real change. Likely a presidential front runner for 2024, she could gain the capacity to listen to Black and Brown women, uniquely understand them, and implement the progressive reforms necessary to ensure their calls are answered. Whether or not she will? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the plight of those affected first-hand continues across US streets and worldwide, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations unexpected to cease any time soon.