The Ambivalence, Pride, and Mixed Feelings of Kamala Harris's Candidacy

The Ambivalence, Pride, and Mixed Feelings of Kamala Harris's Candidacy
Image:Saul Loeb (Getty Images)

Soon after Sen. Kamala Harris was selected to be Joe Biden’s 2020 running mate, I texted some old friends from college. Like Harris, I attended Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. that boasts an alumni list filled with notable Black politicians, artists, and entertainers; Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall, Debbie Allen and Taraji P. Henson. Howard graduates are proud, and the outside successes of a fellow Bison are treated as a badge of honor.

But the conversations between my friends and me didn’t comprise of breathless wonderment that the potential next Vice President or future President of the United States could be a Howard graduate. We understood the historic significance of Harris’s nomination, but we also understood the controversy surrounding Harris’s prosecutorial record and our collective naivete during the Obama years, enough to put a damper on the excitement that buzzed around the Harris selection.

I considered the months ahead, the casual misogyny and racism to come, the draining discourse about Harris’s immigrant background, the tiresome “yas queen”-ing from those who treat politics like a fandom. Naturally, the aforementioned all happened within the first 24 hours of the announcement, and somewhere in between a right-winger claiming Harris isn’t Black and a pro-Kamala Instagram post comparing Harris to Black activists of yore stood me, wondering if everyone has lost their damn minds or if my lack of enthusiasm was the only thing strange around here.

Harris long felt like the obvious choice: Tough, experienced, and genial. Anyone who witnessed her debate performance during the Democratic primary or her ruthless interrogation of Brett Kavanaugh or Jeff Sessions during Senate hearings knows that Harris packs some punch, exactly what Biden—an affable if bland figure—needed. Her controversial record as San Francisco’s District Attorney and California Attorney General—a melange of modest reforms and carceral status quo—might have put her out of the running for many on the left, but this was likely of little consequence to Biden, a man with his own messy history regarding criminal justice. It is also likely of little consequence to white suburbanites who probably won’t care about someone on Twitter calling Kamala Harris a cop.

But the road to Harris’s selection was ghoulish. Not only was the selection process was aided by former Senator Chris Dodd, a virulent sexist, but because it was clear that Biden’s pick must appropriately appeal to one of America’s most fickle demographics: Suburban white women. And the minute Biden’s veep search shifted from selecting a woman to selecting a woman of color—specifically, a black woman—my dread set in. It was as if the campaign, pundits, and keyboard political analysts scrambled to make a detailed spreadsheet of every black woman in American politics and subsequently pick her apart. Take the typically invasive vetting process and add a heaping of misogynoir and voila: The search for the safest black woman in politics was on.

A few Jezebel readers were rubbed the wrong way by our tongue-in-cheek comparison of Harris’s selection to receiving a rose on The Bachelor, but given the way many media outlets, spectators, and even Biden himself treated the oddly long selection process—breathless, like a nailbiting season finale—it felt apt. The Bachelor: Ebony Edition. Was the early dismissal of Stacey Abrams—a woman who was derided for daring to show eagerness at the prospect of being vetted for VP—due to her lack of experience holding statewide office, or were colorism and fatphobia part of the equation as well? Was Karen Bass rejected due to ideology, or age?

Harris didn’t escape this process without getting hounded by sexist dog whistles, either; substantive critiques of her record were drowned out by Biden loyalists who lambasted her ambition, and Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and Harris’s former boyfriend, wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle coaxing Harris to turn down a V.P. offer as if she didn’t have the range to weigh the pros and cons for herself.

This became a sideshow, and the way Harris was selected didn’t ease the clownery.

It didn’t take long for right-wingers to bring out the calipers: Mark Levin rambled on about her ethnicity on his web program while Dinesh D’Souza took to Fox News to deny her blackness because her lineage goes back to a slaveowner—as if the same can’t be said for several Black Americans with slave ancestry.

Meanwhile, gleeful liberals wasted no time with false equivalencies. An aesthetically pleasing graphic compared Kamala Harris to Soujourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, and Barbara Jordan. Enjoy Harris all you want, but comparing her to Harriet Tubman, a woman who risked life and limb to liberate enslaved people, is delusional. (And neither the font nor the hashtag #WinWithBlackWomen make it any better).

The impulse to conflate a Black politician with Black activists continued with a well-meaning but strange illustration by cartoonist Mike Luckovich, who drew civil rights activist Rosa Parks looking down from heaven upon Harris, who is standing by a campaign bus.

“Congrats,” Parks says. “Love your bus.”

Kamala waves at Parks, the angel.

I’m supposed to be moved, reminded of the strides that black women have made to get to this moment. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the saccharine silliness of it all.

I have my share of criticisms of Harris. I’m frustrated that she stands by the less savory elements of her tough-on-crime record, and I was disappointed by her repeated flip flops during the Democratic primary, especially on health care, one the most important domestic issues in the nation. Commentators are already drumming up reasons why Harris’s “ideological nimbleness” is an asset to the Biden campaign, and it very well might be. But it does little to ease my concerns. If it weren’t for Harris pushing for Americans to receive $2,000 per month amid the ongoing covid-19 crisis—a common-sense solution to this economic catastrophe that even Biden is reluctant to support—my cynicism would be through the roof, tempered only by the fact that getting Trump out of office is my primary objective as a voter.

But it’s tough not feeling somewhat alienated by the intense meaning-making of Harris’s candidacy, especially after the presidency of Barack Obama. The Obama years were enough to transform me from a giddy 18-year-old willing to freeze outside in January if it meant witnessing the inauguration of the first Black president in person, to a jaded 26-year-old who knew that no amount of sentimentality or fictive kinship for Barack Obama could make up for drone strikes, deportation, or his mild condescension toward Black Lives Matter activists.

In 2008, a Black president felt exciting, a sight I doubted witnessing in my lifetime. But now it’s 2020, and while the historical implications of a Black woman in the Oval Office is a heady one, the shine doesn’t feel as bright. The optics of marginalized people obtaining power isn’t inherently revolutionary. The last decade of shallow representation in both pop culture, business, and politics has made this abundantly clear. What does it mean to have a seat at the table if little to no systematic change follows? Though Harris’s election would absolutely be historic—there is no denying this—it is fair to note that a Black woman in the White House doesn’t necessarily mean that her tenure will be revolutionary.

I oscillate between pride—that a fellow Howard alumni, a fellow Black woman, a fellow Californian could just be the next Vice President of the United States—and utter indifference. I oscillate between feeling as if it is my imperative as a Black woman to defend Kamala Harris against unfair critiques, and torn by what I may be defending in return. And more than anything, I am already exhausted by what will come; that I will spend several months, if not years, dividing my ire between the obvious racism and sexism of right-wingers and the tone-deafness of liberals.

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