Ciara Garcha introduces us to the history-making Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris

On 11 August, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made history by nominating Kamala Harris as his running mate. A California Senator and his former opponent for the presidential nomination, Harris is only the third woman who has been nominated as vice-president (following Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin’s nomination as Republican candidate in 2008) and the first ever woman of colour, making her groundbreaking in American political history. Heralded by many as a political icon but criticised by others for her links to law enforcement and her centrism, Harris has had an incredible political career that may only just be getting started.

Born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Kamala Harris had a diverse cultural background. As one of the children bussed to school as part of the famous desegregation policy, much of Harris’ childhood was shaped by her race and heritage, giving her an early consciousness of racial injustice and politics. During a televised debate between Democrat presidential candidates, Harris famously clashed with Joe Biden on the policy of bussing, saying: “there was a little girl in California…and she was bussed to school everyday. And that little girl was me.” She later released merchandise capturing the key moment from the debate, prompting international attention.

Harris’ political career was groundbreaking from the start. After graduating from the historically Black, Howard University and the law school at the University of California, in 2003 she became San Francisco’s District Attorney, the chief prosecutor within the area and an elected official. Winning with 56% of the vote, Harris became the first woman of colour to hold this role in California. Subsequently, Harris successfully ran to be Attorney General of California, the official in charge of law enforcement across the whole state, making her the first Black American and the first woman to do so. In spite of these historic achievements, Harris’ work in this area is where a great deal of the controversy surrounding her lies.

As a Black American, as an Indian-American, as a mixed-race American, as a woman: a Harris vice-presidency would be completely groundbreaking in a polity still dominated by elderly white men

Kamala Harris has previously claimed she acted as a “progressive prosecutor”, but critics argue that she maintained a tough policy and refused to embrace reforms during her time as an attorney. It has been alleged that Harris turned a blind eye to misconduct within the police force and sought to uphold convictions that had been based on compromised evidence. There was also widespread criticism that many of the policies she enforced in these legal capacities, disproportionately impacted low-income citizens of colour, such as the prosecution of parents whose children consistently truanted from school. Punishment for convicted parents could include a fine of $2,000 or a year in county jail – or both. Between 2002 and 2005 (a period during which Harris served as District Attorney of San Francisco) Black people made up 8% of the city’s population but constituted over 40% of police arrests and reportedly made up 56% of the district’s inmates, as of 2013. Whilst it would have obviously been unrealistic to expect that Harris could root out a culture of racial injustice during her tenure and wrong to expect her, as a woman of colour, to correct the biases held against people of colour and the Black community, many of the criticisms levelled against Harris and her own previous statements suggest a reluctance to criticise the police force and therefore the problems within it. Despite reportedly speaking out against racial profiling within the police force, Harris has publicly expressed her support for the police during her time as a prosecutor. Having previously referred to herself as a “top cop” in spite of the poor relations many communities have with the police force – including the Black American community, to which she belongs – Harris has also advocated for more police on the streets.

Most strikingly, Harris is accused of having avoided cases involving police brutality and murder; crimes, which again, disproportionately affect people of colour. Following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, Harris failed to support calls for police shootings in San Francisco, dating back to her tenure as District Attorney and Attorney General, to be investigated. A 2015 Bill proposing independent investigations into police brutality in California also failed to receive her backing.

In her memoir ‘The Truths We Hold’, Harris wrote: “America has a deep dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice.” However, it seems that such inequality was rife throughout and after her tenure as both District Attorney and Attorney General. For all her commitments to progressivism in law enforcement and prosecutorial work, there appears to have been little progress made on the institutional racism so deeply embedded within the criminal justice system. Support for and a reluctance to engage critically with the police force and aspects of the legal system, seem to have limited the progress that Harris was able to make.

Her legal career was however not without several notable achievements. Harris focused much of her attention on the rehabilitation of convicted criminals and the reduction of reoffending rates, culminating in the creation of the ‘Back on Track’ scheme. This programme focused on helping young, low-level offenders to reintegrate into society as smoothly as possible, supporting them in education and work in order to keep them out of prison. She also helped to fight for and uphold the right to equal marriage for all, putting it at the centre of her campaign for Attorney General in 2010, a time when it was still not a constitutional right and remained illegal in many states.

Outside of the achievements and controversies during her time as both District Attorney and Attorney General, Harris can be credited with making history in both California and the USA. Her occupancy of these public offices broke boundaries and no doubt helped pave the way for Black women and women of colour in law and law enforcement; areas which desperately need to become more representative of the US population.

Many critics of her earlier legal work have recognised and praised her changing philosophy

Harris’ election to the Senate and her subsequent work has marked a gradual move towards progressivism. When she was sworn in as Senator for California in 2017 (a contest which she won with over 60% of the vote), Harris became the second Black American woman and the first South Asian senator in history. During her time in the Senate, Kamala Harris has reversed many of her controversial opinions and policies from earlier in her career. Notably Harris changed her position on cannabis, now supporting its legalisation after prosecuting almost 1,900 cannabis- related cases during her time as San Francisco District Attorney. Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Harris and New Jersey Senator, Cory Booker, (the only Black Democratic Senators) drafted the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which would have greatly restrained the powers of the police, including prohibiting the issue of no-knock warrants and creating a federal registry of police misconduct. Kamala Harris was also one of the leading voices supporting the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following Floyd’s murder. Many critics of her earlier legal work have recognised and praised her changing philosophy. Lara Bazelon who penned a New York Times Article entitled ‘Kamala Harris was not a “Progressive Prosecutor”’, later told Democracy Now following Harris’ nomination as vice-president: “She has…really done a 180 in some of her former positions…[and] she has been a very, very strong voice on the importance of racial injustice.”

Perhaps surprisingly in light of her more conservative record in law enforcement, Harris has been described as one of the most progressive members of the Senate in practice. Progressive Punch, a database of Congressional voting records with a progressive focus, rated Harris as having the fourth most-progressive voting record in the Senate. She was placed ahead of even staunch left-wingers like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders. As junior Senator from California Harris has also done an incredible job in holding the Trump executive to account. Serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee gives Harris the right to question and confirm presidential nominees to certain legal offices, including nominees to the Supreme Court. Her prowess in this role was best seen when accused attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court – the highest legal office in the USA. Harris pushed Kavanaugh on these allegations, during Senate confirmation hearings, asking him why he repeatedly refused an FBI investigation into the complaints made against him. Clips of Harris’ grilling of Kavanaugh swiftly went viral, highlighting her skill in questioning and debating.

When the Judiciary Committee interviewed one of Kavanaugh’s accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Harris praised her “courage” in coming forward and performing her “civic duty”. She went on to say: “I want to thank you for your courage and I believe you…I think many Americans across this country believe you.” These moments were also posted and reposted across the internet and formed the background of wider admiration for Dr. Blasey Ford’s bravery and strength.

Even with her gradual move towards the progressive left, Harris has still been criticised by the leftwing flank of the Democratic Party for her perceived centrism. As a vocal ally of Israel, Harris co-sponsored a Bill objecting to a UN resolution condemning the plans for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, while progressive activists across the world and in her own party criticised the move by the Israeli government. She has also stated she believes that Israel is fully compliant with international human rights standards despite organisations like Amnesty International claiming otherwise. During her campaign for the Democrat presidential nomination, Harris’ stance on introducing free universal-health care seemed to pliable, leading many on the left of the party to question how far she was truly committed to such reforms. Most progressives in the party have struggled to condone her record as District Attorney and Attorney General of California, arguing she failed to take substantial action on police corruption and institutional inequalities. A look at her record proves that many of these criticisms are completely valid, but facing the prospect of another four years of a Trump presidency and wanting to support such a groundbreaking candidate, many progressives have united behind Harris as their vice-presidential candidate.

It seems that Harris and Biden’s public disagreements are in reality a genuine strength of the Democratic ticket

In addition to identifying as a Black American woman, Harris has also expressed her pride in her Indian identity as the daughter of an Indian immigrant and a member of the relatively small but increasing population of Indian-Americans currently estimated to number around four million. Her landmark nomination to be on the Democratic presidential ticket has been heralded by some as reflecting the growing importance, visibility and involvement of South Asians and Indians in US politics. Indian-Americans across the country welcomed the news, with M R Rangaswami, the founder of Indiaspora, describing it as an “electric moment…Indian-Americans are now truly a mainstream community in the national fabric.” As well as breaking down barriers for Black Americans and Black women, it is likely that Harris’ nomination and increased political prominence will also add to the perceived political significance of the Indian-American community.

In light of Biden’s announcement of Harris as his running mate, many Republicans have highlighted the clashes between the two Democrats on the campaign trail for the presidential nominee. In one debate Harris blasted Biden for his historic links with segregationists in the Senate, prompting another viral video clip of Harris’ debating skills to flood social media. Trump allies have pointed to this as an example of potential disunity amongst the nominees, but it seems that Harris and Biden’s public disagreements are in reality a genuine strength of the Democratic ticket.

It is hoped, by more progressive factions in the party, that Harris will be able to hold Biden to account – just as she did in the televised debates – and push him to take a more forward-looking stance on issues that he has traditionally been more conservative on throughout his long political career. Biden himself has been blasted for his centrism, as well as very concerning allegations of sexual misconduct. Harris chided him for the allegations of his past behaviour, saying of the women who made accusations: “I believe them”.  In doing so, Harris has made it clear that her nomination cannot be used to legitimise Biden, make him more acceptable or excuse his past misconduct when it comes to his behaviour towards a number of women.

To say that Kamala Harris was a politician free of controversy and problematic opinions would be a lie, but the Harris-Biden ticket represents a real chance to remove internationally renowned homophobe, sexist and racist Donald Trump from office. In a bizarre repeat of his 2011 accusation against then-president Barack Obama, Trump’s recent racist attacks on Harris questioning whether she is legally eligible to run for vice-president highlight how afraid he is of her candidacy. The prospect of a Biden presidency quite rightly raises doubts, but a Harris vice-presidency – in spite of doubts over her own views and philosophies – truly would make history. As a Black American, as an Indian-American, as a mixed-race American, as a woman: a Harris vice-presidency would be completely groundbreaking in a polity still dominated by elderly white men.

Her importance in a prospective Biden victory is undeniable

As journalist Liz Plank posted on Instagram: “Joe Biden will need Kamala Harris more than Kamala Harris will need Joe Biden.” Her importance in a prospective Biden victory is undeniable. Though the centrism at the heart of this ticket seems out of step with the recent gains made by progressive and left-wing democrats over the last few years, Harris’ progressivism in some policy areas in the Senate (which do actually make her one of the most progressive figures in the upper chamber of Congress) may help to steer Biden slightly more towards the more socialist wing of the party. Whilst it is important not to overstate Harris’ progressivism or the actual power and significance of a vice-president, it can be hoped that – should Biden and Harris win – she can permanently change US politics for the better.

 

 

 

 

The feature image shows Kamala Harris at a fundraiser in Iowa. She wears a white blouse and sits in front of a red background. Other people are visible behind her and she looks up, smiling.
Photograph by Gage Skidmore, used under the Creative Commons License

The photograph shows Kamala Harris being sworn in as a US senator by Joe Biden, the vice-president at the time. Harris stands on the left, wearing a grey and white mottled suit. She faces Biden, whilst raising her right hand and resting her other on a Bible. In the centre of Biden and Harris is Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff. He wears a black suit and holds the brown bible. Biden is stood on the right, also wearing a black suit, and holding copy of the oath of office.
Photograph by the United States Senate

The next photograph is Kamala Harris’ official Attorney General photograph. It shows her wearing a black jacket over a white top, as she smiles into the camera.
Photograph by the Attorney General’s Office

The third photograph shows Kamala Harris at a Back on Track graduation ceremony in 2009. It is taken in a darken room, but shows Harris sitting in the middle of a group of young people. All wear black suits and one holds a certificate, whilst others are holding flowers. Three young people sit either side of Harris, whilst the rest stand. 
Photograph by 4johnny5 from San Francisco, USA, used under the Creative Commons License

The photograph shows Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at San Francisco Pride in 2015. Harris and Emhoff are sitting in a vehicle, as they move through the busy streets during the procession. Harris wears a white dress and waves at the crowd, whilst Emhoff wears blue jeans, a black jacket and a shirt and smiles.
Photograph by Thomas Hawk, used under the Creative Commons License

The next photograph shows Joe Biden speaking, behind a podium, at an event in Iowa. He wears a black jacket and stands in front of a US flag as he talks into a microphone.
Photograph by Gage Sikdmore, used under the Creative Commons License

The final image shows Kamala Harris surrounded by a group of her supporters. Harris wears a white top and light trousers and smiles as she walks of to the left. The supporters around her are clapping. Some of them wear yellow tops and hold blue signs, which read ‘Kamala Harris for the people’, in red and yellow lettering.
Photographs by Gage Skidmore, used under the Creative Commons License