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18 August 2020

Why Kamala Harris must be defined by more than her identity

History and heritage are important, but the Democrats must also ensure their policies reflect political will.

By Emily Tamkin

The announcement of Joe Biden’s running mate in the Democrat’s race for the White House was finally made last Tuesday 11 August. Biden selected Kamala Harris, a senator from California who has gained fame over the course of the Trump administration for her piercing questioning of the president’s appointees.

As I wrote in my earlier piece on the choice, Harris hit Biden hard in a primary debate last year for speaking kindly of two segregationist Senators he’d worked with in the past. It was a standout moment in her campaign, which otherwise couldn’t quite convince voters that it knew what it wanted to be.

But by selecting Harris, Biden is telling Americans that he knows what kind of campaign he wants his to be. Harris is only the fourth woman in US history to be on a major party ticket, as well as the first black woman, HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) graduate and Asian American. Her father was born in Jamaica and her mother in India. She’s making history; by choosing her, Biden is too.

History is important, as is representation. With this choice, Biden is recognising that black women are the Democratic Party’s most loyal and important voting bloc (98 per cent of black women who voted in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton). Some Indian, South Asian and Asian Americans also welcomed their backgrounds finally being reflected at this level of political power.

Yet history and representation, in and of themselves, are also not enough. It can risk insulting the people who are meant to be represented to suggest, first, that they are monolithic enough to all feel represented by the same person, and second, that they should be satisfied by shared ancestry, heritage, colour or culture and not concern themselves with policy.

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[See also: Biden’s VP pick is first woman of colour on a major party ticket]

Harris is not a centrist, but nor is she a progressive in the mould of senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps more notably, Harris is a career prosecutor and, before she was a senator, was attorney general for the state of California – and her record is mixed. When she was district attorney of San Francisco, she decided not to impose the death penalty on a 21-year-old who had killed an undercover police officer. On the other hand, as attorney general, she blocked a bill under which her office would have had to look into shootings by police officers.

Now, as calls for criminal justice reform and defunding of the police follow mass protests opposing police brutality and state-backed violence against black Americans, some observe that Harris, in becoming the first black woman on a major party ticket, hurt some disenfranchised people – in particular people of colour – along the way.

“Harris is a cop,” was the cry in the primary and is the reason the Trump campaign has, at least this week, had difficulty coming up with an attack against her. It is difficult to effectively deride someone as part of the “radical left” when so much of the criticism against her comes from that end of the political spectrum. In an interview on Thursday morning (13 August), Trump was reduced to calling her a “mad”, “angry” woman – transparently sexist and racist, yes, but not a rebuttal to the speech she’d given the day before, in which she laid responsibility for the pandemic at his feet.

The reason Trump doesn’t know how to run against her, however, is also the reason that Americans – even while feeling good about witnessing history, even while celebrating representation – know that this Democratic team must be held to account as representatives not only of identity, but of political will.

[See also: Joe Biden’s appeal is the prospect of a president who does not demand constant attention]