California Senator Kamala Harris is already emerging as a serious contender in a crowded field of Democratic presidential primary candidates: her official campaign kick-off in her hometown of Oakland, California received extensive coverage from all the major news outlets, and the CNN town hall that followed attracted nearly two million viewers—the most of any single-candidate town hall in the network’s history. She has earned early endorsements from Representatives Ted Lieu and Katie Hill, both from California, and currently holds broad appeal across a variety of key Democratic voting blocs, according to a compilation of ridiculously early projections from FiveThirtyEight.
But as the energy behind Harris’s campaign builds, criticism from the left over her “tough-on-crime” policy approach during her time as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general has already been met with charges of racism, sexism, and defeatist purity politics.
This is a familiar pattern: critiquing a Democrat from the left will usually be met with criticism of “eating our own” or handing elections to Republicans. This happens a lot among a certain kind of political writer and the DC elites who still feel wounded by the Sanders-Clinton discourse of 2016. Similarly, criticism of Harris from the left is often assumed to be the work of “Bernie Bros.” As Shane Ryan noted in Paste, “We’re still a year away from the Iowa caucuses, but the old 2016 battle lines seem to have been re-drawn at great speed, and it looks like we’re in for a protracted battle between Harris and Bernie Sanders.”
But I also believe there’s something else at play when it comes to Harris: since the 2016 election, a narrative has emerged celebrating the inherent goodness of the black woman voter. This is based on historic patterns of black women turning out for Democratic candidates: 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, 98 percent voted for Doug Jones in Alabama, 97 percent voted for Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and 82 percent voted for Andrew Gillum in Florida. (Contrast this to the majority of white women whose votes historically side with racist self-interest.) Look back at each of these elections and you will see a pattern: a burst of (mostly white) cable news and Twitter commentary celebrating black women as the country’s saving grace, and black women’s repeated rejections of this framing falling on deaf ears.
Black women will save us soon became a common refrain from well-meaning white liberals who were eager to set themselves apart from the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump and 63 percent of white men who did the same. Scanning hashtags like #votelikeblackwomen reveal a sea of white faces exalting black women voters as the caretakers of white morality (as well as a few black liberals participating in this vaguely fetishistic narrative).
Hashtags and slogans noting black women’s history of activism to oppose state violence, voter suppression, discrimination, and white patriarchy may feel well-intentioned or cute—until these same flattening tactics are used to silence healthy critique and erase critical narratives, especially those coming from other black women.
It would be wrong to say that support for Harris lies in her identity as a mixed race black woman alone. Her work in the Senate has been powerful: she stood out during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh, her brand of blasé frankness rendering them red-faced and sputtering; she endorsed a Green New Deal and tentatively supports Medicare-for-all, helping to give both policies momentum, and she has been a fierce critic of the Trump administration’s record of violence against people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.
But taking Harris seriously as a progressive candidate means taking her record just as seriously. There’s a difference between what some liberals believe Harris represents for the Democratic Party (and the optics of American power) versus what Harris would actually do as president. This is why looking at her actual record—what does Harris do with power when she has it?—is so important.
Harris has a number of progressive achievements to point to during her tenure as attorney general of California: she instituted implicit-bias training for law enforcement, an initiative to track deaths in police custody, and the Back on Track program to help people convicted of first-time, nonviolent drug offenses re-enter their communities after serving their sentence.
But there’s just as much that should give progressives pause: she opposed a bill requiring the California Department of Justice to investigate officer-involved shootings and pushed for the passage of one of the harshest anti-truancy policies in the nation, which she defends in her new memoir despite studies showing that these policies are often unhelpful and disproportionately criminalize low-income black and Latinx families. Harris has flip-flopped on the death penalty and repeatedly declined requests for additional DNA testing, case reviews, and clemency for Kevin Cooper, a black man on death row whose case was described by the head of the California Bar Association as, “marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel and a hamstrung court system.” Sex workers are also critical of Harris, who they believe conflates sex work and sex-trafficking. Harris repeatedly sued the now-defunct website Backpage, which sex workers used as a means of safely screening potential clients.
When confronted with this record, Harris and her camp have expressed surprise, tried to distance themselves from certain actions of the attorney general’s office, or stuck to their guns. For example, in 2014 when the Los Angeles Times reported that Harris’s office opposed the early release of prisoners because it would result in the reduction in cheap prison labor, Harris told Buzzfeed News that she was shocked at the report. “I’m looking into it to see if the way it was characterized in the paper is actually how it occurred in court,” she said.
And rather than address the contradictions of her record head-on during the January 28 town hall on CNN, Harris avoided the question entirely: “I’ve been consistent my whole career,” she told one student who had asked about her record, before emphasizing her prosecution of rapists, child molesters, and murderers.
The student was accused of being a “Bernie Bro;” the fact that he was a white man didn’t help. But the assumption that any critique of Harris from the left is necessarily made in bad faith or is somehow of “Berner” origin will likely continue throughout the primary season. But it isn’t new. Zoé Samudzi wrote about this very phenomenon for Verso Books in 2017:
As with Hillary Clinton, a gendered liberal rhetoric has emerged to defend Harris, claiming that she is being criticized because “leftist bros” are resentful of and threatened by female political leadership. Liberal commentators continue to conflate the most vocal and visible contingent of Bernie Sanders supporters — “Bernie Bros” — with the entirety of the left, and use this conflation to insist on dismissing “the left” on the grounds of racism. There is no denying that whiteness is reproduced (and the labor behind that reproduction invisibilized) throughout much of the left, but even if these critiques were made in good faith, it does not make sense to erase of leftists of color if one intends to further progressive discourses.
Briahna Gray touched on this same dynamic for The Intercept in a piece responding to the tweets of journalist Jill Filipovic, who claimed that she judges Harris’s record less harshly because, as a black woman, Harris was pressured to be tough and, therefore, shouldered “additional burdens” that white men do not (emphasis mine):
It’s difficult to understand, though, how the context matters here except to provide some kind of excuse. I’m not without sympathy for the additional pressures exerted on Harris because she is a black woman — after all, unlike Filipovic, I am one too. But those sympathies do not eclipse the concern I have for the black women who bore the consequences of Harris’s prosecutorial misjudgment. Importantly, if Harris had to be tougher on crime because she is black, it wasn’t for the sake of some higher ideal. It was because her personal ambitions demanded it.
Still, for NBC News Filiopvic doubled down on the contextual necessities that are absent in “the left” who may be holding Harris up to an unnecessarily high standard compared to their preferred white (male) candidates:
First, it’s important to look at her political career in two interrelated contexts. Ambitious women routinely run into the tough-but-likeable conundrum, needing to be seen as both hyper-competent and inevitably agreeable even though, for women, those qualities are usually considered mutually exclusive. This is even more complicated for black women, who are stereotyped as angry, aggressive and anti-white... And so Harris’s candidacy— more than that of any other candidate in the field right now — demands difficult and thoughtful conversations on both criminal justice policy and race and gender.
Filipovic’s observations aren’t wholly unfair—black women are held to different standards than their white male peers—but just as the term “working class” has become whitewashed by conservatives and progressives alike, so too has “the left.” Filipovic seems to frame the “left” as a white movement in her piece, which conflicts with the source of my first brush of Harris-skepticism: Black women from Harris’s native Bay Area. Additionally, the same critiques of Harris’s record are already being applied to other reported Democratic frontrunners, including Joe Biden and Kirsten Gillibrand. To argue that these criticisms are misplaced is to ignore that large swaths of the country have moved past the politics of the Prosecutor as Protector.
Harris is entirely capable of defending her record of punitive prosecution—if these are in fact the policies she believes in, she should absolutely make that case to the public—but it isn’t unfair or inherently anti-black or anti-woman to ask her about that record. Failing to hold Harris accountable for the consequences of these policies is deeply infantilizing, disrespecting both Harris and those who experienced unnecessary hardship and real harm during her tenures as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California.
Whether resistance to scrutiny among Harris’s early supporters comes from fictive kinship based on shared identity, fears of Trump winning in 2020, corny fetishization of black women voters, or some combination of all of the above, rejecting uncomfortable truths helps no one. Harris does not need to be coddled. The entire point of a primary is to learn more about candidates’ records, and for voters to decide for themselves about what those records mean. Harris has her weak spots. It’s not wrong to poke and prod at them to try and get a sense of how a given candidate might govern. The stakes are too high to take these things on faith.