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When Senator Kamala Harris announced her presidential run on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—47 years to the week after Shirley Chisholm announced her historic run in 1972—I should have been thrilled.
Harris is, after all, California’s first black woman and first Indian American to be elected to the Senate. Her decision to declare on a holiday constructed to commemorate the fight for racial equality was a good omen, as was the banner under which she announced: “Kamala Harris, for the People.”
The slogan is meant to communicate Harris’ commitment to justice. It’s also an oblique nod to a prosecutorial record that progressives and black women in particular have taken issue with. By putting it at the center of her campaign, Harris seems to have a message for us: I can explain this. Well, I’m one of those women who needs a further explanation, and I’m listening.
When I first read almost two weeks ago the rumors that Harris would run, I tweeted that I needed to do more research on her prosecutor background because I did not want our black womanhood to be the one attribute we have in common. The hesitation echoes an old African American proverb, “All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” When I went online to see how other black women felt, I found emotions that ranged from exultant to vitriolic.
Harris and President Donald Trump were both voted into office in 2016. Ever since, Harris has emerged as one of his most formidable critics. She’s advocated for Medicare for all and free college tuition for families who make under $140,000 a year. She’s expressed determination to end the wage gap for black women and has gone after big corporations that have benefited from tax loopholes. (Within an hour of her announcement, her campaign said she’d raised small-dollar donations from people in all 50 states.) And she’s shined in congressional hearings, a setting in which her intellect, rigor, and facial expressions have earned headlines and fans—myself included. It’s no wonder the speculation escalated over the past few months: With 2020 around the corner, would she run? In text threads and DMs, black women had questions too: Yes, a black female president would be historic. Yes, she has the credentials. Yes, we need to beat Trump. But is Harris the representation we’ve waited for?
For some, support of Harris was obvious. When T. Campbell of Los Angeles heard Harris might run, she breathed a “sigh of relief.” Harris is a Howard-educated AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) who tweets with pride about her fellow sorors and her favorite jams, from Salt-n-Pepa to Aretha Franklin. “I feel that…her running means I will have proper representation again,” Campbell says to Glamour. It’s a sentiment that Victoria Johnson of Ridgeland, Mississippi, shares: “As I’ve watched her over the years, I see a very strong leader, not just a strong woman.” And Tina-Rose Brown, who lives in Brooklyn, is excited not just about Harris’ public persona but about her commitment to marijuana legalization and restorative justice practices. “I believe if elected she’ll have a broad coalition and cabinet to help make the necessary changes to stop the cradle-to-prison pipeline,” Brown said.
Her time in the Senate suggests as much. But her earlier work has turned this into the issue I’m most worried about. Prosecutors have upheld laws and a criminal justice system that disenfranchises people who look like me. The prison system with its relation to black and brown people and the hyper-surveillance of our communities are subjects that need to be addressed head on. Can I trust Harris, who served as district attorney in San Francisco and then attorney general of California, to do this?
Harris has of course accomplished much in her career that would relieve some initial concerns. The Guardian and The New York Times have dug into the era of Harris’ political career that predates her reputation as a progressive leader. She opposed a proposition that would have made it harder to invoke the “three strikes rule,” which can trigger an automatic life sentence for someone convicted of multiple crimes and pushed legislation that would jail parents of truant children. But at the same time, as a district attorney in San Francisco, Harris created the Back on Track program for young first-time offenders that reduced the recidivism rate from 54 percent to an incredible 10 percent in just six years. Later, in her statewide office, she helped expedite the processing of rape kits and made police across the state undergo implicit bias training. In other words: It’s complicated.
What kind of voice would Harris be for us in the White House? And what would it take for us to back Harris’ historic bid?
But what sticks out to me is the fact that while she has said she’s committed to such progressive goals as weed legalization and restorative justice, she’s only just begun to reckon with and apologize for the part she played in strengthening systemic disparities among communities of color. She’s earned the nickname Top Cop for a reason. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and countless articles and books that document police surveillance and brutality toward black and brown people, for some black women the question is, What kind of voice would Harris be for us in the White House? And what would it take for us to back Harris’ historic bid?
Odds are Harris won’t be the most conservative candidate on criminal justice reform in the Democratic primary. But for some black women, that’s not quite the point. The issue is personal. Mass incarceration as a weapon of the state has disproportionately affected black families. Black people are imprisoned at a rate five times higher than that of white people, and 15 percent of African American men have gone to prison (as opposed to 6 percent of all adult men). “I’m surrounded by black men—uncles, nephews, grandparents—[who] have some kind of connection with the prison system,” says Courtney Humphrey, a media consultant based in Bowie, Maryland. Like Harris, Humphrey is an AKA, but their shared past makes her more disappointed in Harris’ mixed record. “I don’t feel like any of the things I identify with her [about] is enough to get me to completely ignore her politics,” she says. Humphrey isn’t sure who she’ll support in the primary, but she’s interested in Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has called American criminal justice policies racist.
“Most of [Harris’] policies are good, but what most people are shaky about is her stance on prison reform,” adds Josie Deese, a student at Texas Southern University. “I’m personally on the fence because she hasn’t made any statements about [the criticisms against her]. I feel torn.”
Even so, Niah Tobarri, a student in Boston, thinks Harris can win the support of black women, who turned out in historic numbers for Barack Obama. And Simone Mitchell (her name has been changed) perhaps best speaks to the ambivalence that some black women feel. “I would love to support her, but I want direct answers about her past policies,” Mitchell, an attorney based in New York, explains. “People are allowed to change. She can be remorseful…and be transparent.” If she is, Mitchell is prepared to move on: “I would be super happy and rally behind her.”
Still the more I dug into Kamala Harris’ background, the worse I started to feel. I wondered whether I was being too hard on her or even holding her to a higher standard than I would a white male Democrat. Former Vice President Joe Biden admitted that he hasn’t been “always right” on issues of criminal justice. No candidate is perfect, and the idea that I might not support a black woman who is qualified for the job is excruciating. My life’s work is centered on black women and their stories, no matter how complicated those narratives might be. Was my hesitation premature and unfair? But the alternative is almost as painful—giving someone who looks like me a pass on actions that have hurt our communities. I want a black female president. But I want an end to mass incarceration for all black women, for all black families, even more. Who can deliver that? Could it be Harris? Maybe, but I need her to make that case.
Despite our near-unified support for Democrats, black women will have to weigh their priorities in this race, which means that no one candidate commands our vote as a bloc. In the next few months, we’ll need the media to illuminate these differences and pay attention to black women’s concerns about all of the candidates. While there’s no lack of stories about white working-class voters, newsrooms seem reluctant to hire the diverse staff this election demands.
Over the next few months, Harris will have to defend her record on criminal justice just as other candidates have to defend their own votes and positions. And black women know that for a black female presidential candidate, the stakes will be far higher than for her white male peers. Criticism of her character and policies is bound to be influenced by a lethal combination of racism, sexism, and cultural ignorance. (Look no further than a reporter who mistook AKA’s trademark “skee wee” sound as screeches.) When the media missteps, I’ll be the first to call it out. But black women shouldn’t have to do a job for free on social media that newsrooms could do with a diverse staff, and people shouldn’t expect that because we won’t tolerate sexism and racism, it means we won’t examine how Harris’ policies have affected people who look like us.
There needs to be space for black women to have honest conversations about Harris’ record—and not just in our DMs. The fact that Harris will in all likelihood face unfair critiques doesn’t invalidate that. Black women are one of the most important bases for progressive candidates to cultivate. More than 90 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2018 election. The next presidential candidate will need our help too. But no matter who he or she is, that person will have to earn our votes.
Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing.