American Presidential election cycles are always torturously long and hellish to endure. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know that 2020 is going to be historically toxic — even worse than 2016. The road to the Democratic nomination is going to be absolutely brutal. Some of the attacks are already in the gutter, and we’re not even out of January 2019 yet. It’s way too early to say anyone is a frontrunner, but Kamala Harris certainly has made a splash. It’s exciting for many to see a Black woman not just throw her ring into the hat but have a real shot. She’s being taken seriously and has much of the establishment Democratic machine behind her. Harris was always going to be “divisive” — women in power always are. Stir in her Blackness, and it’s a powder keg. Her foreign parentage makes matters even more volatile. The misogyny directed towards her is already off the charts, and there is a burgeoning birther campaign against Oakland-born Harris, whose mother is Indian and whose father is Jamaican. In response to Harris’s candidacy, we’re going to the see all the ugliness of the racism and xenophobia that was marshaled to attack Barack Obama and the misogyny that was aimed at Hillary Clinton. The attacks will be particularly caustic, because they’re directed towards an ambitious Black woman.
Harris’s “Blackness” is also under scrutiny. Whether someone is “Black enough” or Black in the right way is a tricky, sensitive question, one that many feel shouldn’t even be asked, particularly of someone who is being maligned the way Harris is. The situation is muddled, because Black Americans are asking these questions of Harris for different reasons — some of these reasons are facile and rooted in bad faith, others are trying to get at deeper issues of cultural identity and allegiance. Personally, I don’t think the question should be dismissed out of hand.
The construct of race is about hierarchy. That hierarchy primacies Whiteness, and it is particularly stark in the United States. Let’s not forget that the Jim Crow laws of the American South — particularly the one-drop rule — were so harsh they were unpalatable to the Nazis. A very particular history shaped Blackness and, more importantly, anti-Blackness in America. This legacy is connected to questions about how “Black” Harris is.
Like Harris’s father, I’m Jamaican. Recently, my mother was recounting stories of her childhood, and she mentioned a man whose name I forget. “He was White,” she said, then corrected herself. “Well, not White White — Jamaican White.” Whiteness is more accessible in Jamaica than it is in America. A very light-skinned Black person with a bit of money essentially functions as White in Jamaica. Throw in the Indian and Chinese populations and Whiteness becomes even more elastic. The situation is similar throughout the Caribbean and many other former European colonies. It makes it difficult for many people from these backgrounds to understand fully how race functions in America, and this lack of facility with these issues informs some of the questions about Harris and her loyalties. But even in America, Whiteness expands to maintain its numbers. How the Irish, Italians, Polish, etc. “became White” is the demographic story of America’s 20th century. I think how Latinx Americans become White will be the story of its 21st century. I’m skeptical of claims that a demographic “bomb” will go off around 2050, and White Americans will become the minority. I think it’s much more likely that a good portion of Latinx Americans will be absorbed into Whiteness, and it will maintain its power. Access and proximity to Whiteness through the immigrant experience also inform queries about Harris’s Blackness.
The shifting notions of Whiteness in America are inextricably linked to anti-Blackness. It’s baked into the cake. Being “not Black” — distancing yourself from it — is the first step on the way to Whiteness. This anti-Blackness is rooted in the institution of chattel slavery. American chattel slavery. That lineage, that legacy matters, and it doesn’t include everyone who is Black in America. The descendants of the Black African chattel slaves who built America’s wealth are a separate and unique class with a specific justice claim against the United States. Harris is not a part of this class. Not all the questions about whether or not Harris is “Black enough” state this point eloquently, but it is at the heart of what many Black Americans want to know: Is Kamala one of us, and, if she’s not, will she represent our interests? I don’t believe these are unfair things to ask.
An immense debt is owed to the descendants of America’s chattel slaves. It is one the nation keeps finding ways to slip and slide its way out of paying. A powerful tool that facilitates this elusiveness is the notion that America is a “nation of immigrants.” That’s simply not true. Indigenous people didn’t immigrate; neither did the Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved to work on plantations. “Immigrants, they get the job done!” Yeah… But no. The jobs that made America wealthy and laid the foundation for its power were done by Black Africans who were kidnapped, survived the horrors of the Middle Passage, and were worked to death. Their children were worked to death, as were their children’s children for generations. Everybody else is eating off of that.
The descendants of America’s chattel slaves have been engineered to remain the nation’s underclass. That was the whole point of Jim Crow and its analogs in the North. They are the population everyone knows to sharpen their knives and teeth on. Stepping on them is a quick, effective way to demonstrate you’re with the program. Instead of examining a centuries’ long program of deliberate subjugation when discussing their position in American society, so many people, including members of their own population, reproduce White supremacist talking points: they’re lazy, shiftless, dishonest, and are too busy twerking to succeed. The contrast to “model minority” immigrants and their children is made particularly harshly. When these immigrants are Black, they can become both a mask and a cudgel. They are presented as the face of “good” Blackness in America and hide the historical context and machinery of anti-Black oppression. They also become weapons used to punish other Black Americans — particularly those whose ancestors were enslaved on Southern plantations then lived under Jim Crow — for failing by comparison.
Harris is caught squarely in the middle of this quagmire, and she may have a hard time making her way out of it, because of her history as an aggressive prosecutor in a system that disproportionately targets Black men. The job of punisher of the Black community is a path to access some of the power that Whiteness holds, and Harris may have difficulty reconciling her history in this role with the changed times. Some voters want to have pointed discussions about whether or not people running for office really think Black lives matter, or if it’s just a slogan that will be sacrificed if “tough on crime” is back in vogue.
Mass incarceration is the evolution of Jim Crow. It is where the starkest consequences of all those stereotypes about Black people being unruly, uncontrollable, violent, and criminal play out in America. Given how targeted the imprisonment of a historically oppressed minority group is, if America were a less powerful country, if it weren’t so grounded in Whiteness, foreign reporting on the matter would call mass incarceration what it truly is: ethnic cleansing. I understand how strong that language is and how difficult it is for some people to accept that characterization. Nevertheless, I don’t see how anyone who is paying attention doesn’t understand that Black American men are being concentrated into jails and prisons, and that concentration is deliberate.
Harris was a career prosecutor, a zealous prosecutor. Some would say she was overzealous. California is enormous — it’s bigger and wealthier than a whole lot of countries. As its Attorney General, Harris oversaw a large part of the state’s carceral machinery. “She was just doing her job,” may not be good enough for a lot of Black Americans, who, quite reasonably, want policies of mass incarceration targeting non-violent offenders overturned.
Harris’s prosecutorial discretion sometimes swung in favor of more and harsher punishment, and punishment in America always hits Black Americans the hardest. Harris was a vociferous advocate of criminalizing truants and their parents with arrests and jail time. I can’t see the logic behind creating the havoc of having a parent arrested and jailed if truancy is a problem. I also can’t see how that would to make it more likely that a child would attend school emotionally fit to learn. I refer to the truancy example, because it’s what’s making the rounds this week, but also because it speaks to a philosophy that punishment — incredibly severe punishment — should be at the top of the list when trying to address social ills. I don’t think people saying Harris’s truancy policy and the philosophy behind it were excessive or abusive are being unreasonable. I also don’t think they’re all a horde of Russian bots. Californians whose communities have been violently upended and devastated by mass incarceration have legitimate, deeply-felt grievances against Harris. Sweeping them all aside as part of some conspiracy theory is pretty insulting. Harris will spend her war chest letting Americans know all the good she’s done, and she has done good. There is another side, though. There are policy decisions in Harris’s past that she will eventually have to address. She should have to address them. She wants to be the President of the most powerful nation on Earth.
Framing discussions of Harris’s legacy as a prosecutor around her Blackness may seem vulgar, but Harris is shaping her candidacy for the Presidency around her Blackness, because no one can win the Democratic nomination without the Black vote. “Is Kamala Harris Black enough?” is an inelegant question, an uncomfortable one. It’s not about whether or not she has rhythm or which sorority she’s a part of, though. It has more to do with how she maneuvered her way through a career in a White supremacist criminal justice system and the harm she caused to the Black American community while doing so. It’s fair to raise these issues and ask voters to make their judgments on them.