Kamala Harris May Never Win Over Black Voters like Obama did, and That’s a Good Thing for African Americans

Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) formally launches her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, California. Photo courtesy of Tony Avelar, reprinted in Jamil Smith’s coverage of Harris’ campaign in Rolling Stone.

With African American Senator Kamala Harris now in the lead of declared Democratic presidential nominees for 2020, a roll of articles have focused on her difficulties winning over African Americans to her cause.  In Astead W. Herndon and Susan Chira’s New York Times piece, “Can Kamala Harris Repeat Obama’s Success With Black Voters? It’s Complicated”, many of their interactions with African American voters reflect both a strong scepticism with Harris’ record on criminal justice, but more broadly, reflections on the demographic’s disappointment with Obama’s presidency.  These commentaries have led to comparisons with Obama’s own early difficulties wresting voters from Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries.  Certainly I believe that Harris will struggle far more than Obama did in winning over black voters, but for African Americans, this will surely be a positive, and in comparison to the blank cheque given to Obama, could very well reap rewards in securing more substantial policy concessions for the demographic if Harris ends up winning the Democratic ticket.  

Since announcing her campaign a few weeks ago, Harris has come under a substantial amount of criticism for her right-wing reputation as Californian Attorney General (2011-2017).  With the pressure growing over her troubling record as a prosecutor, Harris ended up defending her “tough on crime” approach during her town hall interview on CNN earlier this week.  The major criticisms of her record are chronicled in an excoriating editorial by law professor Lara Bazelon for The New York Times and Harris’ attempts to frame herself as a “progressive prosecutor”.  Among these critiques were Harris’ record of upholding wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct (such as evidence tampering, false testimonies, and the suppression of crucial information).  In her prior role as District Attorney (2004-2011), she was criticised for withholding information about a police laboratory technician who was accused of intentionally sabotaging her own work and stealing drugs from the office.  She also championed state legislation under which parents whose children continually missed school could be prosecuted, legislation that disproportionally affected low-income people of colour.  As Attorney General, she declined to take a position on Proposition 47, an approved ballot initiative that decreased low-level felonies to misdemeanors; in 2015, she received criticism for her opposition to legislation that would require her office to investigate shootings that involved officers, and Harris refused to support state-wide regulations on body-worn cameras used by police. As Bazelon further chronicles, Harris’ record in wrongful convictions illustrates just how troubling her record as A.G truly is:

Consider George Gage, an electrician with no criminal record who was charged in 1999 with sexually abusing his stepdaughter, who reported the allegations years later. The case largely hinged on the stepdaughter’s testimony and Mr. Gage was convicted.  Afterward, the judge discovered that the prosecutor had unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, including medical reports indicating that the stepdaughter had been repeatedly untruthful with law enforcement. Her mother even described her as “a pathological liar” who “lives her lies.”  In 2015, when the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, Ms. Harris’s prosecutors defended the conviction. They pointed out that Mr. Gage, while forced to act as his own lawyer, had not properly raised the legal issue in the lower court, as the law required.  The appellate judges acknowledged this impediment and sent the case to mediation, a clear signal for Ms. Harris to dismiss the case. When she refused to budge, the court upheld the conviction on that technicality. Mr. Gage is still in prison serving a 70-year sentence.

That case is not an outlier. Ms. Harris also fought to keep Daniel Larsen in prison on a 28-year-to-life sentence for possession of a concealed weapon even though his trial lawyer was incompetent and there was compelling evidence of his innocence. Relying on a technicality again, Ms. Harris argued that Mr. Larsen failed to raise his legal arguments in a timely fashion. (This time, she lost.)  She also defended Johnny Baca’s conviction for murder even though judges found a prosecutor presented false testimony at the trial. She relented only after a video of the oral argument received national attention and embarrassed her office.

And then there’s Kevin Cooper, the death row inmate whose trial was infected by racism and corruption. He sought advanced DNA testing to prove his innocence, but Ms. Harris opposed it. (After The New York Times’s exposé of the case went viral, she reversed her position.)

Hopefully growing criticisms of Harris’ prosecutorial record will lead her to take more left-wing, humane positions as her nomination for the Democratic ticket advances.  The fact that she is facing difficulty in winning over African Americans, often for her poor record in office, is a hopeful sign that she will make some solid concessions on criminal justice.  And this, I sincerely hope, is where Harris will break from Obama in her strategy to win over African Americans.  While of course their two campaigns are at two very different junctions in American politics, Obama’s campaign was pretty slim on its policy emphasis.  A large part of this was of course down to the brilliantly managed spectacle of Obama’s candidacy: a young, charismatic, handsome and educated African American statesman running for the presidency made his election campaign irresistible for the vast majority of African Americans to endorse.  And I say that without condescension; for a demographic of American citizens who have been so violently shut out of political and social representation for countless generations, Obama was, and continues to be so for many, a major milestone in African American progress. 

However, while far from the first American presidential campaign to emphasise spectacle and optics over substantive policy discussions, I believe that African Americans’ intense embracing of his candidacy, with little demand for ensuring Obama promised policy concessions that would alleviate and remedy African American issues, was a deeply regrettable event in African American politics.  Instead, African Americans’ major political capital over Obama’s candidacy was squandered amid the post-racial spectacle emphasised in his 2008 campaign, and led to a presidency that often emphasised the significant racial dynamic of Obama while ignoring the need to focus on socio-economic issues that disproportionally affected African Americans.  To Obama’s credit, I believe he was somewhat limited in what he could have done in office as the first black president to intervene in solidly African American issues, a particularly painful irony of his time in office.  As Randall Kennedy chronicles in The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, with daily, right-wing rhetoric accusing him of playing racial favourites with African Americans and disproportionally focusing on their needs over others, it led him to take a more pragmatic, unifying measure to policy.[i]  Unfortunately, this rarely worked in African American’s favour.

For the post-Obama African American candidate, the racial significance of running for office has certainly dwindled, but the opportunity to expansively discuss, demand and ultimately enact substantial legislation that will help African Americans has increased.  As Harris’ candidacy advances, I hope that she takes the opportunity to do so, rather than pandering to black voters by blasting R&B tracks by Mary J. Blige during her campaign rallies.  Harris, or any other African American presidential nominee, will certainly never relight the levels of African American devotion that Obama had throughout his campaign, but that’s something we should celebrate.  For a demographic who need disparate amounts of help to secure an equal amount of advantages enjoyed by other Americans, the last thing they should do is devote themselves to another candidate without proper scrutiny, and without securing a series of significant policy promises. 

[i] Kennedy, Randall, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. New York City, NY: Vintage Books, 2012, p.20. Print.

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