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Culture

Are We Supposed To Ignore Kamala Harris’s Racist History As Attorney General?

By Elizabeth Condra·· 5 min read
Kamala Harris AG

When Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden announced that his running mate would be senator and former California attorney general Kamala Harris, there were collective cheers from his supporters.

Harris is a former prosecutor, as well as a woman of color — which by his own measures were the only criteria in a running mate Biden was hoping to meet. 

Harris has a lengthy, impressive past as a politician and attorney, but much of it is marred by her record as California’s attorney general, a position she served in from 2011 to 2017.

There’s an overwhelming amount of coverage on the Democratic ticket in the media, to be sure, and yet it’s failed to fully examine Harris’s record, the most pernicious decisions of which have affected her state’s impoverished and black communities.

Harris and Racism 

If you weren’t completely convinced by Biden’s choice for VP, you weren’t alone. After all, the two don’t exactly have the friendliest past.

Take, for example, last summer’s Democratic debate, when Harris and Biden — then just another candidate — stood on stage alongside the other potential nominees.

Will Harris would use her platform to place a large emphasis on civil rights and racial justice?

During a particularly heated moment, Harris took Biden to task regarding his past involvement with segregationists, who actively worked to oppose school busing. It was evident from this exchange that were she to be nominated, Harris would use her platform to place a large emphasis on civil rights and racial justice.

(Fast forward to more than a year later, and the two are now running mates for the highest office in the country.)

“Tough on Crime”

While Harris’s platform might emphasize the need for racial justice for all Americans, that certainly wasn’t a privilege extended to those affected by her tenure as attorney general.

In 2017, black men in California constituted 6% of the state population and 28% of the prison population, an incarceration rate that stands out not only nationally but internationally.

Harris also notably argued for increased bail for arrested people in addition to cash bails, and she failed to overturn wrongful convictions. Both policies, along with many others, unfairly targeted those below the poverty line — which, in California, encompasses 20% of African Americans.

She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. 

Harris has billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” but as Senator Tulsi Gabbard, at one time a candidate for president herself, summarized: “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, and then laughed about it when she was asked if she’d ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed a man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

She Turned Her Own Voting Base against Her

While it looks like Harris’s record hasn’t followed her to the national stage for the most part (if it was we’d be hearing about it more), it’s certainly affected her voting base in a negative way. A black voter in Michigan or New York might not recognize Harris’s history, but her former constituents in California certainly do.

As Michael Finnegan for The Los Angeles Times writes, “She is counting on strong support from African Americans. But many black voters are wary of her 27 years as a prosecutor enforcing laws that sent African Americans to prison.”

Many black voters are wary of her 27 years as a prosecutor sending African Americans to prison.

We’ve been told repeatedly that representation matters — but in 2019, Harris polled well behind counterparts like Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden with regards to black voters.

It’s plain to see that seeking the support of a group you once actively fought against doesn’t usually bode well for a political candidate. That’s what Harris has done, and given the chance, what she’d likely continue to do if elected.

Closing Thoughts

The Democratic ticket has always claimed to be the party of the most vulnerable — those racially discriminated against, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

But Kamala Harris knowingly increased California’s incarceration rates to a staggering scale. She supported policies like an “anti-truancy” measure, which punished the parents of kids who were truant, in addition to failing in holding prosecutors and law enforcement accountable for their misconduct. 

It’s not racist or sexist to criticize a candidate with a truly heinous record. 

She kept innocent people in prison and denied them compensation, upheld petty drug charges and convictions for the sake of performance. She’s criticized law enforcement and advocated for sweeping reforms (though without them, she’d have a hard time keeping prisons full and taxes high).

Yet as a woman, and a woman of color at that, we fail to hold her to account adequately. It’s not racist or sexist to criticize a candidate with a truly heinous record. And if that candidate is running for vice president, holding them to account is exactly what needs to be done.

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