Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris ended her campaign for president. With her decision, a dream – mine and so many others’ – of seeing a brown woman become president of the United States faded. Harris’ historic run, the first by an Indian/Jamaican-American woman, undoubtedly inspired many American women, particularly those who do not see their own ethnic or racial background reflected in the largely white American political sphere.
Harris’ attempt to win the nomination for president may be over, but her candidacy reveals truths about the American political landscape that Americans in general and the Democratic Party in particular need to take seriously.
There are many reasons that Kamala Harris could not sustain her presidential run but one central obstacle is that she made her presidential bid in a country that is unused to seeing women who look like her in power – let alone in the highest political office. Ninety percent of elected offices in America are held by whites with 65% held by white men, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Harris, who had occupied the top law enforcement positions in San Francisco and then all of California, won statewide office as a moderate in a majority minority state (where notably political offices are still held mostly by whites).
With that resume, Harris then tried to contend for America’s political center as a candidate. On healthcare, she took the centrist position of supporting a version of Medicare For All while stopping short of a Bernie Sanders-esque complete overhaul of the healthcare system. She argued that her record as a prosecutor who pursued pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to thorny problems (such as the death penalty) uniquely qualified her to do the same if she won the presidency. That argument largely fell on deaf ears.
What Harris saw as political dexterity, essential to bringing people together, others saw in this moment of ideological tribalism as a damning failure to pick a side. Meanwhile, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, white and male and espousing many of the same positions as Harris (but with far less time holding political office under his belt) has fared a lot better, even leading the polls in Iowa. Like Harris, Buttigieg supports a version of Medicare For All but without a total overhaul of the healthcare system. Both come from middle-class academic families who have supported their political ambitions.
There is one crucial difference. Buttigieg is a white man who like the other 90% of whites who hold political office in America, appears to many to be more electable than a strong brown woman. Some of this can be seen in how Buttigieg’s cool-headed pragmatic rationality becomes in Harris case an unwelcome tendency to be bent by political circumstance. So unquestioned is this discrepancy that one commentator recently wrote that it was Mayor Pete, a white man, (and not Harris, with her status as a fellow centrist and former Obama ally) who most reminded him of President Obama. Of course, while there is no direct evidence (there never is) that a combination of race and gender hastened the end of the Harris candidacy, it is true that all the front-runners left in the democratic field are white.
In the post-2018 Democratic Party landscape, brown and immigrant women like Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are welcome – but only if they keep to the far left edges of the party. Harris’ effort to occupy the center indicated a refusal to adhere to the implicit stay-in-your far-left lane message being doled out. Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez may have won in their minority dominated districts and been celebrated by the Democratic Party as emerging leaders, but when it came to Harris’ bid to represent all Americans, the support was far less ebullient.
This is not to say that race alone sank the Harris candidacy. She was slow to outline her position on Medicare For All. When she scored a debate win against former Vice President Joe Biden in the first contest, pointing out how his position against federally mandated busing to desegregate school districts (she was one of the minority students who benefited from it) she wasted a poignant moment that could have established her as belonging to a new generation of politicians. But her campaign had no discernible plan to capitalize on the defining moment and its impact, or to effectively position Harris as a heroic woman of color who had been front and center in the country’s efforts toward racial equality. She was soon lost again in the scrum of candidates.
Unsurprisingly that misstep may have contributed to her ability to define herself as a black/brown candidate. Like Obama was during his candidacy and administration, her blackness was questioned. Critics pointed to the fact that she is the child of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father and that she is married to a white man to question whether she really qualified as black. Harris admitted that the questions were hurtful but did not substantively engage them. Nor did she take up in a deep way the fact that her history as a prosecutor, inevitably putting away black men, left her open to being labeled a traitor.
Her silence has cost her. In the weeks before her withdrawal from the race, it was Biden who was leading among black voters, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Older and moderate black voters themselves preferred Biden and younger black voters, particularly women, were attracted to the promises of Medicare For All and an end to student debt. It is also possible that while a black man for president was a dream come true, a Jamaican/Indian woman taking the same shot appeared overconfident. Misogyny after all is not simply a problem that afflicts the white majority.
When the presidential race began, the diversity of the candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination seemed to make a welcome and hopeful statement. However, as the race has progressed, the white candidates have been the ones to dominate the field. This is so even when there is (as is the case with Harris and Buttigieg) little difference in policy positions between white and non-white candidates. With Harris gone and the candidacies of Sen. Cory Booker and Julian Castro flailing, it seems that the Democratic Party’s salute to diversity was only skin deep – and the real contenders left standing at the end will all be white.