The 2020 Democratic primary was riddled with progressive hand-wringing over whether Kamala Harris is some sort of double-dealing “cop” based on her career as a prosecutor. That makes presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s decision to select the California senator as his running mate a potential liability as he works to coalesce progressive voters around his more moderate ticket.
Throughout the primary, Harris’ knotty record in law enforcement – in particular, her time, from 2011 to 2017, as California’s attorney general – was under fierce scrutiny. Her (Twitter) detractors inveighed against her on matters including police accountability and anti-truancy efforts, which distinctly affect Black communities.
But the fact that many Black voters appear to be backing Harris anyway reveals just how layered this important voting bloc’s attachment to the senator is.
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For some Black voters, support for Harris stems, in no small part, from the unquestionable significance of the moment – from delight in the history being made.
Harris is the first Black (and South Asian) woman, as well as the first graduate of a historically Black college or university, to be chosen as a major party candidate’s running mate. Representational value didn’t do much for her during the primary, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t impactful.
“I’m very impressed that not only did (Biden) choose a woman but an African American woman – that’s exciting,” A’kayla Sellers, a college student, told the BBC. “I know her track record, and I know her history with prison reform is a little bit tumultuous, but I’m excited.”
Or as Leah Daughtry, who headed up the 2016 and 2008 Democratic conventions, said of Harris to The New York Times: “She is the stand-in for Black women. We are on the ticket.”
For other Black voters, and especially for Black progressives, support is arguably less about enthusiasm than strategy – that is, detecting ways to remain influential, should Biden and Harris win in November.
Indeed, a White House run by Democrats would open up opportunities to negotiate change – to exert pressure and hold political leaders accountable – that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
These opportunities feel all the more vital as the country appraises the damage wrought by four years of the Trump administration, defined by racism, misogyny, egoism and spectacular incompetence in the face of a global pandemic.
The Black radical and civil rights icon Angela Davis explained the more pragmatic approach to politics earlier this year. She was talking about Biden. Her logic, however, holds for Harris, too, given that the senator and former vice president are ideologically “simpatico” with each other and both have been criticized for their positions on criminal justice issues.
“Biden is very problematic in many ways, not only in terms of his past and the role that he played in pushing toward mass incarceration, but he has indicated that he is opposed to disbanding the police, and this is definitely what we need,” Davis said.
She added: “Biden is far more likely to take mass demands seriously, far more likely than the current occupant of the White House, so that this coming November, the election will ask us not so much to vote for the best candidate but to vote for or against ourselves. And to vote for ourselves, I think, means that we will have to campaign for and vote for Biden.”
Davis’ point speaks to something that Black voters, broadly, have been saying all along: that they just want to vote out President Donald Trump – for them, the stakes are too high not to.