Kamala Harris’ nomination is a double-edged sword

Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate is a progressive, yet controversial move in the wake of civil unrest around police brutality.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaks with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU at the Enclave in Las Vegas. | GAGE SKIDMORE / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

The nomination of Kamala Harris to Joe Biden’s democratic platform was met with praise and adulation at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19. 

If elected, Harris would be not only the first woman to serve as a vice president, but also the first woman of color to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate, USA Today reported.

Thus, no matter what the results of the election are, Harris is making history. 

In an op-ed for USA Today, Donna Brazile, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, referred to the announcement of Harris’s nomination as “a week for women with big dreams.”

Harris’ nomination is multifaceted and complex. It is possible to celebrate the progress that Harris represents for social and political equality while simultaneously remaining critical of the system that she upheld by serving as a prosecutor. 

The two are not mutually exclusive. Her nomination is an inspiration for women and people of color, and the Democratic Party is taking strides towards equality by choosing Harris as the vice presidential nominee. On the other hand, we should not ignore her prosecuting career amid a police reform movement that is sweeping the nation.

Sonja Peterson-Lewis, an Africology and African American studies professor, said it is groundbreaking for a woman of color to be nominated for such a high office. 

“If you’ve never been a member of a group that felt that you couldn’t do something because of your color or because of your gender or because of your sexuality or because of your religion or because of your nationality, you don’t know how it feels to see that first,” Peterson-Lewis said. “I’ve been told that I couldn’t do things because I was a woman. I was told I couldn’t do things because I’m an Asian woman or a Black woman. Now that’s no longer an impediment.” 

In some senses, the nomination of Harris is cause for celebration. She symbolizes the slow and steady progress our country has made in breaking down the barriers that racism and sexism pose to political representation. Yet, even as we exult in the steps that we have made towards social equality, we must also recognize that Harris has been materially responsible for perpetuating the very systemic inequalities that create those barriers in the first place. 

During her career as a prosecutor, Harris was responsible for imposing criminal penalties for truancy, a policy that disproportionately impacts families of color and socioeconomic disprivilege, the Los Angeles Times reported. A truancy violation is caused by repeated unexcused absences in middle and high school. 

“If your child is not in school, you’re in a pretty hard situation anyway,” Peterson-Lewis said. “And now you have someone telling you that you’ll have to pay a fine or go to jail. It’s considered to be kicking someone when they’re down.”  

Harris served not only in a prosecutorial role, but one where she was specifically culpable for punitive policies weaponized against marginalized groups. The timing of her nomination for vice president against the backdrop of national Black Lives Matter protests directly undermines the desperate need for systemic change in this country. 

In the midst of these protests, selecting a candidate for vice president who has made her career upholding the same system of policing that results in the arrests, imprisonment and death of countless people of color seems tone-deaf. 

“It sends the message that the Biden folks are not going to be all in with Black Lives Matter,” said Michael Hagen, a political science professor. “I think they also want to keep their distance from ‘defund the police’ as a slogan. The Biden party hopes that the message being sent by the Harris nomination is that we stand with people of color across the country, but we are gonna be cautious about it.”

But now is not the time for caution. The killings of Floyd and Taylor demonstrate unequivocally that the policing system in America is in desperate need of drastic and systemic reform. Biden’s selection of a former prosecutor for his vice president only solidifies that he does not view those reforms as important, or even necessary. 

In fairness to Harris, her record as a prosecutor is not entirely negative. 

David Nickerson, a political science professor, said that Harris has had some positive accomplishments in her career. 

“There were things she did that I think progressives could cheer about,” Nickerson said. “For instance she fought the death penalty strongly and there were other minor, less public attempts to reform the San Francisco prosecutor’s office. She made baby steps towards addressing police brutality and reforming how to train police officers.”

Kevin Arceneaux, a political science professor, also said that Harris did not inflict cruel punishments, unless most prosecutors.  

“She wasn’t the normal ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ type of prosecutor,” Arceneaux said.

Regardless of any positive impact she may have had with regard to reform, she still bears the responsibility of not only remaining complicit in an unjust and unequal criminal justice system, but bolstering those inequalities as well through her truancy policies. 

Kamala Harris’ nomination should be understood for all its complexity. 

Though she has a questionable past, the nomination of a woman of color is a monumental accomplishment. 

If Harris is elected in November, we must press her to condemn police brutality, support Black Lives Matter and advocate for criminal justice reform at the highest levels of government.

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