Rajkamal Rao

Kamala Harris and identity politics in the US

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on August 12, 2020

After being the ‘first woman of colour’ at many posts, her vice-presidential nomination seems to be centred around the theme of identity as well

In 1963, Martin Luther King, the giant of America’s civil rights movement, said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, thumbed a nose at King’s dream and announced that he has chosen Kamala Harris, 55, the senator from California, to be his running mate.

In today’s America, identity is everything. Any person who is not a White male is automatically considered to be a victim. In this view, women, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and LGBTQ+ communities have been oppressed for decades by White men in positions of power in government and private enterprise.

For people wanting to push these boundaries, two identity filters were clearly better than one. Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, ‘qualifies’ as a woman and person of colour.

Harris has a few firsts to her name. She was the first woman of colour to be elected statewide in California as Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of the state. She won re-election to the same office and won a statewide election a third time when she became California’s senator on Capitol Hill.

By attempting to replicate another Black senator, Barack Obama’s, path to political success, Harris launched her own campaign, after serving precisely two years served in the Senate, with a big splash in front of nearly 20,000 supporters to win the Democratic nomination.

Enroute, she chastised Biden with the now-famous “That little girl was me” -line in a televised debate last summer. She condemned Biden for, as a senator in the 1970s, withholding federal funds to bus Black children to far-away schools that predominantly had White children. She charged that Biden’s approach failed to integrate Blacks with White populations, which prevented her, too, from having the same privileges as White children. Biden responded weakly that his work in the Senate did no harm because counties and states were free to bus children if they wanted to. Harris shot up in the polls.

But scrutiny after the debate showed how disingenuous Harris had been. As the daughter of two incredibly distinguished academics at Berkeley and Stanford, who were very well off, she hardly needed to attend a White school to get ahead. Besides, her position on busing was identical to Biden’s.

Harris’s rivals attacked her as being an opportunist, and she began to lose momentum. In a notable moment in another debate a month later, Tulsi Gabbard, the other woman of colour in the race, attacked Harris’s record as California’s Attorney General saying that Harris went after poor Blacks and Brown people for petty crimes, such as marijuana violations. That clip went viral.

Harris began to fall in the polls. Campaign staffers fought with each other. Fundraising tanked. In December, Harris dropped out of the race, before a single primary vote was cast. All six Democratic women dropped out of the grueling Democratic primary battle, failing to win a single primary election battle.

Ignoring that Democratic voters overwhelmingly rejected the six women candidates, the eventual nominee, Joe Biden, opted to make his campaign all about identity. Biden promised that he would choose a woman as his Vice-President. Women cheered.

The pressure from Black groups meant that if Biden didn’t pick a Black woman, he would likely lose the race.

And, given Biden’s advanced age — at 78, he will be the oldest person ever to assume office if he wins — Harris will be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The 2020 American presidential election, already gripping because of President Donald Trump’s numerous missteps in handling Covid amid the George Floyd riots, just turned into a must-see TV-drama fest all the way to November.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC

Published on August 12, 2020

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