Something …meh happened on Monday, January 21st, 2019. America, after collectively scraping the mucus from its eyes following celebrations for the man once deemed the most “dangerous Negro”, woke up to an announcement. Former California AG, now US Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA.) has announced that she is running for President. That day, Harris strolled onto a baby blue Good Morning America set, and addressed Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos for her formal announcement. Headlines to follow included:
On Non-Intersectional Twitter, pussy-hat pattern makers delighted:
Kamala Harris is a Black woman, she is also half Tamil. Kamala Harris is not the first woman nor Black woman to announce a Presidential run for a major party. That distinction belongs to Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Harris has increased her national profile among Democrats since joining the Senate; driving impressions and clicks for outlets like Vox, Salon, and HuffPo. She went viral for her brazen and dogged style of questioning directed at Brett Kavanaugh during his SCOTUS confirmation.
Objectively, she has had an impressive and politically productive career. As San Francisco District Attorney, Harris refused to seek the death penalty much to the chagrin of Democrat heavyweights Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. She also pushed criminal justice reforms that saw dramatic drops in recidivism rates for first time offenders (from 54% to 10% over a 6 year phase).
To fatigued Democrats, Harris announcing a run for President is a beam of light. Cutting through the suffocating political smog of the now almost month-long shutdown and men with sordid sexual histories carrying on to influential heights, her ambition to many is refreshing.
But it’s not. It’s actually room-temperature water in a really small styrofoam cup.
While Harris the DA may have begun her career as a rebel, Harris the Attorney General was the complete opposite. She defended the death penalty through appeal following a District Court ruling that interpreted it as unconstitutional. She defended California’s terrible 3-strikes law and she did not seek to lower mandatory minimums as apart of her reforms. She may have lowered recidivism rates as SF DA, but felony convictions also increased under her tenure. She did refuse to defend Proposition 8 and was an integral component of motions to eliminate the “gay panic” defense in criminal cases involving LGBTQ victims. That said, her history regarding gender nonconforming folks in the criminal justice system stands in contrast to those actions and reforms.
During Harris’s time as AG, she actively fought to deny two transgender inmates prescribed gender confirmation surgery, a prescription given during their time in the system. Opponents argued that this was “cruel and unusual punishment”, which taken in the context of a world that considers trans folks valid is true. Harris argued that hormone replacement therapy received by the inmates was sufficient. She has since walked this back. Of course, her record as a queer ally is as complicated as any other politician’s--it wasn’t always popular or important to support access for trans folks even while big time lobbies pursued marriage equality nationwide. Only recently have politicians decided that transfolks are important enough to include in their platforms. Therein lie a few issues with Harris. Her progressive actions appear oddly convenient in comparison to those done in the bulk of her career as a top cop. Further, her shifting social views are typical of center-left politicians who consider the amplification of progressive voices a political “blip”.
The most egregious aspect of Harris’s political history and largest discredit to her current status as a feminist progressive beacon is her support of FOSTA/SESTA, and her exclusion of Sex Workers’ rights from her moral cache. Largely considered a victory in the fight against human trafficking, FOSTA/SESTA has proven to be a dubious vehicle for internet censorship. Harris famously criticized the now seized classified site Backpage.com as a “hotbed” for child sex trafficking. Low-hanging fruit in the context of human trafficking, which doesn’t exactly need an internet hub to continue unabated. So, while she may consider censoring sexually charged language and content on the Internet a viable way to stomp out trafficking, those bills have made sex work less safe. Specifically by removing agency from folks engaging in the trade itself.
Harris isn’t necessarily the worst candidate, but she’s not exciting. Her stances on crime failed to address the existence of the prison industrial complex through mandatory minimums, her record on LGBTQ rights is dubious, and her sex worker exclusionary feminism makes her more of the same. While this presidency has been awful, one silver lining is the amplification of progressive voices that wish to see a shift in American politics to the left. Yet we now have echoes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Harris. Black folks are expected to back a woman whose record is far from politically mouth-watering simply because she too, is Black. If that’s not an obvious affront, then I guess we have a lot more work to do.
Zaida J. is an Atlanta writer, DJ, and self-described transgender loud mouth.