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Southern Exposure: Kamala Harris’s “Black” Problem

With the threat of Trump looming over the 2016 election, it was presumed the black community would turn out in full force to stop him from stepping foot into the White House. But instead, there was a massive 8% drop in turnout rate among African Americans. While Obama won 95% and 93% of the black vote in 2008 and 2012, Clinton only won 88% in 2016.

White women threw another unexpected wrench into the works. Exit polls conducted by Edison Research found that 52% of white women voted for Trump compared to only 43% for Clinton. (A recent analysis suggests it was more like 47% compared to 45%, but still shows support for Trump outpaced Clinton).

Both of these key constituencies were clearly on the minds of Hillary Clinton’s megadonors when they met with potential presidential nominee Kamala Harris back in 2017 during a whirlwind trip to the Hamptons. With the Democratic focus on identity politics as a winning strategy, a black female candidate would seem to be the magic formula. But ever since Harris announced her presidential run at Howard University on Martin Luther King day and a staffer released a video of her dancing to Cardi B, there has been an onslaught of criticism from many in the black community.

Radio host Tariq Nasheed is one of many vocal critics who view Harris as someone who seeks the black vote but doesn’t intend to deliver a black agenda. Nasheed drew attacks from Howard Dean with a viral tweet proclaiming Harris is taking a page out of the Hillary Clinton playbook on how to pander for black votes, “Kamala has pulled her hair back so she can show her “ethnic edges”, and she’s “dancing” to rap music.” Dean responded by lashing out, “STFU. She gets to do whatever she wants with her hair.”

Nasheed is among many who see Harris’s Cardi B dance as a stunt akin to Hillary Clinton saying she carries hot sauce in her purse. One popular YouTube host ProfBlack HQ did a whole video slamming the Cardi B dance entitled, “Kamala Harris Thinks Dancing To Cardi B Will Get Black Votes — It Won’t!”

ProfBlack HQ asserts that this kind of patronizing treats black people as if they’re dumb, “She’s showing the white powers that be, ‘Hey, this is what you do with black people. Put on a little Cardi B and you’ll be like a pied piper leading these ignorant morons around by the nose.’”

The announcement on MLK day was also controversial. South Carolina Rep. John King of Rock Hill said many in the black community found it disrespectful that Harris announced her candidacy on this significant black holiday, “Most people in South Carolina who take pride in that day found it offensive that she chose it to make her announcement.”

Some of the uproar over Harris has been so loud that even those in the mainstream media have begun to notice. YouTube host Black Authority tweeted, “The white media is now officially acknowledging that @KamalaHarris has a Black problem. The bottom line is you CANNOT say “Black lives matter” but then say, “Vote for Kamala Harris.”

The tweet links to an LA Times article explaining the key to winning the Democratic nomination relies heavily on South Carolina – the fourth state to vote in the primary where the Democratic electorate is primarily black.  The article notes that even supporters of Harris in the state are saying that her ethnicity doesn’t ensure the vote.

Influential South Carolina Democrats stress that African Americans are among the most motivated voters in the country when it comes to getting President Trump out of office so electability will outweigh identity politics.

“There’s a sense of pragmatism I have not seen within the Democratic electorate in a long time,” explained Dick Harpootlian, a white state senator and former state Democratic Party chairman. “Their No. 1 goal is not to elect a black, not to elect a woman, not to elect a specific demographic.…There’s this desperation to win.”

South Carolina Rep. John King says he’s also been hearing whispers about black voters in some Deep South communities who are uncomfortable that Harris is married to a white man. This concern has been expressed by people in the black community all over the internet. The question repeatedly asked is, “Would we have voted for Obama if he wasn’t married to Michelle?” Tonetalks YouTube host Antonio Moore poses this question to a female caller who emphatically responds, “No, no no no, no. I was voting for a black family.”

Many express that because Obama was half white and half Kenyan, it was Michelle who gave him his street credibility.  Harris does not have that.

Not only are there concerns about Harris having a white husband, but many question her ethnic identity given that her mother is Tamil Indian and her father is Jamaican. People wonder how much she was shaped by black culture given that she was primarily raised by her mother who gained custody of her at age 9. And the fact that Harris moved Canada at age 12 where she spent the remainder of her formative years is another red flag for people about her actual ties to the African American community.

Yvette Carnell, host of the Breaking Brown YouTube show explains, “We are not attacking her. We’re defining her accurately. That’s what we didn’t do with Obama.”

Carnell believes that people heard the real Kamala Harris when they asked her how she defines herself and she responded, “as a proud American”. Carnell asserts, “You don’t get to go to Howard University and just define yourself as a proud American. Go somewhere else and announce your campaign if that’s all you gonna do.”

Former CNN contributor Roland Martin who currently hosts, “Roland Martin Unfiltered” says he’s already seeing African Americans saying they are not too excited about Senator Harris. Martin seemed to quickly read the tea leaves because he’s been doing a series of shows presenting the concerns.

Martin says that a lot of African Americans won’t give another black candidate the same runway they gave to Obama. He calls it “The Obama Effect”.

Martin explains that there are a significant number of people including African Americans on Capitol Hill, black CEOs and small business owners, and black academics who were disappointed in the 8 years of Obama. There were things they wanted for the community but they stayed silent. Martin feels there’s regret about that now and people want to hear a specific black agenda before they are willing to invest.

Martin also says the overwhelming critique of Harris is of her criminal justice record as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general. Rep John King supports this observation saying his activist niece at historically black Spelman College vowed not to give Harris her vote because of the rate at which she incarcerated black men.

Black Lives Matter activist and writer Shaun King initially expressed excitement about Harris’s historic bid but lately has been highlighting the problems with her criminal justice record. On his twitter feed – which has over a million followers – one tweet links to a viral video of Harris discussing how she enforced truancy by threatening parents with arrest. Another describes her mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many are also concerned with Harris’s lack of accountability for past actions. Harris claimed that she was shocked to learn her own office wanted eligible parolees to stay in jail because they were an important labor pool. Inmates are only paid $2 per day, plus $1 for each hour spent on the front lines fighting fires in California.

Harris has also failed to explain why she didn’t prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s One West Bank for foreclosure violations. Harris simply said, “It’s a decision my office made.”

Tonetalks host Antonio Moore addressed what many see as a disturbing discrepancy between Harris’s treatment of people in the black community versus a white investment banker, “She knows how to prosecute black mothers and knows how to throw black prisoners out there to fight fires, but she was right there when Steve Mnuchin was facing jail time and what she said was, ‘it was a decision my office made’”. Moore questions how anyone can deal with someone who every time she is confronted says, “I didn’t know.”

As Harris is being scrutinized now that she’s formally declared, some feel that establishment figures like Howard Dean and Bakari Sellers are trying to silence them. Sellers implies the criticisms of Harris are only coming from black men, “The misogyny that @KamalHarris is going to be on the receiving end of from black Men this cycle is going to be something to behold.” Others like CNN commentator Angela Rye and MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid along with recent guest Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Violence Against Women, have suggested criticisms of Harris that seem to be from people in the black community are actually coming from bots – despite any evidence to support this claim.

Tariq Nasheed feels that people in the black community have been relentlessly attacked by those trying to browbeat and shame them into compliance. “Any person who points out pandering and how fake it looks is attacked with suggestions that this is black on black racism,” says Nasheed. Yet he points out that when people start asking about policy they get vague answers like, “Oh no it’s not about race”. Rasheed calls it the “Kamala Con Game”.

But even some establishment figures have joined the call for holding presidential candidates accountable. New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently tweeted, “I’m personally not going to let any Dem candidate pass this cycle who doesn’t have a policy paper explaining how they plan to address issues and interests in the black community. Don’t tell me that your policies “help everybody.” Yeah, right. Where’s the policy paper?!!!”

The collective pressure by the black community seems to be making a dent. During a recent interview on The Breakfast Club, Harris was specifically asked if she has an agenda for black voters. “Of course I do” responded Harris, naming a focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), helping families making less than $100,000. a year with an initiative called “The LIFT Program” that would provide a $6000. tax credit, reforming the criminal justice system, and addressing public health matters through a bill to deal with maternal mortality because black women are dying at disproportionate rates in connection with childbirth in America.

Harris was also pointedly asked where she stands on reparations. She responded by saying she does believe in some kind of reparations but was not specific about what that means.

Whether or not these kinds of responses will satisfy critics remains to be seen. But the fact that these questions are even being asked at all so early in the primary process demonstrates the power of the black electorate. The critiques provide an important window into the minds of many voters in the wake of Black Lives Matter. All of the 2020 hopefuls should take heed of the stormy weather surrounding Senator Harris so they know which way the Western winds are blowing. Click To Tweet

*Editor’s note: We disavow terms like “black” and “white”, given their roots and the insidious reasons why race was imposed on humanity to begin with, which is why there is a quote mark around the word black in the title. However, this piece by guest columnist Jessica Bernstein did a fantastic job of deconstructing the hurdles that Kamala Harris is facing and in a lot of ways gives light to why the color lines, as noted by Fredrick Douglas, were and continue to be America’s biggest hurdle. 

A Video from the Ghion Journal

Jessica Bernstein

Jessica Bernstein

Contributing Writer at Blood & Honey
Jessica Bernstein, Psy.D. is a doctor of psychology who co-produced a Lyme disease series on KPFA radio with host Dennis Bernstein. She is directing a documentary about illness and suffering titled, Blood & Honey.
Jessica Bernstein

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