Political News

Race in the race: What Kamala Harris' identity brings to 2020

Posted January 28, 2019 3:03 p.m. EST

— Kamala Harris never said his name when she announced her presidential bid. She didn't have to.

No figure looms larger over the 2020 Democratic primary race than President Donald Trump.

Instead, the first woman of color to represent California in the US Senate talked about truth.

The biracial daughter of immigrants talked fighting transnational gangs (i.e. MS-13) -- and how "medieval" vanity projects won't stop them.

The first female California attorney general talked about fighting against the big banks that prey on average Americans.

Harris -- for both demographic and ideological reasons -- is an inherent contrast to Trump. Her life story belies Trump's talking points around immigration.

And though there are challenges posed by being a black woman running for the highest office in the land, it also means she is doing something entirely brand-new -- something guaranteed to excite an already animated Democratic voter base.

Here are four ways identity are and will be key parts of Kamala Harris' 2020 bid:

Is she seen as African-American?

Harris was recently asked about her identity, and how she describes herself:

Reporter: You're an African-American woman, but you're also Indian-American.

Harris: Indeed!

Reporter: How do you describe yourself?

Harris: Did you read my book? How do I describe myself? I describe myself as a proud American. That's how I describe myself.

In her book, Harris also describes herself as a black woman, an identity nurtured by her mother, an Indian immigrant:

My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.

Even with that paragraph in the opening pages of her book, the question of Harris blackness, or more specifically, how black she is, or even, what kind of black person she is, persists.

Her presidential rollout was steeped in blackness: Harris announced on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, borrowed from Shirley Chisolm's color scheme in her logo and held her first post-announcement news conference at her alma mater, Howard University.

The question of her blackness -- how black is she (Is she too black? Not black enough?) -- won't go away. It will be a subtext by which black, and maybe more importantly, white voters see her.

The Obama factor

Yes, there are similarities with their biographies. Both have immigrant roots, biracial backgrounds, law-school degrees and short stints in the Senate.

And Obama quite notably also struggle with how to address race throughout his bid and his presidency.

But anyone looking for Obama's rhetorical gifts in Harris, will be disappointed. Her comfort level on the big stage is not soaring oratory. She is more prosecutor -- laying out a case, speaking conversationally, very few big crescendos. To her credit, she has gotten better. Flashback to her flat and stilted 2012 speech at the Democratic National Committee convention and you will see a big difference.

And she certainly has the potential to benefit from Obama's successful candidacy -- many voters have twice proven comfortable voting for black president.

Progressive prosecutor?

Harris has called herself a progressive prosecutor, while others have called her a prosecutor with a heart. Neither term will answer the criticisms she is going to get from progressives on her record in California.

'In a race that will likely be determined by margins with all of the different Democratic constituencies, this could be her biggest flaw.

She nodded to this (and likely other issues) in her announcement speech when she said "I'm not perfect."

Harris will have to do much more, particularly with young progressive voters -- black, white and Latino -- schooled in the language of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Obama had to give a big race speech when he ran. Clinton had to give one on her approach to crime, and was called to account for racially charged comments from the 1990s.

Similarly, Harris will likely have to do the same in juxtaposing her law-and-order record with her progressive persona.

At a book event in San Francisco earlier this month a young woman interrupted Harris, yelling this: "What about black people? What about us? What about black people, Kamala!"

The key issue for that protester, and likely many other black voters, is essentially, how black are Harris' politics. Does her record align with what many black voters want to see from their elected officials or is it at odds.

An exchange on Twitter between two black academics, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Roxane Gay, gets at this.

"I think Kamala has a hard row to hoe with black women in a general election but maybe that's just me," Cottom tweeted.

Gay replied that she agreed: "I'm interested. I threw some money at her campaign. But I want to see her address her work as a prosecutor and I need to have more of a sense of how she would preside. I want to know where her depths are."

The most important identity

Are you a winner? For Democratic voters, that's first and foremost in people's minds.

Check out this quote from a South Carolina Democratic state senator: "There's a sense of pragmatism I have not seen within the Democratic electorate in a long time," Dick Harpootlian said. "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."

What's more pragmatic (moderate, suburban) than a Democratic attorney general in a blue suit and pearls? At some point, the field will be sliced and diced into progressive and establishment Democrats, the new generation and the older generation.

In some ways, it's hard to put Harris in box -- this, of course, is by design.

Sure, she lit up progressive Twitter with her aggressive questioning of Brett Kavanaugh and Jeff Sessions and she has been out front on immigration and climate change. She also touted Medicare-for-all. But, in presentation, she is no nonsense and business-like, which suggests she she can roll with the so-called adults, such as Joe Biden, as much as she is in the progressive lane.

It's a neat trick.