The Democrats and the Way Forward

The Truths We Hold: An American Journey
by Kamala Harris
Penguin Press, 336 pp., $30

Kamala Harris; drawing by Lauren Tamaki

The Democrats have a self-esteem problem in addition to a marketing problem. Meanwhile, we keep hearing that we should be wary of establishment-backed leaders like we are forever hearing that we should steer clear of gluten. The preference we on the left have for grassroots politicians, those for whom words like “energy” and “enthusiasm” are popular descriptors, who either aren’t in consideration for the big presidential prize in 2020 (a recent Axios/Survey Monkey poll shows that 74 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democrat would vote for Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez, who is not yet eligible as she is under thirty-five), or won’t likely win (Bernie Sanders, as recent history suggests) speaks to an implicit cowardice all too convenient for the politically faint of heart — invested, tellingly, in those not yet ready to play on the big-boy courts as it were. And the assurance with which the party brass declares its “electable,” if potentially ineffectual candidates speaks to an incrementalism which seems wholly at odds with what is expected of politicians in this agitated era of sound-bites.

Fair enough. But what is “incrementalism,” say, to an electable Black woman whose raison d’être amounts to a success story with roadblocks, deliberate obfuscation and inevitable setbacks all but calculated into the equation? Perhaps we should go ahead and ask one. (What, anyway, is so wrong with gluten if it gets the job done without disturbing those who may or may not be cowards terrified of allergies?)

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris, who officially announced her candidacy last month, lets her complicated narrative serve as a natural solution (not to mention an authentic bid for efficacy and relatability) to these catch-22-like challenges her party will face next year in an already crowded field.

In a preface revisiting November 8, 2016 Harris sketches out the last day of her campaign for a US Senate seat when she got the good news the same evening the country got the bad news. She remembers discarding a speech she’d prepared in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton win and informing her audience of the tough road ahead after coming to the realization herself that

No one really knew what to say or do. Each of us was trying to cope in our own way. I sat down on the couch with Doug and ate an entire family-size bag of classic Doritos. Didn’t share a single chip.

Notice how she mentions that she didn’t share one chip. That and that it was a bag of classic Doritos. Interesting detail about the not sharing because she probably felt in her own funny, responsible leader’s way like she was being defiant (on a night which would, of course, inspire many of us to reconsider the word “resistance”). And I like to imagine she might have preferred ranch because you know how we Black folk prefer that flavor on just about everything.

In fact, Harris, who is of mixed Jamaican and Indian heritage appears to have had a nurturing and supportive upbringing where her Blackness was reinforced by her surroundings in Oakland. The Sheltons — neighbors she regards here as a “second family” she and her sister Maya frequently visited while her mother, who was also a part-time activist worked toward a PhD had Southern roots, a home filled with memorabilia celebrating Black history and adhered to the “it takes a village” model of community.

Also of note is her childhood trips to the Rainbow Sign, which was a kind of Black arts hotbed established in Berkeley in 1971 with appearances and performances by everyone from James Baldwin to Nina Simone. Her Black roots, then, in contrast, say, to President Obama’s are interesting to contemplate in this light because hers appear to have developed completely organically, while he has admitted that he had to explore his later as an adult, which is curious because today many would say that Obama is “legitimately” Black, even as they question Harris’s Blackness.

But then again, she’s from an area that was polestar for the Black Panther Party, where in Berkeley, she writes, a Black mayor declared March 31, 1972 Nina Simone Day. That, in juxtaposition to some other criticisms of her law enforcement background should perhaps be acknowledged when we hear Harris say things like she became a prosecutor to “help people.”

These other criticisms (is she a “progressive” prosecutor? Is there even such a thing?) are addressed early in this book she describes as a “collection of ideas and viewpoints and stories” in which she shares that her decision to join law enforcement was inspired by prosecutors who “went after the Ku Klux Klan” and protected the Freedom Riders:

I was going to be a prosecutor in my own image. I was going to do the job through the lens of my own experiences and perspectives, from wisdom gained at my mother’s knee, in Rainbow Sign’s hall.

She also spoke to such concerns in a recent interview she did with Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club”:

Let’s not buy into the myth that Black folks don’t want law enforcement. We do. We don’t want excessive force; we don’t want racial profiling. But, certainly, if somebody robs, burglarizes my house? I’m gon’ call the police — as are most of us — and say, Come get this . . . you know what.

Kamala Harris, Iowa, January 2019; photograph courtesy of CNN

Very well. But you can be forgiven if you think this still sounds a little suspect when considering the disparities along racial lines with regard to the criminal justice system in general. To be sure, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice that was obtained by the Times in 2014 a study of 220,000 cases (which included misdemeanors, drug offences, and felonies) prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office from 2010 to 2011 indicated that Blacks received jail or prison sentences with misdemeanor drug offences with 27 percent greater frequency than did whites.

These statistics are damning, naturally, and also not at all surprising, sadly, to just about any sentient Black person over the age of twelve. That said, Harris’s cautious defense of law enforcement was also put forth, reasonably and at length some twenty-odd years ago by, interestingly enough, Tupac, who observed,

We fightin’ the same villains that [the police] fight in the street. But instead of them seeing us fightin’ villains in the street, we all villains. And the main thing for us to remember is that the same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of. The same crime element that white people fear, we fear! So we defend ourselves from the crime element they scared of. You know what I’m sayin’? While they waitin’ for legislation to pass and everything, we next door to the killer. . . . But just because we black we get along with the killers or something? We get along with the rapists ’cause we black and we from the same hood? What is that? We need protection, too.

That Harris is a Tupac fan, who as a former prosecutor proposes, nonetheless, to curb those misdemeanor drug offenses by legalizing marijuana, is, for our purposes suggestive (she has confessed to smoking and, yes, inhaling in college, where at the time she may or may not have been listening to the beloved rapper). One wonders, though, if all this is somehow supposed to appease those on the left who still want mapped out a more progressive, namely “Black” agenda. The junior Senator from California, in these pages implies, however complicatedly, that she is undoubtedly for that by the very fact of her presence.

She recalls the time in 1998 when she was invited to run the criminal unit in San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office — it’s a mess (no email; the lawyers throw away files after cases commence; police complain because there are not enough convictions), and it’s her job to clean up shop, which is something that Black women have been called to do (whether wittingly or not) since time immemorial. And from an incident early in her career, while correcting the casual racism exhibited by some of her fellow prosecutors — and in so doing, aligning herself with a stigmatized young Black man (who may have also been a fan of, well, Tupac) — she reflects on a moment where,

I overheard some of my colleagues in the hallway.
Should we add the gang enhancement? one of them asked.
Can we show he was in a gang? the other said.
Come on, you saw what he was wearing, you saw which corner they picked him up on. Guy’s got the tape of that rapper, what’s his name?
I stepped out into the hallway. Hey guys, just so you know know: I have a family that live in that neighborhood. I’ve got friends who dress in that style. And I’ve got a tape of that rapper in my car right now.

This passage, which illustrates the commonplace fact that 95 percent of US prosecutors are white (79 percent are white males) is no less remarkable in that it only further delineates the tense tightrope Harris had to walk throughout her career. The implicit-bias training she’s implemented for police departments — in response to requests from Black Lives Matter activists — the Back on Track (BOT) reentry program for non-violent offenders she’s introduced, and the 2017 bipartisan initiative she co-sponsored to end the cash bail system speak directly to the concerns of vital members of her constituency. (Given the precarious historical position of Blacks in the US, one wonders, what, if not reparations is the “Black” agenda?) On the other hand, Harris’s controversial anti-truancy policy gives one pause.

She repeats how studies show that the end of the third grade is a critical milestone for students marking the transition they are making from learning to read to reading to learn. If they can’t read, they can’t learn and that means they’re that much closer to becoming incarcerated, the argument goes. “I believe it is tantamount to a crime when a child goes without an education” she notes, before citing a rash of homicides in San Francisco, which are connected, apparently, to data showing that 80 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts.

This, in theory, sounds, unsettlingly, like Broken Windows for the parents of grade schoolers — identify a legitimate problem backed by statistics tenuously related to a, frankly, more systemic problem, then fill in the gap. Meanwhile, more ameliorative alternatives like increased social services in impoverished communities, more locally hiring small businesses, lead-free drinking water, and more nutritious food options would reduce significantly the interactions some of those vital members of Harris’s constituency may have with the criminal justice system.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston, December 2018; photograph courtesy of Michael Dwyer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Is Kamala Harris likable? In interviews she sometimes gives out these neatly metered, platitudinal responses when asked about policy matters. But maybe that’s the problem — I walk away, for all that, sometimes wondering what, save substance, was actually conveyed. (She doesn’t so far possess the same easy strengths as Corey Booker, who come to think of it, lacks the chipper anti-corporatist appeal of Elizabeth Warren, who, all told can’t compete with Bernie Sanders’s insistence on righteous, largely class-based jeremiads, perhaps to his detriment.) Again, this is with regard to policy issues (and not when presented within the relaxed confines of an urban contemporary radio station).

Yet, if at this point what I like most about her as a candidate — and, granted, as of this writing we’re only about a month into her campaign — is her taste in music and the way she appears when she’s being off the cuff, letting her hair down, if you will, why isn’t that just as relevant to take into consideration going into next year’s elections? Why is it — and this gets us into the whole question surrounding likability — that virtually all of the “electable” Democratic candidates are not yet doing the thing (it’s like, “You had one job!”) that we progressives keep saying (when the conversation is very much about policy) they should do to win elections? Why can’t the Democrats talk affably and straightforwardly about fixing the economy, implementing Medicare for all, a living wage, and free college tuition, etc.?

Because the playing fields for the two parties are different today and the Dems, for better or worse have to make compromises that are characteristic of the so-called “responsible” party. And even the well-informed voter, struggling to pay bills and secure her 401(k) between “Game of Thrones” seasons is a little fatigued with it all in the end. This crisis of faith was summed up in Joseph O’Neill’s novel, Netherland (which was on Obama’s reading list in 2009, shortly after his inauguration), by the protagonist Hans van den Broek, one of the “smart people” noticing that

I found myself unable to contribute to conversations about the value of international law or the feasibility of producing a dirty bomb or the constitutional rights of imprisoned enemies or the efficacy of duct tape as a window sealant or the merits of vaccinating the American masses against smallpox or the complexity of weaponizing deadly bacteria or the menace of the neoconservative cabal in the Bush administration, or indeed any of the debates, each apparently vital, that raged everywhere — raged because the debators grew heated and angry and contemptuous . . . I had little interest. I didn’t really care. In short, I was a political-ethical idiot.

What O’Neill was suggesting a decade ago was that liberals were, rather hypocritically, paying lip service to a party whose rhetoric (and ostensible commitment to civic duty) they were not all that invested in. (What do you do when the party you’re stuck with is tasked with explaining all the pundit-friendly minutiae and technocratic stuff you really don’t care about? What kind of candidate even makes sense — for anyone — in this highly polarized environment?) Senator Harris, again, has a response.

In the concluding chapter of this affable and straightforward memoir she insists is “not meant to be a policy platform, much less a fifty-point plan,” she returns to yet another incident earlier in her career where she was prosecuting a hit-and-run case and found herself stumbling over her words when explaining a crucial geography point on a map that was related to the case. She made a self-deprecating joke to the jurors, she reminisces, but was later corrected by the judge, who cautioned her next time to be more precise: “You figure it out. Figure it out.”

The implication, of course, when considering everything that follows in her life as a public servant is that that was an important lesson she learned (the subtitles “Embrace the Mundane” and “Show Me the Math” are especially revealing) about being as painstakingly detailed and thorough as possible, even to the point of foregoing personal charms and likability. Your first instinct is to wonder whether it’s humorous moments like the one she described that you want more of, not only from her, but from the other Democrats running for president in 2020. For the time being it looks like we’ll just have to take the highroad and learn to grapple with some inconvenient truths. Either that or get a new marketing plan.

— February 25, 2020

Cultural Critic | Past: @SPINmagazine @villagevoice @VibeMagazine @thefader | It’s lit(erature).

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