Ever since Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 US presidential election, American and Indian media have constantly been singing paeans to the former California Senator and Attorney General.
This laudatory profiling of Harris only grew in tone after she became the first woman as well as the first woman of color Vice President-elect of the United States of America following an unusually long drawn-out counting that ended in a close win for Biden, as called by most media houses on 7 November.
Harris has been hailed as a feminist icon and an inspiration for young BIPOC and immigrant girls as both of her parents were immigrants to the US. Kamala’s father, Donald J Harris, immigrated from British Jamaica while her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, emigrated from Tamil Nadu, India.
Harris is being particularly celebrated on Indian social media with more and more people hailing her as a Black and/or South Asian feminist icon. With her background as a Senator from California, she managed to garner considerable support from liberal Hollywood celebrities like Mindy Kaling who constantly tried to push her to be a representative of South Asian culture.
All of this is just one side of the coin.
In reality, Kamala Harris’s maternal family are privileged Tamil Brahmins. Her grandfather, V Gopalan, was a Joint Secretary under independent India’s first prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Both her parents were distinguished academics.
Growing up, Harris’s experiences were in no way similar to those of an average African-American person in the US. Her work as District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney-General of California and Senator from the same state show that her political stances and policies are far from being progressive.
Scrutiny of Harris’s past work is absolutely necessary considering the country’s current political climate. This summer, the whole world witnessed one of the largest civil uprisings ever in the US, with slogans like ‘Defund the Police’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ resonating from the East to the West Coast.
Harris’s work is everything these protesters came out to fight against. Following are some of the instances that prove the fact that America’s first woman Vice President-elect is neither a feminist icon nor a champion of human rights.
The instances cited here have been sourced from @niktaylorde on Twitter, with additional commentary by this author.
Racial issues and criminal justice
Although Harris built her presidential as well as vice presidential bid as a proud Black woman, her record proves that she was extremely hard on Black people as her policies disproportionately affected them, even for the smallest of offences.
- As District-Attorney of San Francisco, Harris went hard on drug offenses, a move that wasn’t met with great reception from the California city’s largely liberal population. During her term, her office was involved in a crime lab scandal where an incident of tainting of evidence was kept from defence attorneys. Harris was accused of violating constitutional rights of the defenders. (More: The Washington Post)
- Harris publicly opposed statewide standards regulating the usage of body cameras by the police. This stance is particularly concerning, considering a large number of cops involved in extrajudicial killings try to escape punishment due to lack of evidence, claiming that their body cameras weren’t operational at the time of the incidents. (More: The Sacramento Bee)
- Harris has a track record of being hard on non-violent drug crimes including marijuana offenses. As the senator of California, she declined to push for legalisation of cannabis usage in the state, where black people are arrested at the highest rate. (More: The American Prospect)
- In an ostensible act of hypocrisy, Harris admitted to smoking marijuana when she appeared on the radio show ‘The Breakfast Club’. (More: Marijuana Moment)
- Harris has also supported the death penalty, which again, affects black people disproportionately, at several points in her career. (More: ABC News)
- Harris opposed reformation of the ‘Three Strikes Law’ in the state of California, three different times. The law is responsible for enforcing life sentences on several California citizens for minor crimes and felonies. The law is also responsible for incarcerating Black people at 12 times the rate of incarceration of White people. (More: The Nation, The New York Times)
- Harris stopped the release of David Larsen, who was serving 27 years-to-life after being wrongfully convicted of possession of a knife under the Three Strikes Law she supported. Thousands of people petitioned Harris, the then Attorney-general of California, to release Larsen. Even after his release from prison, Harris challenged his case and took him back to court. (More: Jacobin, Southern California Public Radio)
- In 2013, the then California Governor proposed to spend a whopping $730 million on moving federal inmates to for-profit prisons. As the Attorney-General of California, Harris did not object to this decision even when she had the power to do so. (More: Mercury News)
Women and LGBTQIA+ issues
Although Kamala harris is being branded as a feminist icon, her record on women’s (especially Black women) issues is steeped in anti-feminist action.
- In January 2011, the state of California made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through eighth grade to miss more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. The bill was supported and funded by the then Attorney-General Harris, who publicly proclaimed to go hard on truancy (a term for when a child misses school regularly). It disproportionately harmed single parent households, the poor, families of color and homeless mothers. (More: Huffington Post)
- In US politics, ‘Hyde amendment’ is a legislative provision that bars federal funding for abortion unless it’s an extreme case like rape or incest or if it becomes life threatening. Harris voted for it, not once but twice. Other Democrat lawmakers, like Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttegieg, and Cory Booker, also voted for this amendment. (More: Politico)
- California’s prostitution law allows people to accept money in exchange for sex only if the act is being filmed. In 2015, a San Francisco-based Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) challenged this law and filed a suit to decriminalise sex work. The then attorney general Harris filed a motion to dismiss the suit arguing that the law protects sex workers from human trafficking. Sex worker unions voiced their opinion saying that the law doesn’t treat them as victims but in fact punishes them. (More: Law Weekly)
- Harris actively led the charge against Backpagedotcom, a classified ad website, which was used by sex workers to advertise, as they felt it was safer than the streets. Shuttering of the website put many sex workers at risk. (More: Esquire, Vice)
- As the District Attorney of San Francisco, Harris oversaw the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) where young men were charged (usually trapped by undercover police officers) for prostitution without even agreeing to sex or for even showing any interest in hiring a sex worker. (More: SF Weekly)
- Harris ran her presidential campaign on a pro-LGBTQIA+ platform, but as the Attorney-General of California state, she was responsible for putting trans women in men’s prisons. This endangered lives of transwomen and made them vulnerable to violence and sexual assault in prison. She was also responsible for denying healthcare to trans inmates, which included gender reassignment surgeries. (More: Them)
- In 2015, Harris’s office blocked the request for gender reassignment surgery by Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman incarcerated in California’s prison system. The move was unsuccessful and Norsworthy’s request was later approved in a court ruling. (More: Washington Blade, The Appeal)
One of the biggest oppositions to the Trump administration from the liberals and the left was his inhumane action against immigration and undocumented immigrants, with most of the criticism directed towards the freehand given to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But a 2008 policy supported by Harris has been doing the same in San Francisco city. Harris, then the District-Attorney of San Francisco city, supported a policy implemented by Mayor Gavin Newsom that required police to notify ICE about undocumented immigrant youth arrested for minor felonies or crimes. (More: Huffington Post)
Campaign funding and corporate support
- Kamala Harris declined to prosecute Steven Mnuchin after his OneWest bank’s predatory lending and foreclosure fraud broke the California state law “over a thousand” times and ruined the lives of thousands of homeowners. Intercept reported that a yearlong investigation by the Consumer Law section of California State Attorney-General had uncovered this evidence and requested Harris to file a civil enforcement action. Harris’s office declined it without any further explanation. (More: The Intercept)
- Harris was the only Democratic senate candidate who received funding from Steven Mnuchin, raising several doubts. Mnuchin went on to become Treasury Secretary in the Trump administration. (More: Roll Call, The Daily Beast)
- Harris accepted thousands of dollars of campaign funds from Donald and Ivanka Trump multiple times for her senate races. Throughout her political career, Harris’ donors have been tycoons, businessmen, socialites, Hollywood actors, influential law firms, venture capitalists and others in the finance sector and real estate industry. (More: The Sacramento Bee)
- Multi-level marketing company Herbalife was accused of targeting and exploiting Latino communities in California. In 2013, a group of Latin American citizens urged the office of Attorney-General to investigate the company for corrupt business practices. San Diego prosecutors wrote a memo to Harris asking her to prosecute the company. Harris declined to investigate Herbalife and additionally, received campaign funding from the company. (More: Free Beacon, Paste Magazine)
- Despite several requests, Harris refused to investigate PG&E, a company accused of being responsible for causing a massive gas explosion, wildfires and widespread environmental damage in California. It was later found that the consulting firm in charge of running Harris’s presidential campaign, SCRB strategies, received funding of $1.1 million from PG&E. (More: The New York Times, Politico)
Harris’s stance on several foreign issues reflects her largely pro-American imperialist impulses.
- As a senator, Harris co-sponsored the bill that let Trump impose sanctions on Iran, which led to the US withdrawing from a concrete 2015 nuclear deal. Later in 2019, when Iran decided to move away from the deal, it was accused of violating the rule by the American media who failed to hold American lawmakers accountable for withdrawing from the deal and imposing sanctions. This further escalated tensions between both the countries. (More: US Congress, Think Progress)
- In 2018, Harris attended an off-the-record meeting organised by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group which most of the Democratic party leaders have avoided because of their increasingly pro-Palestine stance in the past few years. (More: The Intercept)
- Harris was one among a group of 400 bipartisan lawmakers who signed an open letter supporting Trump to escalate America’s war in Syria in order to challenge Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard were among the very few lawmakers who refrained from signing the letter. (More: The Gray Zone)
- Harris voted twice for Trump’s increased military spending under the annual National Defense Authorisation Act. (More: Vote Smart)
- Harris was one of the latecomers among the Democratic presidential hopefuls to endorse ‘Medicare For All’. After publicly declaring at a CNN town hall in 2019 that she wished to eliminate private insurers to implement it, she immediately backtracked on it. Her campaign issued a statement saying Harris would be open to other alternatives. (More: CNN)
- By the time Harris took charge as the District Attorney of San Francisco in 2004, the office had already opened several files on child sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church. Harris did not prosecute the clergy accused in the case and refused to release the related files to the families of victims. (More: The Intercept)
- Although Harris is a co-sponsor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, she openly declared at a Vice Presidential debate against Mike Pence that Biden will not ban fracking, drawing widespread criticism from several organisations working for climate action. (More: Eco Watch)
It is important to note that defeating Trump does not mean Biden and Harris must be hailed as heroes who should be immune to any criticism. Trump’s defeat is definitely a welcome change, but we need to remember the Biden-Harris administration won’t herald fundamental changes for people belonging to marginalised communities across the US and in countries that the US has vested interests in.
One of the biggest reasons why all of Harris’s founderings are being neglected to prop her up as an icon is because she provides much needed representation, especially after the US’ four-year stint with an all-White administration that actively enabled white supremacist organisations.
Of course representation matters. Young Black and Persons of Colour (POC) girls across the US deserve to see someone who looks like them hold the country’s highest office. But representation does not end there.
Genuine and meaningful representation happens only when the representative actively works for the emancipation and liberation of the people they are representing. Otherwise it is just tokenism.
Views expressed are the author’s own.