Sen. Kamala Harris has a problem with Black men. Rather, Black men have a problem with Sen. Kamala Harris.
Since her selection as presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, I’ve received a deluge of phone calls, text messages, and WhatsApp group chats from Black men — only two of whom had positive things to say about her. One was from someone who sees himself in Harris; like her, he has one parent from Jamaica and another from India. The other is totally aligned with her policy positions. Everyone else, though, is down on the pick.
This conversation is tough. Emotions are high. Nuanced discourse is rare. The discussion is either black or white. That all-or-nothing approach is already common on social media, but now it’s jumping into my real-life conversations. It’s shocking, even disheartening, but it’s not surprising.
Black men, let’s establish what we know. As Malcolm X said, the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected person in America is the Black woman. And yes, Harris is Black, so let’s stop with any false narrative that she’s not. Bad actors seeking to create dissent will do a good enough job spreading false propaganda without our assistance. It’s already beginning with the birther movement; the once-silent dog whistles have turned into a blaring sound system used at President Donald Trump’s rallies, White House press briefings, and on the presidential Twitter account. Therefore, we must have her back at all times during this election.
Just because some of her decisions have been turned into clickbait distortions and clout-chasing retweets doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about. We need to hear from Harris about the hard truths of her criminal justice work.
But here’s where it gets complicated. Before Harris became a senator, she was California’s attorney general, and before that, she served as district attorney of San Francisco. In both positions, her tenure and actions directly affected Black men. I’ve even heard people say that a Biden-Harris ticket would be worse for leading criminal justice reform than the current Trump-Pence administration. So do we lend our support without her acknowledging her record in these positions, or do we withhold it until we’re able to have a frank conversation with her about them?
White men have been able to sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office for more egregious offenses in their past, been forgiven for their past transgressions when an apology wasn’t even asked for, and have held willful ignorance on behalf of white America. It’s called politics. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to hear Harris acknowledge her past decisions and court our vote.
Yet, the Democratic establishment continues to push aside our feelings on her record. The party’s leadership tells us to hold our noses and vote — a hollow, greater-good argument which is exactly why Black men don’t head to the polls.
Think about it: The entire Democratic primary season was all about Black women. Black women’s health; a Black woman being appointed to the Supreme Court; Black women in the gig economy as child care providers; Black women as the backbone of the Democratic Party; a Black woman as a necessary vice-president selectee.
All of those issues were, and continue to be, urgent. I stand with and advocate for all of them. But when were Black men brought up? Only around criminal justice reform. Only during the horrendous murders of Black men witnessed on social media. Only around criminality and murder, not about family or education or jobs. What does that signal to us unconsciously? How does that make the Black man seen and heard in the political process?
This is why we need Harris to tell us what she is going to do on our behalf going forward. That she sees us. That the Democratic Party doesn’t only view us through the lens of criminality. That’s all. That’s the town hall. That’s the conversation.
During her time as San Francisco’s district attorney, the conviction rate jumped from 52% to 67%. From 2002–2005, during her tenure, Black people made up less than 8% of the city’s population but accounted for over 40% of its police arrests. While she was attorney general for the state, her office oversaw over 1,900 marijuana convictions — convicting people on marijuana charges at a higher rate than under her predecessor. Let’s talk about this.
We can also talk about the fact that some of the most controversial elements of Harris’s track record are actually widely misinterpreted. As the criticism goes, then-Attorney General Harris openly defied U.S. Supreme Court orders to reduce overcrowding in California prisons and argued against expanding an early parole program in court, saying that it would deplete their stock of prison labor, especially inmates who fight wildfires. But this argument was made by Harris’ office without her knowledge — and she went on record with her displeasure. “The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” she told ThinkProgress. “I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs.”
But just because some of her decisions have been turned into clickbait distortions and clout-chasing retweets doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about. We need to hear from Harris about the hard truths of her criminal justice work. She’s changed her stance on a number of issues, from cash bail to defending a number of problematic convictions. What lessons has she learned?
Regardless, if there is one thing I know, it’s that Trump and Pence are not the ones to lead us toward real criminal justice reform — let alone governing with us in mind.
Trump’s First Step Act is window dressing for criminal justice reform. It was a shiny object for the Trump Administration, the Kardashians, the Kushners, and the Republican party could dangle in front of Black America thinking we were going to fall for it. Unfortunately, many of us did. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, pointed out on Twitter, “Every person released under it is a victory against a system that eats lives, but it is a modest victory at best.”
Rather than reforming the system itself, the First Step Act mostly involves backend reforms that affect those who are already incarcerated. It does not address frontend solutions to the issues that funnel people of color into the justice system in the first place: over-policing, bail reform, racial profiling, mandatory minimums. And the changes it does implement affect only the federal level. “Real CJ reform means addressing practices in state and local jails where 2 million are incarcerated,” Ifill continued — a population 10 times that of the federal system.
And if we’re going to critique Harris’ criminal justice record, we should extend the same scrutiny to the current vice president. When he was governor of Indiana, Mike Pence signed House Bill 1006 to revamp the state’s felony sentencing laws and give some offenders the ability to expunge their records. But Pence only agreed to sign after lawmakers made changes to make the bill tougher on offenders convicted of drug crimes. As of now, Black residents in 23 counties in Indiana are three and a half times more likely than white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite having similar marijuana usage rates.
Later, Pence said, “Indiana should be the worst place in the nation to commit a crime and the best place to get a second chance once you’ve done your time.” It’s certainly not a good place to be Black: As of 2017, the Black adult imprisonment rate in Indiana was more than five times higher than that for white adults. Black people accounted for 34% of the state’s prison population, but only 9% of the state’s adult population. It’s hard to get a second chance when the first one is so skewed — but when more than a third of the state’s prisoners return to incarceration within three years of leaving prison, those second chances start to sound like lip service.
As vice president, Pence is vocal in his support for law enforcement, the “thin blue line,” and that blue lives matter. So, Black men, do you still believe that Biden-Harris is worse than Trump-Pence? I hope the picture is more clear that it’s not.
And to you, Senator Harris: in spite of all I have outlined, know that we want you to have our support. But also know that you need to support us. Don’t silence our voice. Talk to us. Hear our concerns. Address them. Forge a bond with us, and trust me, we will have your back.