Why a ‘good enough’ Harris isn’t good enough

Look, I’m sure many of us pronounced her name Cam-a-la or Cam-aala or even Kumlah. But Kamala Harris says in her memoir, it’s Comma-la, so reasonable minds understand that that’s how we will say it going forward.

Not so Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who, on Tuesday, repeatedly mispronounced the name of the woman picked as a Democratic vice-presidential candidate, and dismissed being corrected with a “or whatever.” This could be a column about the implications of that mispronunciation that many of us face. It is not.

On Thursday, the U.S. president – a man for whom no depths are too low to plumb – did not refute a birther conspiracy theory, sparked by a Newsweek article that the magazine said is just a legal debate on the finer points of a citizenship clause.

The argument went like this: If U.S.-born Harris’s parents were still immigrants on student visas she may not be a “natural-born citizen.” The author is law professor who once ran as Republican candidate for California’s attorney general, a position that Harris eventually won. This could be a column on racist birtherism politics. It is not.

Also Thursday, The Australian published a racist cartoon in which presidential nominee Joe Biden refers to the senator as “a little brown girl.” The newspaper defended its publication, saying the words came from Biden. The ordinarily gaffe-prone Democrat had simply said after announcing his pick, “This morning, little girls woke up across this nation – especially Black and Brown girls Ö potentially seeing themselves in a new way.” This could be a column on #MediaSoWhite. It is not.

This is none of those columns because I resist. I resist white supremacy’s insistence on centring the ramifications of Harris’ selection on whiteness, and the crudest expressions of why she, a non-white, is unfit for power.

“She is chosen because she is Black and a woman,” some of these right-wing types sniff. As if every U.S. president other than Barack Obama wasn’t chosen for being white and male.

No, there’s a far richer conversation to be had than having to justify non-white rights to exist on equal terms. One of them is that even the choice of Kamala Harris, the highly qualified senator of Black and Indian descent, exposes the limitations of the politics of representation.

To Biden’s point, representation such as that of an Obama or a Harris does carry weight. I couldn’t deny the flicker of recognition in my daughter’s eyes when she peered over my shoulder as I was watching a Harris video on Wednesday.

Even that moment was not quite so straightforward, however. Had Donald Trump replaced Mike Pence and had that been a Nikki Haley video my daughter saw, I would have jumped up to temper that recognition and point to Haley’s record.

That I didn’t do so with Harris is about my ambivalence toward her; I am conflicted between recognizing her mixed record on policies to help the marginalized and falling for the monumental symbolism of the moment as a woman of colour.

It’s a huge battle for non-white people to make it to the top – and therefore a huge victory when they do. But is that success always a mark of progress?

When there is diversity at the table, are the diverse voices challenging the status quo or parroting it?

For many of us, those barriers to success are amplified if we don’t adhere to standards of likability and credibility imposed by whiteness. Making oneself palatable to those norms sometimes requires contortions of authenticity, loss of language, culture and identity. Individual success often comes at the cost of ignoring collective needs.

Harris’ selection is a case in point. At a time when the global reckoning of anti-Black racism is sparked by police brutality, the Democrats selecting a self-proclaimed “top cop” shows how much longer the resistance must continue.

Harris, who has been prominent during the racial justice protests, said in July the reckoning is not “a moment” but part of a movement that began before Emmett Till.

So where was she on demands of the movement during the years she worked her way up the system? As attorney general her office stopped a transgender inmate from getting a surgery to change genders. But she was a proponent of gay marriage. She oversaw more than 1,900 marijuana convictions as San Francisco district attorney and opposed the legalization of marijuana. But she came out in support of legalization in 2018, when she was widely considered likely to run for president.

There’s a meme circulating to show her as two-faced. One is a quote from her 2009 book “Smart on Crime”: “If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up.” The other is from 2020, when she told the New York Times, “It is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”

Of course, people change over time. Of course, politics are rife with people going where the winds blow. This moment was supposed to be a harbinger of change.

Jim Clyburn, civil rights organizer and congressman from South Carolina, told the NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast last week the choice was between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. “Take a look at these candidates. Look at these records,” he said. “Please compare Joe Biden to the alternative. Not the almighty.”

It’s a persuasive argument, but one in which progressive Americans who critique Harris’s record are told to hush, and once again make do with the political calculus of “good enough.”

Before the 2016 presidential elections, feminist Kate Harding said, “I intend to vote with my vagina.”

Choosing identity over policy and principle says that if you, as a person of marginalized identity were placed in a position of power, you would do exactly what the powerful are doing today. Same injustice, different identity.

When I didn’t rush to layer my daughter’s understanding of the moment, I too had fallen prey to “good enough.” For a Canadian who doesn’t have to make a bad choice in the U.S. elections, and who can dream of a world my kids deserve, that is simply not good enough.

Shree Paradkar is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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