Kamala Harris Wasn't Allowed to Fail Up Like a White Boy

Former presidential candidate U.S. Senator Kamala Harris at the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A lot led to Kamala Harris’ campaign collapsing before the first ballot was cast in the Iowa caucuses.

But what arguably doomed her chances was her struggle to disprove she was not the lock ’em up prosecutor many critics accused her of being. Much will be written and researched about Harris’ campaign—especially how black women fare in national campaigns—but much of the conversation has centered around the possibility that her time as San Francisco prosecutor and California’s attorney general (i.e., “Kamala is a cop”) made her campaign dead on arrival.

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Much of it resonated on social media and sparked analogue conversations.

My colleague Ashley Reese at Jezebel points to the social media traction that narrative took on and the Harris campaign’s failure to respond to them with clarity and self-reflection. While Reese’s assessment is accurate, we need to also consider that she isn’t the only person whose history deserves equal meme scrutiny.

If we are holding Harris to such a high threshold on criminal justice, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg shouldn’t be in the race, either.

All of the aforementioned men have a poor record with black voters, but what is particularly startling is that neither of them endured the interrogation of their record with black voters as long and vigorously as Harris. Immediately after the senator entered the race, the columns critiquing her time as a prosecutor followed and never really stopped. The Root also covered Harris’ criminal justice record and asked her about how some of her decisions are viewed in a post-Ferguson America.

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We were fully justified in our exploration, but none of her actions as a law enforcement official should have disqualified her from the race, given the current candidates who have troubling histories with black people.

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I’ve written about how former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the pack despite his history of fuckery on issues that impact black people disproportionately, like criminal justice and segregation . He enjoys a huge lead in the polls with black voters despite voicing opposition to busing and calling on segregationists to support his legislative goals. He authored the 1994 crime bill that reinforced state-level policies that made it easier to lock black and brown people up. The ACLU notes that the 1996 Democratic Party platform was inspired by the law and Biden “encouraged states to pass truth-in-sentencing laws, bragged about instituting the death penalty for nearly 60 more crimes, and even encouraged the prosecution of young people as adults. This platform remained largely in place until 12 years later, when in 2008, the tone and substance began to change under new leadership in the party. Coincidentally, incarceration rates peaked in 2008.”

It is unfair to have such a laser focus on Harris being a cop when Biden literally authored the 1994 crime bill that some experts say emboldened prosecutors to rack up arrests. She has been forced to atone for her decisions as a prosecutor, but Biden is the frontrunner without having to apologize for the 1994 crime bill.

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And, of course, he has genuinely refused to atone for his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

If Harris is a cop, Biden is the police chief.

Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, locked up so many black and brown men behind “stop and frisk” in New York City, one has to seriously wonder what type of white male arrogance he has to feel he can actually enter the race late and think he has a shot at winning.

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We can pick apart Harris’ record all we want, but Bloomberg has thousands of black men and women in New York City who have their own “Bloomberg is a cop” stories. Ultimately, Harris didn’t have the funds to sustain her campaign, but it doesn’t feel right that she was dogged by narratives of being a cop while arguably bigger cops—if that is how you view her—are allowed to buy their way into the 2020 race.

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Then there is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Chief executive in a town of 101,000 people, Buttigieg is being covered as a frontrunner but has an abysmal show of support from black people. What’s more, the critiques of his viability are predicated on his Midwestern roots, military service and moderate messaging that are all perceived as safe for white, blue-collar voters. But he is presiding over a city in which his black and brown constituents feel he is leading a gentrification of South Bend that’s displacing them.

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Black residents were 4.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana arrests in Buttigieg’s South Bend than white residents between 2012 and 2018. He messed up when he fired the city’s first black police chief. His police force killed a black man this year and he lost black support during his reelection.

Yet, Buttigieg is still in the race with his record? Something ain’t right.

Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, a political commentator, summarized the power of Buttigieg’s white privilege this way: “I could not imagine a scenario where a black woman, who is mayor of a small town, woke up one day and said, ‘’I’m running for president’ and anybody would give her a dime.”

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White men are able to wade through news cycles and not have their flaws interrogated with the same intensity as black women, L. Joy Williams, chair of the Higher Heights PAC, said.

“They’re allowed to be flawed if they have that ‘it’ factor,” she said. “We can write glowingly about them and put their flaws aside because we have a history with them. We don’t have a history with people being comfortable with the flaws of people of color and still being in leadership positions. The expectation is that in order for us to succeed, we must be perfect. And that’s not just from other people voting for us. That’s (black people) voting for us as well.”

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Kamala Harris had many issues with her campaign, but so does everyone else running for president. Failing up is common in American politics—especially for white men. Everyone has something in their personal and professional pasts they’d take back if they could, a vote they’d reverse or a more progressive outlook they wish they would have embraced sooner. But no one can reverse time. We’re often left with candidates to whom we have to extend some grace.

They are allowed to fail up.

Because, in politics, you will fail and do things that hurt and anger people, no matter how unintentional. Every white man who has run for office failed and was given space to grow through it. One could also argue that the more white boys fail, the higher they rise.

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Without question, Kamala Harris should still be in this race. On paper, Harris checks all the boxes: California attorney general, U.S. senator, Howard graduate, trailblazer. All things considered, she was amongst the cream of the crop.

But, sometimes, the cream doesn’t always rise to the top—especially the black kind.

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About the author

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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