Of the many Democratic candidates campaigning for the black female vote at the 2019 Essence Festival, there was one who presumably had an advantage. As the lone black female candidate running for the presidency in 2020, Kamala Harris is seemingly in the most privileged position to understand the issues most important to her own demographic—and to appreciate the unique dynamics of the annual pilgrimage known as Essence Fest (approximately a half million strong in attendees this year, according to Billboard).
“It’s so special,” Harris tells Jemele Hill during an intimate live taping of Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, airing tonight, July 15. “It’s just packed with energy and with excitement, right? About knowing that we’re all together under one roof, celebrating the brilliance, celebrating the power, and the strength, and the diversity—and the sisterhood.”
Several of Harris’ Alpha Kappa Alpha line sisters, wearing customized tees supporting their candidate, were under the roof of the Spotify Are & Be House during the Essence Fest-timed taping on July 6. But sisterhood notwithstanding, Harris is far from a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination; both she and Cory Booker trail behind Joe Biden in garnering the coveted black vote, while Elizabeth Warren is providing stiff competition among highly influential black female voters. So, it was unsurprising that Harris chose to unveil her $100 billion plan to close the black homeownership gap at her first Essence Festival, an event that has become fertile ground for candidates hoping to gain traction with black women.
“I think it’s because candidates have figured out that you need to speak to and hear from black women and go there, as opposed to expecting them to come to you,” Harris tells Hill. “[T]o acknowledge the significance and the power of black women in our democracy, both in terms of—as an electoral force—but also as a force always fighting for the future of our country and to articulate the conscience of our nation.
“Looking at it through [a] historical lens...you know, you talk about Coretta Scott King, we can talk about Shirley Chisholm, we can talk about Sojourner Truth, we could talk about Maya Angelou,” Harris continues. “We could go down the list and talk about the powerful forces that black women have been that have shaped the history of this country and have forced this country in many ways to move to a way that is more just, more right, more fair...and acknowledging, for me, the shoulders upon which I stand.”
And yet, as Hill points out, there’s been significant debate around Harris’ race, a conversation she likens to “Barack Obama 2.0.”
“It just feels like your blackness is always being put on trial,” Hill says. “I mean, you went to Howard; you’re an AKA... [prompting a “skee-wee” from Harris’ sorority sisters in the audience.]”
“[H]onestly, I will say, just in full candor, that I have said to my team, I’m like, ‘Look, I am not running for black history professor. I am running for president of the United States,” Harris answers. “These people need to know black history. And it cannot be, as it always ends up being, that the couple of chocolate chips on the stage have to be the ones teaching everybody else about America’s history. It’s America’s history.’
“And you know, to be candid again, I have to figure out where I’m going to put my energy,” she continues. “[F]or other people who can’t figure out am I ‘black enough,’ I kinda feel like that’s their problem, not mine. And they’re going to have to figure it out, you know, and maybe they need to go back to school to figure it out. And maybe they need to learn about the African diaspora and maybe they need to learn about a number of other things. But it is challenging ... and to be honest with you, it is also hurtful, and it is real.”
And there are real issues on the table that Harris would rather address; Essence Fest was also an opportunity for her to further familiarize the black demographic with her presence and plans for America, an introduction she admits is “is an ongoing process.” Obviously, significant and stunning strides were made during the Democratic debate, in which Harris took Biden to task for his opposition to busing, an issue that directly affected her own childhood and trajectory.
“If I don’t get in this race, there is a voice that will not be present on that stage, and a voice that needs to be heard,” Harris said of her decision to run in 2020.
“So, on that debate stage that night, I felt it was really important to insert into this conversation about these segregationists that they stood in the way and built their reputations in their careers on opposing the integration of America’s schools,” Harris says of the now-famous exchange that cowed the former vice president. “And if they had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate and I would not be running for president of the United States...we can go down the line in terms of the leaders of today who probably would not be present to articulate issues that must be spoken and heard. And that’s why I said it, and that’s why I talked about the issue of busing and that there were real people behind that...this is part of America’s history that must be acknowledged.
“I believe in working to find common ground,” Harris concludes. “[But] I strongly disagree with coddling the reputations of people who, if they had their way, would have excluded whole populations, in particular, black people, [from] access to equal education in America.”
Education is one of many issues Harris considers part of her “3 a.m. agenda”—also known as “the things that keep people up at night,” including herself. As the first black woman to be elected attorney general of any state and only the second elected to the United States Senate, she recalls often being asked to be the voice of “black people’s issues,” a responsibility she translates to American issues that disproportionately affect black people, like access to homeownership.
“Because people have to remember history in this country, even after post-World War II, where this country created policies that were about helping veterans come back and establish themselves and gave all these benefits to veterans around homeownership—and black veterans were excluded; black families were excluded,” Harris explains to the Spotify audience. “And then, you look at the history of redlining...when you put that in the context of the fact that the main source of wealth, the biggest asset that most American families have is their home, you then understand black families have been excluded from the main source of wealth in America.”
Then, there’s the gender pay gap, which even further affects women of color, and which, despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, America has still yet to enforce, en masse.
“We’ve been talking about this and talking about this, and talking about it,” Harris sighs. “I’m done. ... Are women paid equally for equal work? It’s a non-debatable point. The question becomes: What are we going to do about it? And I’m all about just getting stuff done.”
Harris then presented staggering statistics on education, which fly in the face of destructive policies proposed by “Betsy ‘Grizzly’ DeVos,” as Harris calls her.
“If a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they are 13 percent more likely to go to college. If that child has two black teachers before then, they’re 32 percent more likely to go to college. So you see how we can connect all these dots, right?” Harris asks.
Understandably, this may lead many to ask about her often controversial stance on truancy, which she maintains is an epidemic which landed many young black men before her as a prosecutor and later, district attorney.
“[W]hen I was DA, I saw the extraordinarily high number of young black men who are under the age of 25 who are being killed, and people just accepted that that would be the case,” Harris recalls. “I learned that an elementary school truant is three to four times more likely to be a high school dropout; that at that time, 80 percent of the [prisoners] in the United States were high school dropouts (pdf). That a black man, if he is between the age of 30 and 34 and a high school dropout is two thirds [more] likely to be in jail (pdf), have been in jail or dead....So when I took on this issue of elementary school truancy, it was to hold the system accountable,” she adds.
On that note: What about Harris’ prosecutorial career, which has been a sticking point for so many black voters who have seen firsthand the damage done to us in the judicial system?
“You know, I think that there has been a lot of misinformation about my background,” she says. “[W]hen I made the decision to become a prosecutor, it was a very conscious decision and I made it with a specific goal of knowing the power you can have to reform systems not only from the outside but also from the inside...
“So, there’s a lot that I need to do to help people understand not only the work I’ve done, but also to not buy into this idea that we don’t also want [to] have safe communities and fight for that, because I think there’s also some that would try and perpetuate a myth that suggests that we don’t want to have safe communities,” she continues. “I think that some of our opponents are actually trying to make what would otherwise be considered a strength into a weakness, and there is that manipulation that’s happening, as well.”
So, just to be clear on Harris’ stance on some of the most buzzworthy topics in this election cycle: Marijuana legalization? All for it. Death penalty? Unequivocally against. Gun control? Absolutely. Reparations? It’s complicated—far more complicated than simply cutting checks, she says.
“[T]he worst thing that I think can happen is that checks get written and then everybody says, ‘Okay, stop talking about this now,’ without addressing the systemic inequities that are deep and require investment. So that’s why I say it’s complicated.”
But the conversation wasn’t all policies and political positions. We also learned Harris’ favorite curse word, which “starts with a ‘M’ and ends with ‘A.’” We don’t know if she’s ever used the term in reference to the Cheeto-in-Chief (admittedly, we have), but she does say “there is plenty of getting to the truth” and to prosecute in “the case against four more years of Donald Trump.”
“The receipts are there,” Harris says. “I call it a rap sheet.”
“Do you think Donald Trump should be afraid to debate you?” Hill asks.
“He should be,” Harris smiles.
The Glow Up tip: You can listen to the full episode of Jemele Hill Is Unbothered, Ep. 25, “Starts with a ‘M’ ends with an ‘A’ (feat. Sen. Kamala Harris) now on Spotify.