BY Wagatwe Wanjuki
Kamala Devi Harris is an American attorney and politician serving as the junior United States Senator from California since 2017. A member of the Democratic Party, she previously served as the 32nd Attorney General of California from 2011 to 2017.
I recently had the opportunity to meet one of my senators, Democrat Kamala Harris on a very humid summer day in New Orleans. It was the Netroots Nation conference, touted as the largest gathering of progressive activists in the United States.
While the conference began as space to connect like-minded grassroots organizations in a time when having a blog required HTML knowledge, Netroots turned into something much more mainstream. Now instead of the grassroots chasing political leaders; they come to us. And her presence was clear evidence of that.
I remember when I first saw her. I was backstage as my colleagues and I waited to interview her on camera. I didn’t know how to feel about her; I reserved making a complete conclusion on her. But I was wary; my introduction to her has been either unadulated liberal praise, right-wing misogynoiristic vitriol (anti-black sexism faced by black women), or—most importantly—statements from sex workers noting her history of hostility to the very vulnerable group.
I kept an open mind however, and I was impressed. As she walked in, I was drawn to her charismatic smile, but it was the entire visual that gave me goosebumps. Not only was a powerful Black woman walking towards me, she was surrounded by Black staffers. And there was something about it, her claiming of Oakland and the way she naturally interacted with her staffers made it feel legit. “Yeah, of course I’d hire Black people. I’m from Oakland,” it seemed to say.
I didn’t expect to have such an emotional reaction to seeing someone—a Black woman—like me just be in positions that normally are reserved for a few white men. It didn’t feel like tokenizing; it was just the natural consequences of electing more diverse leaders in action.
The effortless Blackness of Kamala’s staff is part of what we have to gain by having a Black woman lead. Instead of the symbolic few people of color on the right, there’s the natural benefit that shows a direct correlation between Harris identities and policies. The senator went out to campaign in support of fellow Black woman Stacey Abrams, showing she won’t shy away from showing solidarity with other Black women and wielding her political power for good. America’s maternal death rate is the highest in rich countries and Black women bear the brunt of it. Sen. Harris helped bring this issue to the national stage by introducing the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies (CARE) Act, explicitly naming its benefits for Black women. Sen. Harris shows there’s a difference between a senator who happens to be black and a woman, and being a Black female senator.
Yet as with any politician who’s made it this far up in the ladder of power, Sen. Harris’ record opens the door for many valid criticisms. While Harris could disrupt the system that’s harmed Black communities since its inception, she is still a part of it. Her roots as a prosecutor is an asset for the typical Washington Beltway pundit, but a threat to the increasingly vocal part of the progressive left pushing for intersectional analyses that wholly condemn the prison-industrial complex.
While I’m not expecting Sen. Harris to call for prison abolition, she’s supported and spearheaded political causes that have disproportionately hurt people of color. During her time as California attorney general, she led the crusade that led to Backpage’s demise in spite of vocal opposition from sex workers. Ignoring them came at a particular cost to sex workers of color: without a free tool to safely and discreetly screen clients they are more vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
Voting is merely an exercise in harm reduction for many people of color; it’s not a wholehearted stamp of approval, but rather a choice of what circumstances under which you want to fight for change. An election for President is also an election for the people with whom they surround themselves. A Kamala Harris presidency wouldn’t just be groundbreaking for representation and policy. It’d be an invitation to bring much-needed nuance to the domination narratives about the inherently ambivalent relationship between American politics and community of color—even when it’s a Black woman leading.
Wagatwe Wanjuki is a feminist activist, writer, speaker, and digital strategist best known for her work as a national campus anti-violence advocate.