Kabelo Motsoeneng ’20
In 2008, I was a thirteen-year old seventh grade student in an unknown township in South Africa when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. When Obama won the presidential race, everyone wanted to claim him: In Kenya, where Obama’s father was born, celebrations raised the dust and ululations broke the air. To everyone who identifies as Black, Obama represented something: Radical hope. Barack Obama’s victory was more than a political win, it became a cultural phenomenon; comedians mimicked his eloquence and storytellers used various multimedia to canonize him. After all, he is the same person who introduced DACA. Yet it was under his administration that undocumented immigrants were deported in large numbers.
Obama performed presidency as far as presidency can be performed — not just in the sense of progressive domestic policies but in the way he etched himself in the hearts of many Americans. He offered speeches that stayed in people’s minds and those speeches had a life of their own. In fact, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, it was Barack Obama’s eulogy that made local mourners loop at the edge of their seats — he was more than a politician, but a superstar of sorts.
He was loved in many places and that love came from pockets of history. Perhaps in the same way Princess Diana was loved by the world, Obama was the Diana of politics. Unlike Princess Diana, although both were dearly loved by the world, Obama was deeply invested in the American imperial project: the dropping of bombs in the Middle East (leading to the current crisis in Syria) and the legacy of anarchy in Libya.
Though his tenure and victory resulted in great euphoria, that euphoria was misleading — instead, that it caused masses to overlook the sobering reality that Black people can be faces and great proponents of white supremacist policies and actions.
And almost a decade later, another high profile Black politician has declared their bid for the presidency. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Senator Kamala Harris announced that she wants to be the next president. Harris’ bid for the White House has been an open secret, calculated and careful. After Harris’ announcement, waves of scrutiny followed — not as a way to doubt her capability to govern but to remind voters that although Harris would make a brilliant president, her track record reveals how she has been complicit in injustices of mass incarceration.
The euphoria that clouded Obama’s election cannot be a practice that persists; grassroots organizers and various pundits argue that her victory could be detrimental to issues of social justice.
However, Harris should be credited for some of her work. During her tenure as district and attorney general, she argued against capital punishment on the case pertaining to the killing of a police officer (note: this does not permit calls for Blue Lives Matter) and then outlawed a legal strategy that protected “perpetrators of violent crimes against LGBT” people.
Her resume is extensive and impressive, but it tells a complicated tale. Although some under the glee of ‘firsts’ — first female Black president of Asian and Caribbean descent — might be tempted to classify her a ‘true’ liberal with some of her Left leaning past positions, this does not tell a comprehensive tale, a tale of how Harris — as a state agent — has perpetually undermined the rights of LGBT+ people and racial minorities with her positions.
Harris did not support an appeal from a transgender inmate when they expressed the desire to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Her past positions exemplify and reveal how individuals of the trans experience are uniquely placed at the crossroads of marginalization within the carceral system. Pertinently, gender and body dysmorphia can be enabled by oppressive structures and systems like the one Harris supported. Although her track record on the rights of queer folks has been relatively progressive, it was not sufficient.
When Harris was running for another office, she advocated for capital punishment, a position she had denounced in the early stages of her career. This position was a strategic alignment with the police union that had been severely critical of her. Yet when Harris is asked about her previous positions on her high profile controversies she claims that “her clients took positions that were contrary to [her] beliefs.” But what does this mean and what are the implications of this statement? Harris’ position on various issues has not been consistent. If anything, she strategically distances herself because it suits her immediate goals: she appeals to the language and preferences of the people whom she seeks endorsement and votes from. Kamala Harris, like other entrepreneurial politicians, opportunistically and misleadingly tailors her campaign to evade material responsibility.
According to a Vox article, in one of her press tours Harris claims to have taken ‘responsibility’ for the choices made in her previous roles. But this is the problem with democracies everywhere: there is a pandemic of ‘the reformed politician.’ In Nigeria, President Buhari, in the 1980s, served as president of the Republic of Nigeria through a military coup. And three decades later, he ran for office as a democratic candidate, positing that he is reformed, that military rule is the sort of thing that he is not interested in anymore. After he left office, former president Barack Obama stated, in various interviews, that the attacks on Libya during his tenure are some of his most regrettable decisions. Obama, too, presents the notion that since he has distanced himself from a position of power, he should be redeemed. The problem with reformed politicking and politicians is that the newly found clarity on previous infractions does not result in positive change. Instead, their reform is mere rhetoric, empty words that fall into the ears of those who are expected to express empathy while the perpetrator restores their public image. The grave problem with reformed politicians is that their reformation centers them and their supposed change. But what about the lives that are forever changed by these infractions?
In her The New York Times op-ed, law professor Lara Bazelon underscores that Harris was “opposed” and “silent” on proposals for criminal justice reform in California. Furthermore, Bazelon states that “Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.” Given that Black people are greatly affected by mass incarceration, Harris continued to defend anti-Black policies/practices that have intergenerational impact. Thus, Harris is morally inept to brand herself as a “lawful” candidate; it is disingenuous of her to claim that she is “for the people.” If we shred race, gender and class from this issue, it can be claimed that Kamala Harris upholds white supremacist, capitalist ideologies.