Spotlight on Kamala Harris exposes solitude of black women at top of politics

Sen. Kamala Harris has been in demand lately. The coronavirus pandemic, protests over police brutality and the vice presidential nomination contest have made the California Democrat a ubiquitous presence in the media.

The attention is a reflection of her political skill and the moment’s need for strong voices of black women. It’s also a reminder of the loneliness of her voice — as the only black woman in the Senate — on the national stage.

Harris has been asked about her race so many times over her years in politics that she has developed several pat answers. Sometimes she responds with a line her mother told her: “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.” She often says being a “first” is nothing new for her, and that has been true virtually every step of her career as a San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general before her 2016 election to the Senate.

When she announced her presidential candidacy in January 2019 at her alma mater, Howard University, one of the nation’s most prominent historically black universities, a reporter noted she was both an African American and Indian American woman — “Indeed!” she replied — and asked how she would describe herself.

“How do I describe myself? I describe myself as a proud American, that’s how I describe myself,” she said.

Harris keeps her responses affable, not letting on if the questions bother her. But the constant focus on her race is a reflection of the challenge she faces as one of the first women of color to break a political glass ceiling.

While a position of leadership means a platform to share one’s perspective and shape policy, it also brings a burden of expectations about how to do so.

“She definitely is carrying a lot right now. Black people everywhere are,” said Angela Rye, a strategist and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

She said Harris has to be a leading voice on “something so tragic” as the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her home by Louisville, Ky., police. Harris is co-authoring Democrats’ police reform legislation. On top of that, she is being vetted as a possible running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“And with all of that is having to prove to a community she has been a part of all her life that she is black enough, that she is radical enough, that she is for the people enough, and that she is reformer enough. It’s a lot,” Rye said.

“Welcome to leadership as a black person. And I think fortunately for Kamala, it’s not new. I think she can handle the pressure, but, God, is it a lot of pressure right now.”

Harris was prepared from a young age to know that society would label her as black, despite her multiethnic background as the daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and Jamaican immigrant father.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris wrote in her book about her upbringing in Berkeley. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see (her sister) Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

She has been vocal about the complexities of her background. The arguable high point of her campaign for president was when she confronted Biden on a debate stage for comments he had made about working with segregationists in the 1970s in the Senate, in which she cited her own experience with desegregation busing in grade school.

But the campaign ultimately failed to build on that momentum, even after she overhauled her staff and strategy. Some of her supporters blame her collapse before the first votes were cast at least in part on the difficulties of running for office as a woman of color.

Tiffany Cross, a political commentator and author of a forthcoming book about black voters, says that in hindsight, she second-guesses her decision to assess Harris’ campaign as critically as she did those of her opponents.

“I don’t know if that was necessarily fair, because she was starting from a different place,” Cross said. “I was treating her the same as everyone else, where what it took for her to get there and what it took for Pete (Buttigieg) to get there were two different journeys.”

She said the opening of Harris’ campaign, including its kickoff in Oakland before an estimated 20,000 people, set an “impossible bar” for her to match going forward. When she ebbed in polling, the critical news stories came.

“Some people can take a hit piece and live to tell about it. With Sen. Harris, it’s more difficult because the donor class is largely white and male, the media is largely white and male,” Cross said. “She was a flawed candidate, which made her no different from anyone else in the field and no different from the 45 men who were elected president so far. But somehow they were able to cross the bar and she wasn’t.”

The end of Harris’ campaign in early December, however, didn’t end her time in the spotlight. Eight days later, she returned to the Senate for a high-profile hearing and one of the rounds of questioning in which she draws on her experience as a former prosecutor.

If there was any doubt that she was ready to face the public again, those close to her say, it was erased by taking one look at her jacket.

The normally dark-suited Harris returned that day wearing a bright-pink blazer paired with a black turtleneck. It was an unusually attention-grabbing look for her, and one that her inner circle took to mean only one thing: She had no intention of fading away. As one aide put it, “I remember thinking, whoever this poor witness is is gonna get eviscerated.”

Harris has in fact embraced the attention since then, using it to promote issues that are priorities for her. Her work in the Senate has always included an emphasis on disadvantaged communities and race. She took the lead on a bill to make lynching a federal crime even before Floyd’s killing set off a national movement to reform policing, and she has been an advocate for immigrants.

But since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, followed by the outpouring of protests over racial profiling and police brutality, Harris’ role as an advocate for less-represented communities has grown. That happened as Biden clinched the Democratic nomination and promised to pick a woman as his running mate, and as calls grew among Democrats for him to select a woman of color.

It’s an instance where doing her day job well has the added benefit of helping her audition for the vice president role. But it also raises the pressure on Harris to live up to expectations of her that are beyond her control — including, Rye and other black women say, whether she is representing her blackness well enough.

“While it is wonderful to have this platform, you absolutely are constantly being watched, and there is a lot of pressure,” said A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, a group that recruits Democratic women to run for office. “As a black woman, we also have to constantly remind people that black women aren’t a monolith — we do think differently.”

Critics like to “pit black women against each other” as a way to undermine them, Gholar added. “People who are always trying to find flaws in black women, one of the tactics is to find black women with a different opinion.”

Since the pandemic began, Harris has emphasized the disparities in the way coronavirus affects different demographics, especially communities of color.

“I’ve been sounding the alarm on this for weeks now, because it was predictable,” she told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast in April. “People who weren’t doing well before do even worse in a moment of crisis. And so when we talk about the disparities that exist in this country based on race, they are long-standing, they are real, and they are magnified in a crisis.”

Harris introduced legislation that would boost the government’s ability to quickly help hard-hit communities, offer direct payments to Americans and expand in-person and by-mail voting options. She also pushed for a task force to examine the inequalities in the pandemic and a resolution condemning anti-Asian American discrimination that has arisen around it.

Then came Floyd’s death May 25 and the outpouring of protests of police brutality and racism that followed. Democrats in the Senate tapped Harris and the only other black senator in the party, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, to lead their efforts on police reform legislation.

In both cases, she has tried to leverage her star power to call attention to the issues of inequality, including in outlets with predominantly white audiences and those catering to people of color.

While Harris has made clear the work is important to her, it has also taken a toll personally.

Harris’ bill making lynching a federal crime, for example, has been held up by an objection to wording by Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul. His attempt to amend the bill forced Harris and Booker to come to the Senate floor to object and delay its passage, on the day of Floyd’s memorial service.

“It is painful to be standing here right now, especially when people of all races are marching in the streets of America outraged by the hate and the violence and the murder that has been fueled by racism during the span of this country’s life,” Harris said of the floor debate.

While Harris often discusses the difficulties of being a woman of color, it’s rarely to complain. In a recent New York Times interview, she said she was “really sick” of having to describe her own experiences with racism to convince others it exists. Harris declined to be interviewed for this article.

“When black women speak on our experiences, we’re also giving you access to our pain and our hurt,” Gholar said.

“Imagine being the only black woman in the Senate arguing to get an anti-lynching bill passed and having a white colleague try to shout you down and say we don’t need this,” Gholar said. “You experience this hate as a black woman in America, you know the history of lynching against black people in this country, and yet you still have someone up here telling you you’re wrong.”

Still, Rye said, Harris knows what being in politics entailed, and would have turned away long ago if she wasn’t up to it.

“If Kamala was not interested in doing that, she would have never run. Any time. She would have never run,” Rye said. “Kamala could have gone into the private sector and made a lot of money and that’s not what she chose. She chose public service.”