How would we examine Kamala Harris’s record if we trusted women?
So much of the criticism we see of presidential candidate Kamala Harris is poisoned with misogyny — rooted in a deep mistrust of women seeking power. Some of the criticism progressives have raised against Harris requires a nuanced analysis and might not result in any clear agreement with her on a given issue. Much of the various negative claims about Harris’s past record as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California are easy to shoot down when you do a basic level of research into the facts of each particular claim, and when you educate yourself about what a District Attorney’s and an Attorney General’s jobs are and how lawyers are ethically obligated to do their jobs.
Harris’s record is complicated to analyze, because people do not understand the job she had. She was legally and ethically obligated to defend her client, which in many of these situations is the Department of Corrections. Lawyers do not get to set policy against our client’s interest while defending them. In other situations, Harris’s viewpoint is that of a prosecutor who has a deep knowledge of and connection to the most victimized people in our culture — children, sex trafficking victims, domestic violence victims, women of color, poor people. She is making hard choices based on the evidence in front of her, and people will always be affected by a choice. She has had to choose between evidence that shows her children will benefit from tougher truancy laws, even though the parents may be negatively affected. She has had to choose between protecting trafficking victims and interfering with the livelihood of sex workers.
When people do not understand something, they fall back on shortcuts and patterns they are familiar with to make sense of the situation — in the case of examining Harris’s record, that shortcut is misogyny and that pattern is to not trust women. But how would we examine Harris’s record if we trusted women?
If we approached a woman’s record from the assumption that she is good, trustworthy, genuine, and qualified, that process would look much different from what we are seeing now.
We would not ask questions designed to disqualify women candidates.
If we trusted women, we would not entertain question that are designed to wholly, uniquely disqualify a woman candidate. Questions like, “Can a prosecutor be president?” are designed to move goal posts to wholly and uniquely disqualify Harris from attaining office. If we frame the question as one in which we decide for the first time ever that the profession of the candidate is deemed immoral on its face, then we do not even need to care about the questions and answers that really matter about Harris’s record and character. It is a cheap shot and a lazy approach, and it is also highly problematic. Critics tried it with Hillary Clinton too, saying that her previous job as a public defender disqualified her for office, although that has never been said about a man. The fact is that prosecutors and public defenders have important jobs and they serve to protect people. Prosecutors at the level of District Attorney and Attorney General go after the most dangerous people in their jurisdiction — rapists, murderers, child molesters, traffickers, and criminal enterprises.
The site that published the article, The Intercept, is owned by a former lawyer who previously worked to uphold the rights of white supremacists. So perhaps a better question would be, “Can a man who worked for white supremacists be counted on to publish valid critiques of a black woman candidate?”
As Tim Silard — president of the reform-minded Rosenberg Foundation — said about Harris’s record of being a progressive prosecutor in her time, “There’s been incredibly rapid change in public opinion, in attention to criminal justice. Bringing a reverse lens to that is not fair, and also doesn’t recognize folks who were courageous at that time.”
We would give the benefit of the doubt.
If we trusted women, we would give them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can with what they have. We would assume that they are good and competent. There are a few hashtags and phrases that internet trolls are using to attack Harris. These hashtags, like #KamalaIsACop, are childish and lazy, and they are rooted in the type of misogyny that fails to give women the benefit of the doubt. The analysis never begins. It’s just a hashtag that says “we don’t trust women.”
Wealthy, white brogressives who have never helped a poor person or a person of color in their entire lives sit back on Twitter posting videos of Harris’s speeches and post about how gleeful she sounds and how much she likes hurting poor people. Harris’s diversion programs have helped thousands of people — poor people, people of color, mentally ill people, addicts — to get the help they need and go on to live fulfilling lives free from a criminal record, but these out-of-touch wealthy white men have the audacity to keyboard warrior their way to convincing folks that Harris actually hates the people she served. If we trusted women, we would not buy into this.
We would seek to understand.
If we trusted women, we would try to understand why they made particular decisions that seem troubling. When we hear rumors about stances Harris took, or policies she held, we should seek to understand. We should first verify that what is being claimed is actually true. If it is true, we should seek to understand why that particular stance or policy was taken.
People share complaints about Harris that are not even rooted in facts. If we trusted women, as soon as we heard something negative, we would first seek to learn if what we were hearing was even true. People have held Harris uniquely responsible for the SESTA/FOSTA bill, which essentially ended sites like Backpage, where sex workers can easily seek, screen, and communicate with clients. Yet, Harris was one of 97 Senators to vote for the bill. Only 2 voted against it. And people act like she spearheaded the effort.
The accusation is that Harris is “anti sex worker.” In fact, if folks took time to look at her record, she has worked with sex workers over the years. It is true that her focus as a prosecutor has been primarily on victims of sex trafficking, and having prosecuted hundreds of cases involving trafficking victims, she likely came to make her decision on this bill from that angle. When presented with evidence that the bill would help curb sex trafficking, she chose to sign it, along with nearly every other Senator. You do not have to agree with her vote, but it is just flat-out untrue to attribute a nefarious motive to it, and it is misogynistic to attack her uniquely, when she was hardly alone in her vote.
We would empathize with having to make hard choices.
If we trusted women, we would empathize with the fact that women in power have to make hard choices. Sometimes lawmakers are faced with dilemmas. On the SESTA/FOSTA bill, lawmakers were faced with a bill that carried with it a lot of evidence that its passage would dramatically curb sex trafficking. They were also faced with evidence that its passage would make sex workers’ lives much more difficult. Harris made a choice to dramatically curb sex trafficking. She is being painted as hostile to sex workers because of that choice. If she made a different choice, she could easily be painted as callous toward sex trafficking victims. She should be painted as neither. She should be seen for what she is — a human being doing the best she can to make the best choices she can, even though someone will always think she made the wrong decision, and even though real people will be harmed no matter how she votes.
We would give credit where credit is due.
If we trusted women, we would give credit where credit is due. We have not seen many of these pieces critical of Harris’s record also put forth the ways she changed the lives of marginalized people for the better. Every time we seen an achievement listed, it is followed by a perceived failure.
“As San Francisco’s district attorney, for instance, she steadfastly refused to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer, but later, as California’s attorney general, she defended the state’s right to use capital punishment. In 2012, she helped win a massive, $25 billion settlement with Wells Fargo and other financial institutions for foreclosure abuses, but a year later she declined to prosecute Steven Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank for foreclosure violations. In 2014, she co-sponsored a bill to outlaw the so-called gay-panic defense in California, a legal strategy that often shielded perpetrators of violent crimes against LGBT people from serious punishment, but a year later she sought to block gender reassignment surgery for a transgender prison inmate.” Although this is one of the fairest articles I have read about Harris’s record, this sort of both-sides journalism still bothers me. In this particular instance, it fails to tell us what the job of Attorney General entails: defending its client (the Department of Corrections). It fails to tell us why an attorney might fail to bring a case: a lack of evidence.
Ultimately, Harris has been in the trenches doing the work more than most of her critics: “Harris is not interested in crusading from the outside; her mission is to reform the system from within. And no chapter of her life better reveals this dynamic than her days as a newly elected district attorney in San Francisco, working to get one radical program off the ground.”
If we trusted women, we would give Harris the credit she deserves.
We would look at the candidates in a big-picture context.
If we trusted women, we would look at their careers through a big-picture lens that includes acknowledgement of the unique struggles of women and of the intersecting marginalized circumstances (such as race, in Harris’s case) that may apply to women.
As Jill Filipovic said in an excellent Twitter thread about Harris: “People who stand out because they occupy roles that have not traditionally been occupied by people like them fall under much more intense scrutiny. That’s true of Harris as a prosecutor, and it’s now true of Harris as a presidential contender.” Filipovic goes on to discuss the ways that the rules change for women and people of color seeking office. At one point, Harris would have been under pressure to prove she is tough, and now she is under pressure to prove she was not tough. White men do not face this scrutiny, as Filipovic notes.
So much of the criticism of Kamala is deeply embedded with misogyny. Misogyny tells us we cannot trust women. If misogyny were not involved, we would approach her record with the benefit of the doubt and a curious mind: Assuming she cares about [group of] people, why did she do this?
We cannot afford to let narratives of a strong woman presidential candidate be painted and poisoned with misogyny. We must call it out when we see it. We must insist that all critiques of Harris and other women start with an assumption that they are good people. And we must reject critiques from people who refuse to afford women that basic dignity.