On August 11, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced that he had chosen former presidential candidate and California senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. In a campaign email, Biden proclaimed that Harris “is the best person to help me take this fight to Trump and Mike Pence and then to lead this nation starting in January 2021.” In an overview of the news, CNN highlighted Harris’s “multi-racial background”, indicating that the Biden campaign’s decision may have partially stemmed from a desire to embrace the reinvigorated movement for racial justice in these tumultuous times.
Following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, the nation erupted in protest, demanding justice and accountability. These massive, ongoing, nationwide uprisings are primarily a manifestation of the renewed Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. As American police departments responded by doubling down on their flagrant brutality, the movement coalesced around efforts to “defund the police.” This was encapsulated in a July 6 post on the official BLM website:
“We know that police don’t keep us safe — and as long as we continue to pump money into our corrupt criminal justice system at the expense of housing, health, and education investments — we will never be truly safe. That’s why we are calling to #DefundPolice and #InvestInCommunities…”
On the surface, Biden’s VP pick may appear to be an olive branch to the BLM movement, as Harris’s identity as a black woman has been given significant attention. This is certainly a noteworthy development in the 2020 election season, as Harris is the first woman of color to run as VP on a major party presidential ticket (though others, such as Angela Davis, have run as third party VP candidates). Despite the historic nature of this news, we must also observe Harris’s troubling decade-long record as a prosecutor in the state of California, a topic that law professor Lara Bazelon summarized in a New York Times op-ed. For instance, during her tenure as San Francisco district attorney, Kamala Harris “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions” and “championed state legislation under which parents whose children were found to be habitually truant in elementary school could be prosecuted, despite concerns that it would disproportionately affect low-income people of color.”
When Harris later became California’s attorney general, she fought to continue the death penalty, opposed investigating police shootings, opposed statewide standards for regulating police body cameras, and remained neutral on an initiative that was approved by voters in which certain low-level felonies would be reduced to misdemeanors. When asked by a reporter if she supported marijuana legalization, Harris laughed (marijuana prohibition is a major focus of the disastrous and racist War on Drugs). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, as Briahna Joy Gray observed last year, we should also zoom out from the troubling aspects of Harris’s record specifically and contemplate her decision to become a prosecutor in the first place.
Regardless of the extent to which Harris’s policies disproportionately harmed people of color and other marginalized populations, her record pales in comparison to that of her running mate. As a young Delaware senator, Joseph R. Biden supported racial segregation efforts in public schools, particularly in the area of busing. Janell Ross summarized this history last year by writing, “[Biden’s] legislative work against school integration advanced a more palatable version of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine and undermined the nation’s short-lived effort at educational equality, legislative and education history experts say.” Biden went on to become a primary architect of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often referred to as the “crime bill”), which accelerated what we now call “mass incarceration” — a devastating phenomenon that has had a vastly disproportionate impact on minority communities.
In conjunction with the Reagan-era “tough on crime” mentality, Biden participated in the demonization of the black community through rhetoric that included the infamous term “predator” — a dehumanizing and racist dog whistle. Unfortunately, that was the least of his racist comments; he once said he didn’t want his kids to grow up in a “racial jungle”, later referred to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”, and — strangely enough — eulogized the infamous racist Strom Thurmond.
Possibly in an effort to draw attention away from this disturbing record, Biden began lying extensively about his involvement in the civil rights movement (in short, he was never involved). To further exhibit his profound disrespect for the black community, Biden recently responded to questions from black radio host Charlamagne by saying, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
In the era of the New Jim Crow, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have both spent their careers playing the role of the oppressor. The Biden/Harris 2020 ticket proves that the Democratic Party is more interested in engaging in performative identity politics to entrench its corporate-backed power than engaging with the material needs of the American people, especially the most oppressed populations. Joe Biden’s disturbing record on race and mass incarceration was already a turnoff to many progressive voters and Black Lives Matter activists. It appears that the Biden campaign sought to patch up those concerns with a quick fix, a damage-control effort not unlike its appeal to women in the wake of renewed sexual misconduct scrutiny.
This isn’t to say Kamala Harris hasn’t made tremendous accomplishments. Systemic racism and sexism are indeed harsh realities, and women of color truly do face infinitely more barriers to success than individuals from more privileged demographics. But if we place significance on Harris’s identity as a woman of color, as we should, it must be even more important to take notice of the identities of those she harmed during her tenure as a prosecutor. After all, in the realm of systemic racism and mass incarceration, prosecutors play a central role in the draconian implementation of state power.
On the ground, this state power is enforced by the police, who have recently come under unprecedented levels of scrutiny. The institution of American policing initially arose from southern “slave patrols” and has subsequently maintained its inextricable link to white supremacy. We are now experiencing historic political momentum as the American people have flooded the streets to demand racial justice and an end to the domestic terrorism of police violence.
The Democratic Party has responded with a stubborn commitment to the status quo. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have both been intimately complicit in systemic racism, mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and violent state power more broadly. Given the backgrounds of its candidates, the Democratic Party’s plea for Americans to “vote blue” in November takes on a darker meaning, symbolizing whose lives really matter in the eyes of our callous political establishment.
This article has also been published by The Hampton Institute.