In August 2019, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was at the forefront of her presidential campaign, and I had the opportunity to meet her at a campaign event. I was optimistic at the thought of meeting a woman who I thought was a trailblazer of her time, defying expectations and proving her place in politics. As a South Asian woman, I was struck by the chance to see a woman of color in politics, and she represented to me the possibility of hope and change.
I asked her thoughts on the state-level abortion bans set at the time, and her response was bold, thoughtful and meticulous. If elected, she said, she would require states with histories of such unconstitutional bans to clear future laws with the Justice Department.
I desperately wanted to support Harris. She looked me in the eye and said, “You are the future.” Our generation is the future — we have fought against climate change, protested to combat police brutality, defended LGBTQ+ rights. But as a woman of color, I cannot overlook her abandonment of the communities from which she came. The future I envision is one in which she has no part, and Biden selecting her as his running mate leaves me with little faith in the Democratic Party.
Harris’ willingness to work as a district attorney, and later as California’s attorney general, is particularly concerning considering the unjust nature of the U.S. prison system. The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world, imprisoning its people at a rate six to nine times higher than countries in Western Europe. In the 1980s, tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, disproportionately impacted people of color, who are more likely to have a criminal record due to more frequent contact with the criminal justice system. These policies promoted recidivism instead of rehabilitation, leading to prisons overcrowded with people convicted of crimes as trivial as drug possession. It is extremely questionable that Harris chose to fortify such a corrupt justice system and failed to seize several opportunities to reform such a system.
Harris’ supporters believe we should withhold our criticism until after the presidential election, given that she was progressive for her time. A closer look at her record, however, reveals that while she was certainly ahead of her time in some areas, she also carried lamentable rhetoric and beliefs. Her “Smart on Crime” ideals, which prioritized remaining tough on crime while pushing for rehabilitation, were not progressive as they still encompassed many “tough on crime” ideals and uplifted a corrupt prison system. She could have very well created reform through her dealings with the three-strikes law or by attempting to reduce the prison population. Yet she neglected to do so.
When running for attorney general, her stance was to the right of her Republican opponent concerning California’s unjust three-strikes law, which mandates 25 years to life in prison for people who committed any third “strike” of a minor felony. She even encouraged voters to reject Proposition 66, a ballot initiative which would have reformed this nefarious law by making only serious felonies count as third strikes. Three-strikes laws impose harsh sentences for otherwise nonviolent crimes and enable prison overcrowding. As minority communities have higher contact with law enforcement, these laws disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.
Time and time again, Harris had the power to reshape the justice system. And while she certainly did make some progress, she also refused to turn over the names of police officers with misconduct histories to defense attorneys and opposed statewide body camera regulations. These instances would have allowed her to create meaningful reform, yet she chose to protect corrupt police officers over her own constituents.
Supporters of Harris might argue that her actions were necessary to maintain the political power necessary to make systemic change. But political maneuvers are never an excuse for allowing innocents to languish in jail or enabling policies that disproportionately affect minorities. Even if her actions were due to conforming to political pressure, this does not excuse the extreme harm she caused and does not explain why she was behind the curve on several occasions. Her complacency and willingness to work in a corrupt system demonstrates that she was not the right pick for vice president, especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Identity politics isn’t about supporting someone because they are a minority; it’s about supporting people who fight for minority rights. While putting a woman of color on the ballot is certainly a historical and important moment, it is even more important to elect officials who have proven they will look out for minority interests with their policies. To support Harris unconditionally, despite all the harm she has done, would be to betray our communities.
Harris claims she was a progressive reformer of a broken system. I disagree. At best, she was a centrist on criminal justice issues. To claim she was a progressive reformer of the system is a severe exaggeration. She needs to acknowledge her record and prove that she has truly changed her views regarding criminal justice. Seeking justice for the innocents she has wronged, showing active support for defunding the police and working to change a corrupt system is a necessary start.
In a year dominated by #BlackLivesMatter and protests against police brutality, choosing a woman with such a horrific criminal justice record was ill-advised and betrayed the groups the Democratic Party claims to represent. We cannot support Harris unconditionally and she, like any other politician, warrants criticism. The fight does not end if we elect a Democrat into office, and we cannot rely solely on the Democratic Party to enact change. Change starts with us — with grassroots movements, protests, bail bond donations and efforts to defund the police locally to ensure a more just justice system.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas, Nevada.