Kamala Harris and the fallibility of identity politics

Originally published for Vox Media.

National campaigns are, first and foremost, an exercise in storytelling patterned after well-known themes — David versus Goliath, the Haves versus the Have Nots, the fearless vigilante for justice. It is rarely the case that a candidate is unintentionally placed on a presidential track of any party; it’s a path years in the making, a confluence of strategic decisions, affiliations, and opportunities for high-profile moments. Whether a candidate’s messaging holds, however, is subject to whether it tracks with its target audience.

Which brings us to Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris’s national odyssey commenced in 2012 when, as California’s attorney general, she gave a brief speech endorsing then-President Barack Obama for a second term at the Democratic National Convention. When she ran for Senate in 2016, Obama gave her an endorsement of his own. The self-ascribed “top cop” rhetoric that originally came into national parlance during her congressional race (and has been a pain in her side ever since) was quickly subsumed by a newfound reputation of “unflappable truth advocate” once she was elected and went viral for handing it to Jeff Sessions in a committee hearing. By the time she made her 2020 presidential announcement in January, she was riding on both a “nevertheless, she persisted” narrative and bona fides that harked back to the characteristics of the Democratic Party’s golden child, Obama. Harris had positioned herself as not only the most accomplished Black woman to ever run for executive office, but seemingly the most electable candidate.

In a post-Obama era, she also appeared as a close facsimile of many of the characteristics that made Michelle Obama so adored not just by Black women but women in general (she even earned Hillary Clinton’s support). And throughout the ensuing 11 months, one word anchored her campaign, officially called Kamala Harris for the People: identity.

But, ultimately, banking on identity wasn’t enough.

Kamala Harris speaks to Amos Jackson III, Executive President of the Howard University Student Association, and Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President, after announcing her presidential candidacy at her alma mater, Howard University, on January 21, 2019.

Because aside from being a Black woman and former prosecutor with ties to Obama, many still wondered: Who is Kamala Harris? Is she a “cop” or a reformist? Where did the former prosecutor stand on advocating for Black issues, especially when it came to criminal justice in the Black Lives Matter era? What were her tangible positions on health care? The debate stage, instead of serving as the platform to consolidate her message, accomplished the inverse. Save for early parries with Joe Biden on school segregation (that she later chose to partially renege on), her talking points largely coalesced around indicting the sitting president, and even provided openings for more marginal candidates such as Tulsi Gabbard to capitalize on the dissonance that undermined any attempt at progressing her campaign. Her team seemed unsure of which Democratic voters to try to court first — and weren’t successful in courting those who hadshifted further left since Obama and were no longer moved by charismatic messaging that wasn’t underpinned by clear substantive policy.

This failure to significantly shift accordingly rendered itself in the polls. Despite having a fundraising war chest that rivaled former Vice President Joe Biden’s throughout the entirety of her presidential bid (granted, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had higher fundraising numbers), Harris never polled higher than third place, falling to fourth after being surpassed by Warren and, most recently, falling to fifth due to a recent spike in Pete Buttigieg’s campaign going into Iowa.

Ultimately, underscoring her identity generated mixed results — in the waning weeks of her campaign, only 4 percent of Black voters polled identified Harris as their first choice.Butit didn’t stave off efforts to leverage the groups in which she shared kinship — Black voters, women voters, Indian American voters, and first-generation voters — to the magnitude that she could maximize the utility of “identity politics.” Which surprised many: In a world where the threat of the Trump administration looms large over our most marginalized, who seemed a better advocate than a candidate who represents those demographics that are most at risk, paired with the skills to prosecute criminals?Advertisement

Therein lies the seductive appeal of identity politics, as well as its fatal flaw: stripping the complex nuances of the individual in favor of assigning representative moral value based on a singular characteristic of a collective group. Harris is not going to engender fealty from Black voters simply because she is a Black woman, just as her career as prosecutor — which includes a contentious truancy law and her office arguing to deny early release for prisoners — wasn’t going to turn off all Black voters, either. Applying universal claims in a vacuum denies them both power and context; saying that you have the power and skill to put the current president behind bars, for example, while certainly gratifying to anxious Democratic voters, loses its teeth when you are reminded that the same skills are used to facilitate this country’s race-based mass incarceration system.

Her campaign’s ultimate decline followed a perfect tempest of several events: unremarkable performances during recent debates coming on the heels of flubs during criminal justice conversations, and declining polls going into Iowa that correlated not just with attacks from opponents in the media and the political field, but a perilous lack of financial ad-buying power. The latter, courtesy of the 24-hour 2020 presidential cycle, gave way for the revelation of the rumored months-long turmoil that had been building within the campaign, including mismanaged budgets and frustrated staffers.

When challenged on her prosecutorial record during her Senate race, Harris and her advocates pointed out that as a Black woman, “you’re held to a different standard,” a rejoinder that has resurfaced now that she has suspended her campaign. This is correct on its face, but it’s unchallenging to link the trigger of her campaign’s demise to groups that circulated viral cop jokes; history is not set in motion by a singular event. Confronting race and gender bias shouldn’t belie the fact that her record and inconsistent voice mattered to a swath of voters she was expected to attract — and she ran out of budget to work to substantively shift that perception. While identity politics tends to trade in pathological assumptions of behavior, again, Black voters or women voters are far from a non-differentiable monolith.

So when you list the demographics of the other candidates that remain — not just race and gender, but also wealth and experience — it can be tempting to view Harris dropping out as a fundamental injustice. But the calculus isn’t as simple as who remains and who does not. Harris had to choose whether or not to exit the campaign before a verdict of her viability could be rendered for her in her own home state. As such, Harris is less of a martyr to inequity than someone who made a strategic decision to regain control of the remainder of her political career, which, by all measures, should be enduring.

Ultimately, Senator Harris will be fine. And while it is understandable for her ardent advocates to lament what could have been, her $10 million in remaining funds will likely be used for preparing for the upcoming Senate reelection race or a plan to return to the presidential scene in 2024, re-energized, re-focused, and without the blemish of a formal primary loss on her record.

In every defeat there are lessons to be learned. For her largest advocates, the wound of realizing that their shared kinship was not as widespread as initially conceived may take a while to heal. But our obligations as voters demand that we hold our favored candidates accountable to the commitments they make to their constituency, and push them to understand what representation really means in 2020. This includes listening to the policies constituents want, and not only grasping but representing a new rubric of fighting for justice.

Who Gets To Claim Their Identity In France?

Originally published for Buzzfeed News.

Atop Paris’s famous Champ de Mars gardens lies its even more prominent Eiffel Tower — a gargantuan lattice ironwork that millions of people from around the world flock to visit annually. Like all landmarks of cosmopolitan cities, the site is picturesque, nostalgic, and crowded — the hustle and bustle of citizens and visitors alike, colliding daily. About 15 yards from the main entrance, you’ll see a row of young men, largely of African descent, aiming to make as much money as they can from passersby, selling anything from mini Eiffel Towers to French flag pins. At the end of their day, some will pack up and take the Metro past the Périphérique to the banlieues; from the ritzy city center where they spend their day to the isolated, low-income suburb enclaves of mainly black and brown people who have been denied significant mobility or opportunity, the cité tower blocks in the shadows of the shimmering lights of the notoriously low-lying city.

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Patricia Okoumou and the Dual Threat to Black Immigrants

Originally published for the Intelligencer at NYMag.

When New York–based activists Rise and Resist planned to use Independence Day to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, their objective was simple: to unfurl a banner declaring “Abolish ICE” on Liberty Island. Patricia Okoumou, however, took it further, risking life, limb, and liberty in free-climbing the 100-foot-tall pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty and lying at its feet. During the three-hour standoff, she repurposed her shirt into a flag of its own, defiantly displaying the call to action to “Rise and Resist.”

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The Bachelor Franchise Fails In Addressing Race and Consent

When ABC announced that they were selecting the first ever Black Bachelorette, several questions presented themselves. Some of those questions have already been answered , such as “what does that mean for the racial makeup of the contestants?” (The season ended up featuring more Black male contestants than ever before). However, one question continued to linger throughout the season like a precarious guillotine: will the Bachelor franchise make an attempt to address race in America, and if so, how? Presently, the answer is “not really, and when applicable, horribly.”

Discussions around racism in the Bachelorette have been largely constrained to the farcically portrayed machinations of the season’s clear villain in country singer Lee Garrett, with the production team choosing to inexplicably keep Rachel isolated from the inner details of the situation while simultaneously treating the racist behavior with the gravity of a comical B-plot, forcing the Black male contestants to endure a series of microagressions at a near nauseating clip. In a methodical fashion, Lee invents tensions between several other black male competitors, branding them with the label “aggressive” when challenged, all with a malicious twinkle in his eye. When forced to contend with the historical context of a white man inflammatorily referring to a black male as aggressive, Lee dismisses the conversation by invoking the insulting allegation of a “race card”, a statement which came on the heels of derisively referring to black male contestant Kenny as a “stack of bleeding muscle” in the course of an argument. All of this is relayed to Rachel by Lee in a rather disturbing contortion of narratives; Lee portrays himself as an affable possessor of Southern genteel who is unjustly left at the mercy of the Black contestants’ violent inclinations.

Consuming all of this as a black woman has been a tough pill to swallow. Racism-as-entertainment-value commodifies centuries of pain and dilutes it down to the potency of a supreme annoyance, a conceit that is highly insulting to both the viewers as well as Lindsay, who becomes an unknowing accomplice in continuing the storyline as a result of being excluded from the context of Garrett’s scheming. In a landmark season during a time period where the gravity of the lived racial experience is as relevant as ever, ABC’s choice to dismiss nuance in favor of encouraging race-based gaslighting for ratings  has left a sour taste in my mouth for the past 3 weeks.

This series of events has dovetailed into the latest burgeoning scandal of the Bachelorette’s salacious  sister show, Bachelor in Paradise, whose latest season was intended to feature early-exit black male contestant Demario Jackson from Rachel’s season. However, taping was abruptly stopped approximately 3 days in for investigation of a potential sexual assault that may have occurred while filming, which, as more details were leaked, were revealed to stem from an incident between Demario and former Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios. Over the course of the investigation, it was concluded that no sufficient cause for sexual assault; however neither Jackson nor Olympios will be returning to the show while the network “plans to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety of all participants.”

The looming spectre over the entire series of events is, of course the very real and pained history of black men being falsely accused, imprisoned, and even murdered for being perceived as sexually domineering towards white women. This is a narrative that America is not all that removed from, and remains a consistent fear in many black men’s lives, as Demario has since stated in his first public interview since taping was halted. That lens cannot be ignored – black men, and black people in general are so rarely given the benefit of the doubt when attesting to their innocence or humanity, that the optics alone warrant a critical examination of the circumstances.

However, with the rights of  Jackson to be absolved come the rights of the victim to due diligence. The facts remain that Olympios was not the one to lodge any complaint about alleged misconduct during taping(and as of this moment, has yet to accuse Jackson of sexual assault), as it was two producers; couple that with Jackson’s own admission that Olympios was cut off from alcohol the next day and competing narratives from other contestants both on and off the record, and the circumstances warranted a proper investigation. There shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding thoroughness; however with ABC Studios and Warner Bros choosing to defer detailing any context around the circumstances, viewers of the show are instead forced to fill in the blanks to their own personal inclinations, doing a disservice to both Jackson and Olympios. For some, this means that the empirically pernicious context of black male and white women sexual interactions supersedes all; for others, it’s the reality that in modern-day justice systems and public opinion there is little to no value in falsifying accusations.

As a viewer who is not just black but also a female survivor of sexual assault, the overlapping of circumstances such as these immediately detail just how ill-prepared the Bachelor franchise was to handle complex issues of race and consent in advance of their landmark season. For a show that trades in the hazy magic of alcohol-fueled hookups, there seems to have been no clear plan in ensuring that all participants had unambiguous guidelines on what affirmative consent really means. Instead we are forced to deal with the weight of alleged sexual assault as a titillating storyline that leaves more questions than answers: if Demario felt uncomfortable immediately when Corinne made advances to the point of needing to engage in the sexual acts on camera, why did he proceed? If the unnamed sources of the crew were put off by Corinne’s inebriation in the moment, why wasn’t filming stopped immediately instead of 48 hours later? What procedures and policies are the studio ultimately reviewing if no misconduct was found? Why is the tape not being released? In a presumed effort to both protect the studios from liability as well as regroup the narrative construction in light of recent events, frank discussions about the topics of race, alcohol, and consent are lacking, ultimately doing a disservice to both Olympios and Jackson, who have their public lives excoriated without much to show for it.

I can’t say in good conscience that I plan on watching the upcoming season of BIP. Barring sincere engagement on the multiple layers of my identity – black, woman, sexual assault survivor – I’m not interested in participating in the ratings spectacle of scandal without substantively deconstructing the root of why these threads are so readily available to pull. Both black people and assault survivors deserve more than that. Peddling pain as entertainment fodder leaves everyone worse off, and if the show plans to substantively move forwards with a seemingly more diverse and multifaceted pool of Bachelors, Bachelorettes, and contestants, it would be well-served to treat critical issues as more than tools to prop up story narratives.