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From Oakland to the White House? The rise of Kamala Harris

Bancroft Way in Berkeley, California, is quaint and slow, the kind of street where everyone seems to know each other by name. This week, neighbors sat outdoors drinking wine under the evening sun, as they chatted animatedly about their childhood companion who had just become headline news.

It was on Bancroft Way that Kamala Harris spent her formative years with her single mother, Shyamala, and sister, Maya. Today, former neighbors reminisce about her following her selection this week as Joe Biden’s Democratic running mate in his bid to evict Donald Trump from the White House.

“I am really proud of her and think she will make a very good vice-president,” Kenneth Hunter said. He was standing at the same street corner where he said he and Harris had caught the bus every morning for Thousand Oaks elementary school in north Berkeley as part of efforts to desegregate local schools.

But even here, among her childhood friends, and just days away from the Democratic national convention, where Harris will enter the history books as the first woman of color to be placed on a major-party presidential ticket, there’s a note of hesitancy.

Octavia, a third-generation Berkeley resident who lives on the block, said she was worried that criticism of Harris’s record as a former prosecutor might dampen enthusiasm among Black voters, who make up a crucial share of the Democratic party’s support.

“Not enough Black people are behind her,” said Octavia, requesting not to give her last name. “When people say they don’t want to vote for her, I ask: ‘How many Black or brown women who look like you and me are there in office right now? How could you not vote for her?’”

That’s a debate that is likely to rumble on not just in Berkeley and neighboring Oakland, where Harris was born in 1964, but throughout California and across the nation ahead of the US presidential election on 3 November. Just who is Kamala Harris, and what does she represent for future of the Democratic party and, potentially, of the most powerful country on Earth?

The most singular aspect of Harris’s newly elevated status is her identity as the daughter of immigrants who came to the US in search of world-class education and were thrown together during the 1960s protest marches at Berkeley. Her father, Donald Harris, was an economist from Jamaica; her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, came from southern India and became a breast cancer researcher.

Part of the reason that Harris’s rise has made such an emotive impact on large numbers of Americans lies in her quintessential story of a first-generation citizen made good – all the more so with the anti-immigrant Trump in the Oval Office.

In the wake of the seismic reckoning with systemic racism unleashed by Black Lives Matter, the shattering of this glass ceiling by a woman of color has also left a profound impression on many.

“This doesn’t reconcile our past, but it does give us hope for the future,” said Catherine Flowers, a leading environmental justice campaigner from Alabama who confessed she had grown teary-eyed when Biden announced his running mate. “Black women have held up the civil rights movement and the Democratic party for decades, yet we have rarely gotten any credit.”

When Harris appeared in her new role alongside Biden for the first time on Wednesday, she spoke about how she had imbibed politics from a young age when she was taken by her parents to the Berkeley anti-Vietnam protests “strapped tightly in my stroller”. After her parents divorced when she was seven, she was brought up mainly by her mother, who taught her “to keep on marching”.

Her mother instilled in the sisters pride in their south Asian roots. In her political autobiography, The Truths We Hold, Harris describes how Shyamala also recognized that her daughters would be perceived as Black in the US and “was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women”.

Harris went on to attend the historically black Howard University in Washington DC where she pledged to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and learned, she writes, that “we were young, gifted and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success”.

Harris emphasizes in her memoir those issues of identity. She also leans into what might be categorized as her softer side, devoting several pages to her husband, Doug Emhoff, a Los Angeles-based corporate lawyer whom she married in 2014, and his two children by an earlier marriage, Cole and Ella.

She depicts herself as someone who puts family before all else, cooking regular Sunday dinners and playing sports mom to the kids who call her “Momala”. “I’ve had a lot of titles in my career, and certainly ‘vice-president’ will be great, but ‘Momala’ will always be the one that means the most,” she said on Wednesday.

It may be obligatory for aspiring American politicians (with the exception of twice-divorced Trump) to accentuate their family credentials. For Harris it serves the added purpose of rounding off the edges of her public image as a spiky and at times controversial prosecutor, as she also faces sexist criticism focusing on her ambition and toughness.

In recent times, her ability to forensically dissect an opponent, learned on the job as a local prosecutor in Alameda county and San Francisco and later as California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, has been a major asset. It brought her to the nation’s attention when she reduced Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to a quivering wreck in 2017 and when she grilled Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation to the US supreme court the following year.

It was on full display too when she made her viral “that little girl was me” attack on Biden at the second Democratic debate last year, accusing him of opposing the same desegregationist policies that had put her on that bus to Thousand Oaks elementary school when she was a kid.

Though her abundant adversarial skills will undoubtedly be put to good use when she comes to face Mike Pence in the televised VP debate in October – expect her to tear him limb from limb over his record as head of the White House coronavirus taskforce – her career as a prosecutor continues to cause her difficulties with progressives. In her role as California’s “top cop”, she presented herself not as “tough on crime” or “soft on crime” but “smart on crime”.

When she has tried to justify her choice to forge her legal career on the prosecutorial side, she has talked about her commitment to seeking justice for all. “I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Ku Klux Klan in the south, or who went after corrupt politicians and corporate polluters,” she has said.

That has not spared her from coming under heavy criticism about some of her more contentious stances while in positions of power. She did not use her prosecutorial muscle to ensure accountability over police killings of Black people in the Bay Area, holding back from intervening in several cases and opposing moves to require her office to investigate all fatal police shootings.

Questions have been raised too about why she blocked the release of Daniel Larsen, a prisoner the courts had declared to be innocent, just because he missed a filing deadline for habeas corpus.

As state attorney general she opposed legalizing marijuana for recreational use, even though it is a driver of mass incarceration of young Black men in the US. Her sponsorship of a new Californian law that threatened parents with jail if they allowed their children to play truant from school has also come under scrutiny as excessively punitive.

All of which leaves progressive women of color feeling somewhat conflicted about her meteoric rise. Rachel Carmona, the chief operating officer of the Women’s March, who is Mexican American, welcomed Harris’ pick as historic and long overdue.

“But it isn’t enough,” she said. “We reject the idea that we need to trade representation for women in prominent roles for our politics and our values. Both Harris and Biden need to be ready on day one to push a progressive agenda on justice and equality.”

Pressure from the left to effect change is one thing, racist and sexist tropes from the right quite another.

Trump and his cohorts have lost no time laying into Harris. The US president, in an echo of his “birther” lies about Barack Obama’s nationality, is encouraging the false idea that Harris is ineligible for the second-highest office in the land because her parents were immigrants.

Other rightwing pundits have been trying to find her achilles heel with increasingly shrill attacks on her personality. Fox News contributors have willfully mispronounced her name and derided her as angry, crazed or “abrasive”.

Harris says she takes her lead from her mother, who died in 2009, and who was frequently overlooked because of her strong Indian accent but who refused to let that hold her back from becoming a leading woman of color in science.

One of her favorite expressions is: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are – you tell them.”

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