Youth activism and the corridors of the ‘establishment’ converge in an ambivalent and tough policy that completes the Democratic candidacy for the US elections.
The important thing, as almost always, was in the “but”. “I don’t think you’re racist,” Kamala Harris told her then-rival in a highly contested primary and whose name, Joe Biden, appears today above hers in the November 3 Democratic presidential nomination. “I don’t think you’re racist, and I agree with you when you defend the importance of finding common ground. But…”.
Then Harris (Oakland, California, 1964) reproached his rival for weeks before boasting of his ability, during his years on Capitol Hill, to work with senators who did not think like him, including some who had supported racial segregation and they had opposed federal policies to achieve racial integration in schools, busing black children to schools in white districts. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class integrated into her public school,” she told him in that debate that would be her primary moment of the elementary school.“I was riding the bus every day. And that little girl was me. So I’m going to tell you that, on this issue, there can be no intellectual debate among the Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act quickly ”.
Of course, Biden is not a racist, as the current vice-presidential candidate acknowledged before launching her attack. But that’s Kamala Harris. A policy that does not fear direct combat or pause for collateral damage. A black woman who, to get where she is, has had to overcome more obstacles than most of the people in those positions. A citizen who, from her own personal and professional experience, is very clear about the areas in which she cannot give up even a millimetre.
The story of that five-year-old girl, whose photo went on to adorn T-shirts throughout the country immediately after that debate, provides clues about who, if the predictions of the polls are fulfilled, could be the first woman vice president in the history of the United States. Her father, Donald Harris, born in Jamaica in 1938, was a brilliant student who emigrated to California after being admitted to the University of Berkeley to study economics, a subject he later went on to teach at Stanford, where he is still a professor emeritus today. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, the youngest of four in a South Indian family, displayed a passion for science that her parents supported, ending up at Berkeley with a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology before becoming a cancer researcher.
Shyamala and Donald met in college, in the circles of a civil rights movement in which they were active. They had two daughters together. The eldest, Kamala, which is Sanskrit for lotus flower, was born the same year her mother earned her doctorate. Left-wing political activism comes from the cradle of Kamala, who claims to remember the landscape of legs that she saw in the demonstrations to which her parents took her as a child.
Kamala’s childhood, as she recalls in her memoirs, was one “happy and carefree.” Of games in the street, races and plasters on the knees. Of going to sleep cradled by Thelonious Monk’s piano, emanating from her father’s large jazz collection.
The harmony was short-lived, and his parents separated when Harris was five years old. The girls stayed with their mother in Oakland, whose African-American community made up for the lack of family ties. The two sisters frequented neighbourhood centres where, between games, the history of the struggle for the rights of African Americans was explained to them. When visiting her father in Palo Alto on the weekends, Harris says that the other children were not allowed to play with them because they were black.
Those childhood experiences contributed to Kamala Harris’ journey from neighbourhood activism to the Democratic establishment, where the young woman soon understood that there was the power to change things. Harris received her BA in economics and political science from Washington, DC, where she had her first experience in the carpeted halls of politics, working as a senator’s aide. Back in California, she obtained her law doctorate in 1989.
For a young woman raised in the fight for civil rights, the Attorney General’s Office was not the most popular workplace. But there he directed his steps in what, many years later, in an interview in The New York Times last June, he would defend as “a very conscious decision.” “I wanted to try to get into the system, where I wouldn’t have to ask for permission to change what needed to be changed,” he explained.
In her career in the Prosecutor’s Office, she demonstrated the ambition, pragmatism and ideological flexibility that she has exhibited in this hectic year that has led her to the Democratic ticket. She ended up confronting her former San Francisco prosecutor, the progressive Terence Hallinan. He ran a candidacy to overtake him on the right, convincing voters that being “soft on crime” is not progressive. The campaign descended on personal grounds and there was no shortage of accusations of corruption. A fight within a hegemonic party in the city from which Harris emerged victoriously and, in 2004, became the state’s first black district attorney.
In 2008, he announced his candidacy for the attorney general of California, which would win by the hair. Harris was making history again, becoming California’s first black attorney general. Four years later, she married Doug Emhoff, a partner in a law firm and father of two. Harris has often described her frustration at the calm with which her husband, who is white, behaves in the customs queue at airports, and remembers when security officers followed his suspicious mother through department stores.
When California Sen.Barbara Boxer announced her intention to end her 20-plus-year career in the Upper House, Harris was the first to declare her intention to take office. With the unwavering support of the Democratic establishment, he comfortably won his seat in the 2016 elections and promised to defend immigrants from the policies of who in those same elections won the key to the White House. She did so in her first months as a senator, with harsh interventions that immediately gave her national relevance.
Harris did not take three years to announce, at the end of January of last year, her own presidential race. She was the first weighty candidate to launch into the race, and she did so with a catchphrase that was a nod to her career as a prosecutor. “For the people”, she said, which is in the name of whom a prosecutor appears before the judge. She tried to combine her personal history of activism with her professional career as a prosecutor. And she exhibited an ambivalence on some of the big issues that didn’t work out in an extremely politicised primary.
The very weaknesses of her presidential campaign, her supporters argue, may now turn into strengths as a running mate of Joe Biden. A campaign that wants to shift the focus away from specific policies and focus on Donald Trump. The candidate, for her part, knows well where the battle is. And no battle is too big for the black girl on the bus.