Kamala Harris Did Not Fail
Running for president isn’t easy, especially when race trumps all
“Eleven months ago, at the launch of our campaign in Oakland, I told you all, ‘I am not perfect.’” Kamala Harris chose those careful words as she terminated her race to become the United States’ 46th president. But those of us autopsying her campaign should ask if a Black woman in America could be anything less than perfect, or at least perfectly lucky, to be elected president in the middle of a racialized culture war.
As I watched the inevitable flurry of articles about her exit from the race (and yes, this is another one), two songs popped into my mind. One was “I’m Not Your Superwoman.” No one is, but any Black woman running for president is given an unforgiving path forward. The other was Lizzo’s “Like a Girl.” Woke up feeling like I just might run for president / Even if there ain’t no precedent / Switching up the messagin’ / I’m about to add a little estrogen…
This is not to say Harris should (or shouldn’t) have been the nominee. She reportedly had disagreements among her campaign staff, and most importantly, in the end, failed to nail her fundraising targets. But as we mark her exit from the race, we need to understand the dynamics outside of her control which likely shaped the arc of her candidacy. All politics, as we have learned from the Trump era, are identity politics. And Harris’ identity as a Black female former prosecutor with a South Asian mother all figured into how she was perceived, the strategy she chose, and whether and how she advanced. It also shows how much of the race for the presidency is an art rather than a science.
Presidential analysts and campaigns have become obsessed with data, for both better and worse. But data alone can’t adequately explain what happened here, especially considering that to run at all was an act of audacious self-assurance. But what we do know is this: Crowded fields include the assumption that White candidates are the only consensus candidates — not just among White voters, but Black and non-White ones. The racial scar tissue of the Trump era is thick and real. And, in terms of pure data analysis, gender bias in voter preference is harder to study. That means we simply can’t put a reliable number on how the intersection of race and gender affects a candidate.
Of course, other Black women have run for president, including the legendary “unbought and unbossed” Rep. Shirley Chisholm and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. In fact, in September 2003, I co-moderated a Democratic primary debate with what, even then, seemed like an improbable set of political bedfellows: Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. The nine candidates assembled included Sen. John Edwards, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, and Braun. The two Black candidates in the 2004 primary debates were largely depicted as character actors in the presidential drama, but they raised the presence and visibility of the Black vote.
This time around, from the jump, senators Harris and Cory Booker were taken as serious contenders. But before we congratulate our nation for becoming more comfortable with Black candidates, let’s recognize that the conversation about who is viable in 2020 still largely revolves around which White candidates can win over both Whites and non-Whites. On that score, the landscape seems far less forgiving for Black candidates than White. Pete Buttigieg succeeded in convincing many voters and journalists that the mayor of a mid-sized city could be president. He has failed at convincing Black voters of the same, currently polling at less than 1% among African Americans. Race is not his strong point, to use an understatement. He failed to condemn local police officers wearing shirts saying “breathe easy” after athletes from Notre Dame wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts on the court to protest the death of Eric Garner. More importantly, the percentage of Black officers on the police force dropped from 11% to 6% during his tenure in a city that is a quarter African American, and where a Black man was killed by an officer on Father’s Day. But he is still very much considered a viable candidate in a race which cannot be won by a Democrat without deep African American support.
Did Harris fail? Yes, at getting the nomination. But no, not for her efforts. She took her shot. She made her mark.
New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow put his thoughts like this: “Everyone seems to have settled, for whatever reason, on the notion that a White person has the best chance of beating Trump, that a racial minority is too risky this time around. But, that is a horrible place to be: courting the voters who abide racism rather than trying to excite the voters who despise racism. There is absolutely no reason Harris should be out this race so early.”
Race in presidential politics provides both citizens and candidates with a Scylla and Charybdis of choices about viability — for citizens, choosing the best viable candidate who can accomplish their goals or inspire their dreams, and for candidates, choosing a path to the White House that runs through friendly territory. But with so few precedents for contemporary Black presidential candidacies, there is no road map.
In the end, Harris’ decision to play a long game in a crowded field may have been the deciding factor in the decline of her campaign. She made deep investments in campaigning in South Carolina, where the majority of primary voters are Black, which proved a decisive turning point in the 2008 race when Barack Obama won over Hillary Clinton. Without former President Bill Clinton making remarks about Obama, including calling his campaign “a roll of the dice,” which Obama framed as meddling and pejorative, the 44th president may not have found new fuel for his path to victory. If one believes that Obama would have won either way, that would favor the strategy Harris chose: weighting her efforts toward states with a higher Black voting base than Iowa and New Hampshire.
And what of not just race, but ethnicity? Both Obama and Harris are the children of multicultural marriages. In Harris’ case, her Indian immigrant mother was both Brown-skinned and a civil rights activist. The “Black enough” question hit Harris from vectors including Donald Trump Jr. and some Black Americans. Here’s how that went down: During a June debate, an internet troll tweeted, “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican. I’m so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It’s disgusting.” It got retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. and then his father, in what some see as an effort to manipulate and suppress the Black vote. Harris called the debate over her self-identity “challenging…and hurtful.” She didn’t always speak much about race, which is not a crime.
When I interviewed her at an event series in 2012, she deflected and de-personalized my question about race and ethnicity. Even people familiar with her from California politics may not have had a clear sense of her racial politics. In addition, some voters of all races criticized her record as a prosecutor in a lock-’em-up era in the state’s criminal justice system.
And then there’s a question of how to factor in the impact of a presidential candidate’s gender. We don’t have much data, but the New York Times’ Nate Cohn did a national poll and found, in his words, “We also asked all of these voters whether they agreed with the statement that most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable. And 40 percent of them said they agreed with that statement.”
So, to win the nomination, a multicultural Black female former prosecutor would not only have to be competent and viable, but incredibly likable. Or not. We have no data on such a candidate because no one like her has run before. So, did Harris fail? Yes, at getting the nomination. But no, not for her efforts. She took her shot. She made her mark. She’s not your Superwoman. So what?
Harris adds to the body of Black women who’ve run for president, and at this point in our history, that alone is a win. Her campaign will provide a new set of data on, and perhaps inspiration for, what American politics can be. Part of Harris’ legacy may be an America where more Black women and women of color wake up feeling like we can run for president — and actually do.