- Lea Kapur
The Duality of Woman: Harris’ Prosecutorial History vs. Her Racial Makeup
Many have come to celebrate the nomination and election of Kamala Harris as the next Vice President of the United States. She is emblematic for a number of reasons, including becoming the first woman VP, and the first Black and Indian person nominated to this political position.
In her victory speech on Nov. 7, Harris recognized this historic moment in saying, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Minority groups across the U.S., particularly Black and Indian Americans, rejoiced at Harris’ new claim of power, but some progressives were quick to criticize Harris based on her prosecutorial record.
In recent years, there has been a greater discussion in public discourse about mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on Black Americans.
Netflix created a Black Lives Matter Collection that featured the film “13th,” a documentary on the rise of the prison population in the U.S. and its relationship with criminalizing Black Americans. Netflix also released the documentary “When They See Us,” which recreated the notorious Central Park Five case that led to the wrongful conviction of five Black boys.
Mass incarceration continues to plague American society. The U.S., with a prison population rate of 716 per 100,000, locks up more people than any other country, according to a fact-check by the Washington Post. This directly impacts many Americans because approximately 113 million adults have an immediate family member who has faced time in prison or jail.
This mass incarceration is not only large in scale, but affects Black Americans at a larger rate when compared with other groups. Black Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of white Americans, according to the NAACP. Black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of their white female counterparts.
Kamala Harris’ history as a prosecutor in a system that disproportionately affects Black Americans creates a dichotomy between her being a Black woman herself, and what some argue is her participation in a system that strives to keep Black Americans imprisoned.
This criticism is not unfounded. Harris has had a controversial record as a prosecutor, including stints as andSan Francisco’s District Attorney and Attorney General of California. One specific case was her advocacy for an anti-truancy program that began around 2008 and is still in effect today. This program punishes the parents of children who miss a significant amount of schooling with prison time.
Harris had said the prison time punishment was a last resort for when all other options were exhausted, and that she felt the program highlighted the necessity of schooling for children. A video from 2010 shows Harris with a light-hearted tone when discussing the prospect of using imprisonment as a fear tactic.
In 2014, when federal judges ordered California to release prisoners due to prison crowding that led to unconstitutional prison conditions, lawyers for Harris argued that prisoners need to remain in prison as a labor force, despite earning only 8 to 37 cents per hour, The Los Angeles Times reported. Here, Harris is prioritizing a labor pool rather than the legality or unethical conditions that prisoners were being subjected to.
When running for president herself, Harris released a criminal justice reform plan that indicated her desire to reduce incarceration rates and “invest in building safer and healthier communities.” In the plan, Harris recognizes that as a prosecutor, she saw some of the “fundamental flaws of the system” and wants to work to reform them.
This includes ending the war on drugs and investing in social programs to improve community safety. She also advocates for eliminating cash bail, abolishing private prisons and requiring new training programs for police officers, with racial equity in mind.
Despite this reform plan, critics have swiftly noticed where Harris appears to contradict herself. For example, the plan includes training programs to target racial bias, but Harris has also been quick to protect officers in relation to police shootings.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, in his piece for The New York Times Magazine, provides a sophisticated discussion of the tension that supporting Harris imposes on him. Betts is an ex-felon himself and was sentenced to nine years in prison for carrying a pistol, car theft and robbery.
Betts pleaded guilty to the crime and, despite a prosecutor having vilified him for his crimes, later learned that his mother had been helped by a prosecutor. Upon returning home, he learned his mother had been assaulted by a Black man. Immediately, Betts’ perspective changed: he wrote he “thought [the rapist] should spend the rest of his years staring at the pockmarked walls of prison cells that I knew so well.”
This tension Betts chronicles is not one he is isolated in experiencing. Many Americans on the left the political spectrum understand that the prison system is corrupt and disproportionately affects Black Americans, but also want an institution that is punitive in nature.
Betts suggests that the solution is not to completely vilify Harris herself, but rather to have a conversation about the larger institution of imprisonment. What is the goal of our prison system — to rehabilitate or to punish?
Betts argues that while a prosecutor is a “convenient target [....] if the system is broken, it is because our flaws more than our virtues animate it. Confronting why so many of us believe prisons must exist may force us to admit that we have no adequate response to some violence.”
Harris can still be criticized for her past while simultaneously trying to create a better criminalization system, and it's the American people’s job to hold her accountable.