On the red carpet for the 2017 Emmy Awards, actress Issa Rae was asked who she was “rooting for” at the awards and without hesitation, she answered, “I’m rooting for everyone black.” Within hours, the scene had gone viral online; two years later, the phrase has become a popular refrain among many. And although the phrase is typically delivered with pure intentions, it dwindles when coupled with an older, more seasoned popular black saying: all your skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk.
This saying about kinfolk — or, better yet, the sound of my grandmother’s voice reciting it to me over the seep of her chewing tobacco — rings loud when thinking about the now former presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Moreover, the need to reinforce these words proved persistently necessary this week when a number of people claimed that she had been the victim of identity-based discrimination through the apparently racist “Kamala is a cop” narrative, which contributed to her declining popularity.
To be certain, Kamala Harris faces obstacles of oppression and perception as a black woman; few would argue against this. At the same time, however — to put it into her own words — Kamala is California’s “top cop.”
As the 32nd Attorney General of California, Harris was both a chief legal advisor to the state government and its chief law officer, with responsibilities including leading the California Department of Justice, enforcing state laws, supporting local law enforcement, overseeing law enforcement agencies, and even assisting as the chief legal counsel in state litigation cases. In short, a person in her position may be the most “cop-like” a person can be.
Commentators, including Frederick Joseph in his recent article, note that “many had fair questions about Harris’s policies” as well as her prosecutorial record, but fail to mention what exactly that record has been. From denying Kevin Cooper’s request from death row for advanced DNA testing to championing bills which would further criminalize sex workers; from refusing to reform and expand parole programs in order to maintain a large pool of incarcerated labor to a public hesitancy to investigate police shootings in San Francisco, the impact of her record cannot be ignored or belittled simply because of her identity.
“As someone from California, I am far too familiar with Harris’ violent and anti-black record,” attorney and community organizer Nnenna Amuchie told me. “For years she has had the opportunity to apologize and repair the harm she caused to poor black communities. Instead, she learned into and embraced her ‘top cop’ record which is irreconcilable with a post-Obama Black Lives Matter era where young people are deeply educated and informed about systemic racism, and the ways black politicians have been complicit in it.”
Amuchie’s words conjure another point which so many seem to misunderstand: we do not simply have “fair questions” about Harris’ record — we completely reject it. In the wake of what we now call the global Movement For Black Lives, to accurately call Kamala “Top Cop” Harris a cop is not racist — but assuming black people will look past her atrocious record and vote for her based solely on identity is.
In the rise of critical analysis on the racism wedged within the foundation of US police and prison institutions — an endeavor of study, activism, organizing, agitation and education which black people have led and participated in since slave patrols and convict leasing — the sheer audacity to push a “good prosecutor” or “good cop” narrative onto us is problematic, if not racist itself.
Furthermore, as a community organizer dealing specifically with prison abolition — the idea that our current capitalist conception of prisons and the policing systems surrounding them are obsolete — I believe that the lives of incarcerated people and the wellbeing of their families go ignored if we say disparaging Harris’ police record is “unfair” or racist. For those incarcerated people I speak with, agents of the law often represent some form of fear which would keep many up at night: abusers, gaslighters, exploiters, the smiling faces of those who placed them behind bars, the reason they cannot see their parents or hug their children.
One of the most critical groups against Harris have been black feminists, who reject any white supremacist notion of ‘carceral feminism’ which sees placing people in cages as a solution to anything.
“To suggest that we should ignore the well-documented harm that Kamala Harris caused to communities of color as a prosecutor because she is a black woman is not only insulting and dangerous, but also anti-black,” Jalessah Jackson, professor of African Diaspora Studies at Kennesaw State University, told me. “Carceral systems structure and secure a racist and sexist society.”
Jackson says that as black feminists, their commitments must not be only in words but lived in approaches to “racial justice, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and other political philosophies and formations that constitute abolitionist feminist organizing strategies and resistance. For many of us, this means a continued emphasis on grassroots organizing rather than electoral politics, and on local autonomy versus centralized authority.”
In truth, listening to black feminists means not silencing them in their own critiques, even when those critiques are of other black women. Since it was announced that Harris’ campaign has come to an end, the Twittersphere has been rife with attempts to speak over, ignore, and silence black women’s voices, with some even suggesting a form of Stockholm Syndrome has befallen black women who’ve spoken out against Kamala Harris.
As prison abolitionists, black feminists, community organizers, and those who represent all three tendencies have led critiques of both Kamala Harris’ policies and prosecutorial record, her identity as black, and as a woman, and especially as a black woman cannot shield her. In a post-Obama world, wherein the deporter-in-chief and master drone operator was a black man, the necessity to see politics beyond identity cannot be stressed enough.
Joseph notes in his article that we have to “work two times harder and be twice as good” to receive crumbs. However, in the case of Kamala Harris and dozens of Black politicians of her ilk, we on the left — organizers and activists and writers and advocates — have to work four times as hard to clear any misconceptions that assert all skinfolk are our kinfolk.
“We cannot just be fooled and we will not vote for someone just because they’re black when we are in a social, political, and economic crisis,” Nnenna Amuchie told me. “We need real solutions like Medicare-for-All, slashing policing and military budgets, loan forgiveness, sustainable, accessible housing, and free public transportation systems.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies