After days of uncertainty as mail-in ballots were counted, it’s clear that Kamala Harris will be the next vice-president of the United States. This is undoubtedly exciting. After forty-eight male, (almost entirely) white vice-presidents before her, it’s extremely significant that a woman of South Asian and Jamaican origin will soon take this office.
As the election results were announced, I saw many (mostly left-wing) people on UK Twitter revering Kamala Harris. One tweet that stood out to me asked; ‘Is Kamala the coolest vice-president ever?’ This stands in contrast to the way most people on the left have been talking about Joe Biden – he has received criticisms which in my opinion, are deserved, for his centrist or arguably right-wing policies, for instance not raising taxes for anyone earning under $400,000.
However, Harris has a questionable political record herself: a self-described ‘top-cop’, Harris was the district attorney of San Francisco, and later Attorney General of California, and in these positions, she backed rulings which had awful consequences for people in marginalised communities. It’s right to celebrate representation in positions of power, but this shouldn’t prevent us from holding politicians accountable for their actions. If Harris was a UK politician and had made these arguments in British courts, the people on my timeline would be worried about what this means for her future political decisions.
Harris has a mixed history on civil rights issues, especially trans and sex workers’ rights.
When she was Attorney General of California in 2015, a trans woman who was incarcerated in a Californian prison, Michelle Norsworthy, sued the state for denying her gender-confirming surgery. Harris defended the decision to deny treatment.
She also signed a brief arguing that any disappointment Ms Norsworthy experienced due to her treatment being denied could be treated with psychotherapy, reinforcing damaging beliefs that therapy can replace healthcare for trans people.
As District Attorney in 2008, Harris stated her categorical opposition to a proposition calling to decriminalise sex work. She told the New York Times that this proposition was “completely ridiculous” and would “put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.” Meanwhile, in 2016, Harris filed charges against Backpage.com – a website used by sex workers to vet clients and consequently keep themselves safe.
She also actively led a campaign to prosecute the parents of children who were missing school, a decision that overwhelmingly criminalised families already suffering from poverty and other social issues like unstable living situations.
However, Kamala Harris has recently taken more progressive policy positions. Despite her history on trans rights, Pink News recently described her as a staunch LGBT+ ally. In her bid to be the Democratic presidential candidate, Harris stated that she would pass the Equality Act, a proposed bill to ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, as soon as she entered the White House.
She has distanced herself from some of her actions as a prosecutor. After announcing her presidential candidacy, Harris stated that while she took ‘full responsibility’ for her office’s work on trans prisoners, as Attorney General she had defended clients with ‘positions that were contrary to [her] beliefs.’ Meanwhile, when asked by the Root in 2019 whether she wanted to decriminalise sex work, she replied: “I think so.” She also stated she regretted the consequences of her truancy campaign.
However, some have questioned the honesty of these more recent statements. Kristen DiAngelo, a sex worker activist, told the Huffington Post that Harris’s support for decriminalization was simply to help her Presidential campaign. DiAngelo stated “we are actually starting to do some damage to her campaign…so she had to change her stance…but do I think she believes it? No.”
The fact that Harris appeared to change some opinions during her presidential campaign raises the question of whether she genuinely changed her views, or if this was just political manoeuvring. Did she realise her previous views would harm her politically?
Another take on this is that she has always personally held progressive views, but was put in a difficult position as a prosecutor. Because of the political landscape at the time, the argument goes that she had to do and say things she didn’t want to in order to succeed within the system and make the changes from the inside.
Of course, this leads to another question: can we trust people who harm marginalised communities while in public office, even if this went against their personal beliefs? As African-American studies professor, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it: “if your job requires that you destroy the lives of young black and brown people, then maybe you need to reevaluate your life choices or do your job differently.”
The US criminal justice system is incredibly racist and unjust, and we shouldn’t brush off the decision Harris made to be part of this system.
People can change their views, and they can also do things they don’t believe in due to their job. We can still give critical support to politicians while holding them accountable for their actions. In particular, we should unequivocally and unfailingly support Harris against racist and misogynistic attacks – as social movement lawyer Derecka Purnell stated, “progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity.”
Harris’ actions as vice-president will make clear whether her recent statements were sincere. However, in 2010, Harris recounted how her staff were concerned about the political consequences of her initiative to prosecute parents over truancy. She said she pushed ahead with her campaign, saying: “this is a serious issue and I’ve got a little political capital and I’m going to spend some of it.”
Now that she has won the election, and is vice-president-elect, she doesn’t need to worry about attracting votes in the immediate future, so what will she spend her political capital on?