By Benay Blend
Exactly two years ago, in August 2018, Sen Kamala Harris blamed critics of “identity politics” for “weaponizing” the term in order to belittle the very issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation that it is meant to address.
In a move to satisfy pleas that he chose a Black woman running mate, Joe Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris, former chief legal advisor and chief law officer for the State of California. Yet in her self-proclaimed role of “top cop,” writes Erica Caines, Harris was the “driving force of mass criminalization and incarceration” of poor working-class Black people, a career that hardly qualifies her for the mantle of Progressive politician.
There will be many racist, sexist comments directed towards Harris in the coming weeks in an effort to discredit her. This is obviously not ok. Moreover, as Ahjamu Umi notes, after 500+ years of systemic oppression, many African (Black) identifying women justifiably see “any symbol of recognition as progress.”
There are many problems with this perspective, Umi writes, among which is the lack of class analysis. “Since the masses of African people hold no collective power,” he explains, any achievements within this system “speaks to their connections and commitment to upholding” the status quo. In this case, there is no “leverage” that the people hold to make politicians accountable to those who support them. That analysis, he concludes, explains why Harris, with her “problematic history”— “in terms of locking so many [Black] people up”—can be “viewed through a positive lens by African mothers whose children she helped incarcerate.”
According to Caines, the current phenomenon could best be described as “liberal identity reductionism,” a trend in which voters “invest in and sustain existing oppressive systems” that are deemed progressive as long as there is a “shared identity.” Rather than liberating, Caines conceded that this reasoning is actually “counterrevolutionary” because it leads to violence towards the “most marginalized that [are] always directly affected.”
In a similar move four years ago, perhaps even more egregious, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that there is a “special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” referring to voters who preferred the candidacy of Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Feminist commentator Gloria Steinem followed suit by implying that young women supported Sanders because the “boys are with Sanders,” thus his campaign seemed a more likely venue to meet young men.
In 2016, and again in 2020, Donald Trump has been singled out as exceptionally evil. Consequently, Caines affirms, the real goal of the elections is not to support “policies beneficial to the most marginalized,” but rather to use “any means necessary” to be rid of Trump.
“What is surprising,” Caines concludes, “is the inability of many of us to recognize counter-insurgency and neo-colonialism when directly facing it.”
What Harris should be “consistently criticized for,” Erica Caines concludes, “is being the epitome of a neoliberal politician.” Briefly, that record includes “self-righteous glee in the criminalization of poor parents over truancy, an increase in Black incarceration, support of the death penalty, endangerment of sex workers, the praise of prison labor, fighting to keep non- violent offenders in prison, and a blockade to the rights of the incarcerated Trans community”, and much more.
What is relevant here, however, is Kamala Harris’ consistent support of the apartheid state of Israel, a position in line with her running mate Joe Biden. In an address to the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and to the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality in 2013, Angela Davis made the following points regarding feminism:
“Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism (I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple Feminisms, right). It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post colonialities and ability and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name.”
Given these guidelines, not only Kamala Harris, but also Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton fail the test. As Felicity Arbuthnot observed in 2012, Albright considered the UN embargo of Iraq, a policy that resulted in the deaths of half a million children “a hard choice, but the price, we think the price was worth it.”
For her part, Clinton spoke out against giving refuge to children who were fleeing violence in Honduras, a country plagued by violence that as secretary of state Clinton helped create. By supporting the June 28, 2009 coup d’état, writes Marjorie Cohn, Clinton facilitated not only these conditions, but also the assassination of Honduran human rights leader Berta Cáceres in 2017.
“Those children needed to be processed appropriately,” acknowledged Clinton but we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.” In that statement, she joins Albright and Harris who consistently side with colonialist policies when it might benefit their careers.
Turning their backs on the oppressed, these women forfeit their right to claim that they understand oppression because of shared gender, race or both.
In the case of Palestine, Harris’ support for Israel falls in line with most successful politicians whatever their minority status otherwise might be. But there is more than that.
In an article, “Kamala Harris has a Distinguished Career in Serving Injustice,” Marjory Cohn lists criminalizing truancy, raising cash bail fees and keeping prisoners locked up for cheap labor as among her most appalling acts on record. What really ties her to Israel, though, is her repeated efforts to block investigations of police shootings.
An article edited by Matiangai Sirleaf, “Extrajudicial Executions from the United States to Palestine” appeared as part of a “Just Security” symposium aimed at making race part of national security in order to facilitate addressing issues of racial justice. According to Sirleaf, Black-Palestinian solidarity brings together racism and colonialism, thereby highlighting not only “equality and democratization of the colony but [also] decolonization.”
It also illuminates “wholesale dehumanization along racialized lines” in both countries, thereby explaining shared shoot-to-kill policies that came to light after the police killing of George Floyd. Such an international approach, Sirleaf concludes, brings to light “global regimes of capital, violence, and governance,” thereby enabling US law enforcement trainings in Israel that lead in turn to militarized policing of demonstrations against injustice.
Given all of the above, can a prosecutor, who might have indeed made a few positive contributions during her career, run as a progressive candidate for VP? Writing for The Intercept, Briahna Gray asks a variation of this question. Her conclusion: “To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system,” a system that was designed for keeping Black people under subjugation.
Harris’ identity, then as a Black woman, should not be used to ignore her actions. To be truly radical, or even progressive, her affiliations should include marginalized people from all over the world whatever their color and/or sexuality. Where was her outcry on March 14, 2020, when Israeli occupation airstrikes, as reported by Gaza-based journalist Wafaa Aludaini, injured four civilians, including two children and a pregnant woman?
As Matiangai Sirleaf observes, Black-Palestinian solidarity facilitates their struggle for liberation, but also includes the opposition to the U.S. occupation of Hawai’i and Puerto Rico, to ongoing settler-colonial expansion on Standing Rock Sioux lands, as well as interventions in Venezuela and Bolivia. To be truly deserving of the mantle of marginalized identity, Harris’ concerns should include these broader issues, along with the broader struggle against US imperialism and colonial ventures around the world.
“Any slave who seeks validation from the master’s system is a doomed slave,” writes Ahjamu Umi. Drawing on the poet Audre Lorde’s conviction that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Umi calls for “dismantling the empire and building something we believe will be much better for humanity.”
“Those of us are who are revolutionary are not concerned with issues, we are concerned with the system,” Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) explained many years ago. Though some “skinfolk will forever roll with Harris, Obama, etc.,” predicts Ahjamu Umi, “to preserve this empire,” others will seek to change the system. In this paradigm lay the seeds for transnational solidarity that will bring about a decolonial future, one in which Gaza will not be bombed four nights in succession, and fathers like George Floyd will live to see their daughter’s wedding.
– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.