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Who is Kamala Harris?

As 2020 nears to a much anticipated close, the world must first face the US presidential election. Its November date looms as Americans prepare to vote in yet another inevitably historic election. Standing against Republican nomination Donald Trump, Joe Biden is running as the Democratic nomination with Californian Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Prior to joining Biden, Harris ran her own presidential campaign before withdrawing due to a lack of funding. Thanks to his tenure as vice-president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden is a well-known figure, but who is Kamala Harris, what are her policies, and why is her position on the Democratic ticket so monumental?

Born and raised in California, Harris is the daughter of two immigrants: Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher from India, and Donald J. Harris, a Jamaican professor who emigrated to the United States in the sixties. Kamala Harris, at age 12, moved to Quebec before going on to study political science and economics at Howard University, a historically black university. Her studies continued at the University of California as she worked towards her Juris Doctor and was eventually admitted to the California Bar. 

Harris’ experience, prior to becoming a US senator in 2017, is varied and rich. In 1990, she started out as a deputy district attorney for Alameda County in California before eventually being elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco in late 2003. In between her rise to the top, she was the chief of the Career Criminal Division of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, and also took roles related to unemployment insurance appeals and medical care. 

After seven years as the District Attorney of San Francisco, Harris rose further up the ranks. In 2011, she was appointed as the Attorney General of California. Despite having already faced controversy for some of her actions as District Attorney, it was her time as Attorney General that saw her face heavier criticism. She steered clear of getting involved in police killings arguing that it was not her job to intervene. However, despite her initial rejection of responsibility over the matter of police brutality, Harris did eventually make small steps to make a change as she began an investigation into misconduct within the police and endorsed an investigation by the Justice Department into shootings in San Francisco. 

Harris’ slow reaction to police brutality and description of herself as a “top cop”, has only stoked fears that, in the vice presidential office, she would do nothing to spur Joe Biden into making the changes within the American policing system that the country so desperately needs. She has a long history of appearing to sit on the fence and clearly wanting to appease the police when it comes to matters that regard them. In 2007, police unions opposed legislation that allowed public access to police disciplinary hearings. While many publicly supported the progressive move, Harris, the district attorney for the city at the time, stayed quiet. 

She has a long history of appearing to sit on the fence and clearly wanting to appease the police when it comes to matters that regard them

Despite these controversies, Kamala Harris describes herself as progressive and there is solid evidence to back this up. She has a long history of being pro-LGBTQ+ and even officiated the first Californian same-sex marriage held after the ban on same-sex marriage was found to be unconstitutional in 2013. She also supports the legalisation of marijuana citing that its illegal status only leads to the disproportionate incarceration of young black men. However, for some spectators, her progressive stance on modern social issues is hard to celebrate when her enthusiasm for ending institutional racism has been so erratic and lacklustre at times. Harris knows how bad America is for its black citizens and she says she wants to see a change. But why do her actions sometimes tell a different story?

Harris’s record is one full of contradictions. In 2004, a police officer, Isaac Espinoza, was shot and killed by a gang member. Harris, despite widespread disagreement, opposed the death penalty in this case. However, jump eleven years into the future and Harris found herself fighting against the abolition of the death penalty but then just last year she backtracked and described capital punishment as “immoral”. Furthermore, in direct contradiction to her support of its legalisation, Harris incarcerated over 1500 people for marijuana violations. The list goes on and on. Harris, like any politician, has a record of making damaging decisions and statements that could have a massive effect on how Americans decide to vote in a couple of months. 

What is important to factor in when looking at Harris, as a vice presidential nominee and a successful attorney, is her race and gender. Ignoring Kamala Harris’ existence as a woman of mixed descent means not appreciating her story and core values. In 2020, there is a renewed sense of what we all already know – America is racist. The most powerful man in the country and the police force have stoked a fire that has been lit for centuries. For the past thirty years, Kamala Harris has risen through the ranks, as an elected prosecutor, in a profession of which 90 percent of elected officials are white and 80 percent are male. Political positions aside, her achievements are an inspiration. Not only is she a trailblazer for women, the steps she’s made as a woman of Indian and Jamaican descent are compellingly admirable. If the election results were in favour of the Democrats, then Harris would become the first woman to hold the office of vice president. Her minority status would only serve to make this achievement even more ground-breaking. 

For the past thirty years, Kamala Harris has risen through the ranks, as an elected prosecutor, in a profession of which 90% of elected officials are white and 80% are male

Despite her controversial actions regarding the criminal justice system, Harris outlined a reform plan during her own presidential campaign that sought to scale back incarceration and ban private prisons amongst other progressive steps. Compared to the Democrats, there’s hope that Biden and Harris could be the answer to the problems that America is currently facing. Despite her historical actions, Harris has spoken often on the systemic racism poisoning America and it would be interesting to see if, in the White House, she would put real actions to her words. 

Harris hopes to be judged by her hopes for the future and not her actions of the past. Opposed to fracking, other environmental crimes and Trump’s harsh immigration policies, she appeals to many open-minded voters. Her stances on other social issues such as education and healthcare may be a bit patchier and more unconvincing, but Kamala Harris provides a stark contrast to that of her vice-presidential opposition, Mike Pence.

Ultimately, Kamala Harris’ brand is progression. She may not always get it right, but she wants to make a change for the better and for the many. When millions of Americans cast their vote in November, they will be choosing between the predictable continued stagnation of the Trump administration, or the uncertain yet hopeful future that the progressive values of Biden and Harris offer. 

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