Over the past few weeks, Kamala Harris’ Blackness has come into question through renewed birtherism, attacks that echo the experiences of former president Barack Obama. Born to a Tamil Indian mother and Jamaican father, some have argued that although she makes attempts to align with Black voters by highlighting a hint of Blackness, Harris’ work as a prosecutor has undermined her allegiance to Black Americans. As many of her critics point out, she has been complicit in the destruction of Black communities through the policies she supported. However, those in support of Harris have argued that her Blackness is solidified in the fact that she attended Howard University, a historically Black college (HBCU) touted in the mainstream media as the pinnacle of Black excellence.
Howard University, founded in 1867, is the educational home of many notable Black entertainers and prominent leaders in Black culture. However, the argument that attending Howard by itself qualifies one’s Blackness is an often-repeated and tiring notion that obscures the pertinent work of over 100 other HBCUs that exist in the United States. The school has become the representative institution of Black elitism, and many fail to acknowledge that many other Black colleges exist and have been grooming grounds for progressive Black people in our history and present-day.
Being a product of an HBCU is not just wearing the block letters on a sweatshirt and saying that you attended or partied at a homecoming once or twice. It is about extending the work to aid the Black community.
However, Harris has openly and publicly stood behind the tactics she used as a prosecutor, District Attorney, and California’s Attorney General that had a negative impact on Black communities.
Given the opportunity to allow non-violent offenders early release due to unconstitutional overcrowding of California’s prisons, Harris’ office claimed inmates were needed to perform cheap labor. This labor included fighting wildfires for $2 a day. This policy disproportionately affected Black people throughout California because they were three times more likely to be arrested than whites in 2016, which actually counted as progress since this was a historic low for the state.
Harris has also backpedalled from truancy laws that she once enforced and resulted in parents receiving jail sentences. These laws directly impact Black parents. Harris cannot claim ignorance of such effects, having previously justified them by stating in 2011, “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.” These consequences, under Section 270.1 of the California Penal Code, include a fine of up to $2000 and/or incarceration for up to one year.
During the recent Democratic presidential candidate debate, when the candidates were asked about the potential of getting only one thing passed during their presidency, Harris’ response highlighted “middle-class working families’ tax cuts, DACA, guns.” The top priorities she listed offered nothing directly related to Black families. She could have highlighted police reform, school reform, poverty, gentrification, and the many other pressing issues that continuously plague Black communities locally and nationwide.
Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is an exemplary candidate for revealing how HBCUs can mold progressive Black leaders. Having graduated from Lincoln University and Howard University’s School of Law, Marshall provided legal counsel to Black clients facing prosecution. He also founded and led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which focused primarily on civil rights for African Americans. Additionally, Marshall showed how he valued both education and Black lives through his work during Brown v. Board of Education, where he argued that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. He is also the reason why the University of Maryland integrated their law school program.
Another Howard University alum who presents a progressive career path is Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. Ture, born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, was proud of his immigrant background, but he situated himself within activist movements that directly impacted Black people in the United States. He was a Freedom Rider who challenged segregation laws on public transportation, served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. His actions demonstrated that his commitment and immersion in the struggles of Black people. Ture exemplifies what it means to be committed to the task of serving Black people.
Campaigning for the presidency of the United States is not a moment to peddle Blackness by pandering to audiences, stating you listened to Snoop Dogg or smoked marijuana or have hot sauce in your bag.
Black people are not monolithic, and as voters, supporters, or critics of those on the campaign trail, we deserve the respect of candidates speaking directly to what impacts us most.
The representation of someone of color is minimal compared to actually standing up to the challenges of what it means to have been and still be a Black person in America. And let’s be clear: to be Black and to be a person of color are not synonymous and consist of a multiplicity of experiences connected to race, class, and gender. These differences are important to appreciate because of the nation’s history.
The work of Howard alumna, writer, and psychiatrist Dr. Francis Welsing reminds us that the visibility of Blackness is not enough, unless you are willing to call out systems where racism and white supremacy are at play and get your hands dirty by dismantling such systems.
It is exciting to see people who have attended historically Black colleges recognized on the public stage. However, without implanting seeds of change for the Black community when given the spotlight, they are merely like Rachel Dolezal, who claimed Blackness for sport. Dolezal spent many years claiming to be a Black woman while being the president of an NAACP chapter in Washington state. She was outed by her birth parents for being a white woman appropriating Blackness. Although Dolezal is also an alumna of Howard University, she sued the school for discriminating against her as a white woman — yet still claims Blackness as an identity. The contradictory notion of clinging to Blackness but partaking in the destruction of Black communities in the same breath is an offense that will always be met with much-deserved scrutiny.
About the Author
Imani Bashir is a former sports broadcaster who, after years in media, decided to try her hand as an educator teaching literature abroad. She believes in raising her son as a global citizen and has lived in three countries (Poland — where her son was born — Egypt, and China). She discontinued teaching in a formal classroom setting and is a full-time consultant and writer, currently working on her first memoir about being a traveling first-time mother. Her bylines include The Washington Post, Glamour magazine, The Points Guy, and many more.