Kamala Harris Upsets Dem Primary By Rudely Revealing She's A Black Woman
During last night's Democratic debate, Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden for statements and actions that were personally hurtful to her as a black woman. This was inspirational. When you're the sole black person in a white-dominated space, you pick your battles. People might assume black folks throw down race cards like we're at a high-stakes Uno tournament, but in our actual reality, it's never that easy to directly "speak about race," as Harris bravely did. It's especially difficult to confront a professed ally, someone we're supposed to appreciate and respect because they deign to view us as human.
Harris even started off by reassuring Biden that she didn't believe he personally was racist. This wasn't "condescending," as David Frum suggested. We do this all the time. It's a pre-emptive strike to hold off white liberal fury. The white liberal man can't countenance the slightest suggestion that he might have racial blinders. We are the ones who are overreacting or misinterpreting things. Don't we know all the highlights of Joe Biden's racial tolerance resume? They usually involve Martin Luther King as well as youthful hijinks with old pal "Mouse." It's not surprising that white people quickly criticized Harris for "attacking" Biden.
Passion and righteous anger from black women might alarm you, sir, but get used to it. Our sisters aren't staying silent any longer. Besides, this was a presidential debate. Harris didn't get drunk and petty at a church cookout. Nor did she make an "ugly mess" of the primary. She took control of the race and defined the dialogue. Biden voluntarily boasted about his relationship with segregationists, and it's not a comment out of context. He's perceived as "electable" because he can "connect" with white male voters who "drifted" from the Democratic Party over the past few decades. The party has only moderately changed its platform during that time (look it up). However, it's drastically changed its face. That is what people in rural Pennsylvania find so "radical." Prominent Democrats now include women, minorities, and LGBT. A white man has not been at the top of a Democratic presidential ticket since 2004. Donald Trump's presidency is itself a product of this racial and cultural backlash. Even the most benign nostalgia for a Democratic Party that was whiter, maler, and more overtly racist shouldn't go unchallenged. As Harris said recently, "We won't go back."
Biden didn't donate a kidney to Obama or hide him from fugitive slave catchers. He hopped on a non-stop train headed straight to the White House. There's a lot of space between "too racist to serve as a black guy's VP" and "immune from any criticism on racial issues." Hillary Clinton also served in the Obama administration and reportedly even touched Obama once or twice without breaking out in hives. Does that retroactively silence every dog whistle from her 2008 campaign? Conversely, Obama picked Biden as vice president. He even had white family members. He was still called a "racist" and "divisive" because he sometimes reminded people he was black.
Then there's this nonsense.
Obama is now the "white guy's black friend," like he's a common supporting character on an '80s sitcom. We've worked with a lot of perfectly acceptable white people, but don't go name dropping us when they say something stupid. We're not a "race fixer" in a Winston Wolfe tux. Obama also better not ever let himself be used as heavy artillery against a black woman for as long as he wants to remain Mr. Michelle Obama.
Black folks who want to achieve any measure of success can't do so without building and maintaining relationships with white people. Some of them might annoy us but unless we want to go all Thelma and Louise on our professional careers, we learn to tolerate a lot. However, tolerance is not the same as approval. Obama had to cut ties and publicly repudiate his former minister, Jeremiah Wright. Biden however feels no impulse or real political pressure to have apologized for his past connections with racists even when he accepted the vice presidency. That might've been nice.
Frum argued that Harris "deliberately [refused] to understand the work a successful politician must do." This is ridiculous. Biden didn't somehow convince white supremacists to sign onto civil rights legislation. If he had, we'd happily drink coffee out of a mug with his face on it. He worked with segregationists to oppose busing programs and sent them nice thank-you notes as if they'd donated to Wonkette. If John McCain had at any point worked to expand abortion access, Frum's former boss, George W. Bush, would've made an issue of it in 2000. It would've been political malpractice to do otherwise. Harris is uniquely qualified to put a human face to what was opposed by someone running for the Democratic Party nomination in the year of our Gwen Verdon 2019.
Biden won't apologize for having willingly been on the wrong side of history. Speaking movingly about his own personal racial growth could've ended this whole thing. People change. We get that. But insisting he was always a civil rights champion while lecturing black people who gently disagree doesn't impress us.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.