Kamala Harris keeps getting asked if she’s black enough.
And the California Democrat — whose presidential campaign is closely monitoring questions around her candidacy shared among African Americans and young people — has been more than happy to answer.
Harris’ decision to sit for extended radio interviews with black hosts at the outset of her run is part of a broader strategy for the half-Jamaican, half-Indian former prosecutor. It’s designed to give her the chance to directly confront the uncomfortable and offensive internet memes about her personal life before they can metastasize among voters, three advisers to Harris said.
In recent days, Harris has parried skepticism over everything from claims to her black heritage to her decision to marry a white man — bluntly putting down markers on nuanced topics to help inoculate her from false critiques with answers that also illuminate how she views her own identity.
“Nothing that she is saying is newly found or newly acquired,” said Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the oldest and largest black-owned newspaper on the West Coast, who has known Harris for years. But Bakewell argued she’s been smart — “not to mention honest” — to take the difficult questions early on rather than ignoring the memes.
“That fuels fire. They can make something out of that,” he added of her critics. “When you hit them square in the eye, and say, ‘Yep, this is what it is’ … That cannot go wrong.”COUNTDOWN TO 2020
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A Harris strategist told POLITICO that the campaign has been watching the early impressions of her play out online — and looking for the best places where she could address and rebut them.
“We know the memes that are out there,” the aide said. Using one of the senator’s catch-phrases to explain the choice of venues, the adviser added: “She’s meeting people where they are.”
Harris sat for a wide-ranging chat with “The Breakfast Club” that aired Monday. The radio show’s hosts, DJ Envy and Charlamagne Tha God, are both black. She answered doubts about her African-American heritage because her father emigrated from Jamaica and her mother came from India — and because Harris spent time in Canada as a student.
Harris recounted how she was born in Oakland and raised in California, aside from the time she went to high school in Montreal. She compared the treatment to persistent questions asked of Barack Obama and his surrogates — including Harris herself — while he was a candidate in 2007 and 2008, and stretching into his presidency.
“Look, this is the same thing they did to Barack. This is not new to us and so I think that we know what they are trying to do,” Harris said. “They are trying to do what has been happening over the last two years, which is powerful voices trying to sow hate and division among us, and so we need to recognize when we’re being played.”
By RUSSELL ARBEN FOX
The hosts asked how she responds to questions about the “legitimacy of your blackness.”
“I think they don’t understand who black people are,” Harris responded. “Because if you do, if you walked on Hampton’s campus, or Howard’s campus, or Morehouse or Spelman or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, for the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people,” she said, referring to historically black universities.
“I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are,” Harris concluded, contending she was focused on her tax-credit bill. “We know that we will lift 60 percent of black households with this initiative.”
Still, she later sought to put the race question to rest.
“I am black and I am proud of it,” she said bluntly. “I was born black and I’ll die black and I am proud of it. And I am not gonna make any excuses for it, for anybody, because they don’t understand.”
The source of the memes isn’t always clear, though Harris supporters have generally attributed much of the mysterious content that’s not derived or spread by Russian bots to Trump backers or supporters aligned with other Democrats.
Harris’ effort to get ahead of the memes is informed in part by Hillary Clinton’s general refusal to engage with the darker parts of the web, something that worked to Trump’s advantage. And it comes with the experience of having watched Obama early on in his first campaign mostly refuse to entertain deeper examinations of his race.
Harris seldom faced such scrutiny while climbing the ranks in California. But social media slings and arrows have been coming hard at her since she first surfaced on the national scene as a potential presidential candidate. Much of the earlier criticism focused on whether Harris — whose lack of a record on key issues at the time provided an opening — was sufficiently progressive. In more recent months, she’s been heavily scrutinized for her decades in law enforcement in the context of Black Lives Matter.
So Harris has practically invited uncomfortable discussions — and prepared her answers ahead of time.
She’s met questions about her prosecutorial past by diving into systemic racism and problems with mass incarceration. She broadly contends it’s a myth that black people don’t want law enforcement — “We do,” she said in the Monday interview.
“We don’t want excessive force. We don’t want racial profiling. But certainly, if somebody robs, burglarizes my house, I’m going to call the police.”
Harris has used the stops to raise broader discussions of her agenda for African-Americans. When asked, the senator said she is in favor of some form of reparations. “We have got to recognize, back to that earlier point, people aren’t starting out on the same base in terms of their ability to succeed,” she said. “So, we have got to recognize that and give people a lift up.”
Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who worked for Clinton and served as the executive director of the New York Democratic Party, said Harris is right to want to get ahead of various concerns because she’ll need the support of the African-American community, and in particular African-American men, who are disproportionately affected by harsh laws.
“If she’s associated with that level of harshness, it will hurt her at a time when criminal justice reform is on the top of the agenda for African Americans, broadly,” Smikle said.
And in an environment where African-American women have emerged as one of the strongest forces behind the Democratic Party, Harris is going to have to be able to glide in and out of the communities and make a case that will motivate them to vote for her.
“The community is not monolithic, so I think evaluations of her blackness are not appropriate,” Smikle said. “But at the same time, she has to articulate an agenda community to community across the country.”
That starts with shooting down falsehoods. On “The Breakfast Club” program, Harris was asked about a meme saying she broke the state record for incarcerating black men.
“That’s just not true,” she said.
Did Harris lock anyone up in her truancy program, she was asked?
“No,” she said, contending the intention of her initiative was to put a spotlight on the issue of children missing school, even if it meant she would be viewed as “the bad guy.”
“There’s going to be all kinds of allegations being made, and I invite — not only invite — I encourage folks to look at the real record.”
Other attacks she’s being asked about are deeply personal, including from those who question why she married a white man.
“Look,” she said, “I love my husband. And he happened to be the one I chose to marry because I love him … And he loves me.”
At another point, the hosts asked the Howard University graduate and daughter of civil rights activists why people say she’s pandering to black people.
Concluded Harris: “They don’t know me.”