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Kamala Harris and the Misappropriation of Identity Politics

Writing by Paula Lacey. Illustration by David Richards.

*Note from the editors; this is the first in a series of articles covering the US election. Check out the website over the next few days to see the rest!*

Amidst mass protests over racial inequality, rising right-wing nationalism and an unprecedented global pandemic; the fast-approaching US presidential election has come at a critical point.

In order to defeat Trump on November 3rd, Biden must strike a balance between appealing to moderates and responding to pressure from the left to address widespread structural inequality that has been shown to have devastating effects on America’s most vulnerable populations. As ever, the Democrats have settled on a tepid middle ground. Part of Biden’s attempt to appear as committed to progress as his opponents in the primaries can be seen in his selection of Kamala Harris, a Black woman, as his candidate for Vice President. The premeditated selection of a woman of colour has placed identity issues at the centre of the Democratic ticket, but it represents a simplification of the meaning of identity politics itself and is instead an empty gesture to create an outward image of progressivism to distract from policies that largely maintain the status quo.

The term ‘identity politics’ was first used in the Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement penned by a radical Black feminist organisation formed in 1974, so named after abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s 1863 raid on the Combahee River. The collective looked beyond racism alone to tackle the problems faced by Black women in the US, articulating the idea of intersectionality years before the term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 by describing it as a system of ‘interlocking oppressions’. They aimed to extend Marxist analysis to incorporate an understanding of oppression on the basis of identity as a source of radicalisation and skepticism of the political status quo. Identity markers are indicative of a lived experience, which in turn informs and radicalises one's politics.

However, popular discourse on identity politics has diverged from its radical origins, and its meaning has weakened and been misinterpreted. One thing that identity politics is not is the reductive assumption that being a member of a certain identity automatically produces anti-oppressive politics. This misunderstanding has been appropriated into mainstream liberalism through the misguided belief that inclusion and diversity is sufficient to improve the lived conditions of all members of minority groups.

Although representation is still an important step towards equality, identity politics turn sour when it becomes clear that a political figure is only using their identity or their proximity to a marginalised group as a way to achieve political aims, without being dedicated to the liberation of said group. This watered-down interpretation of the CRC’s framework appeals to a certain kind of liberal progressivism that engages in social justice issues on a surface level without actually aiming for long term change. The reality is that having people of colour, women, disabled people, or queer and trans people in power, although a step in the right direction, is not sufficient to change the material conditions of those groups unless that individual enacts the politics of their identity to go up against the status quo.

To presume that selecting a Black woman for VP will encourage Black women to vote for the Democrats regardless of the selection’s politics is patronising; it implies that diversity rather than policy change is enough to fool people into voting for a party that does not work for them. Barbara Smith, a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, has endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries of both 2016 and 2020 on the basis that his policies and priorities align with those her and her peers articulated in the Collective Statement. His commitment to supporting marginalised groups, not his personal identity or affiliation with them, is what made Sanders a popular choice among minority voters. Representation is important, but it must be accompanied by a commitment to change.

In announcing in advance that he would select someone of a different race and gender to him, Biden had already indicated that his VP decision would be rooted in the kind of tokenising practices that are common among candidate selection processes. By choosing Kamala Harris, not only was he able to check diversity boxes, but he was able to choose someone who opposes much of the leftist discourse on race. During a time of heightened discussion of carceral reform and abolition in the wake of brutal police violence, he chose someone who actively upheld that system in her former role. Kamala’s primary bid was based around her being a “progressive prosecutor”, a nickname so oxymoronic it almost feels laughable, yet her track record leaves many left-wing commentators mistrustful of her ability or desire to steer the Democrats into more progressive policy. During her time as both District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, she had tried to address the root issues of criminality, recognising that disproportionate imprisonment of poor and Black people stems from social factors. However her anti-truancy program disproportionately targeted working class POC, her response to calls for further anti-police brutality measures in the wake of 2014 BLM protests left much to be desired, and her office opposed releasing non-violent offenders, claiming it would deplete the state’s ability to fight wildfires (with the unpaid prison labour of predominantly working class POC, no less).

She vocally aligns herself with generally progressive values, but her record on trans and sex worker issues indicates otherwise. And although her attitudes towards policing and police reform have changed over the years, a lot of her sidestepping to the left has been interpreted as pragmatism. So despite her identity, she does not appear to have been radicalised by her experiences of oppression, a central tenet of the original articulation of identity politics. And although Harris has never pretended to be radical, applauding her VP selection as a step towards ending racial inequality is misguided, particularly given the current discourse around structural racism in policing. The selection of a Black woman as a response to the BLM movement would have been appropriate, as it allows the overlooked perspective of someone with experience of oppression at the intersections of identity into policy making in order to create change. The selection of a prosecutor, regardless of race or gender, is tone deaf at best.

The Democrats are characterised by style over substance, favouring surface-level progressive gestures over implementing the actual political changes that activists have been calling for for decades. Choosing Kamala Harris as VP is just this; a seemingly progressive move that will impress WASPy liberals who aren’t really paying attention, whilst avoiding actually advocating for the groups they appear to represent. It’s a transparent tactic to position themselves as the party of progress to appeal to coastal elites and first time Gen-Z voters, without actually committing to implementing truly left-wing policies in fear of alienating moderates.

In reality, this Democratic ticket is unimpressive, unexciting, and will do little to combat the most pressing contemporary issues that are disproportionately affecting minority groups. Biden does not support Medicare for All, a vital demand of the vast majority of left-wing voters that should be a given for any candidate committed to combating inequality. He has made promising comments on supporting a transition away from fossil fuels towards greener energy sources, but still refuses to commit to more substantive legislative changes like banning fracking. And although he makes vague statements about vowing to ease racial divisions in the US, his track record is inconsistent, and he has been repeatedly criticised for racially insensitive remarks. He and his staff chose Harris knowing that although she was vocally critical of him during the primaries, she is not genuinely left-wing enough to oppose him on such policies and her presence on the ticket allows them to keep up an image of progress to distract from disappointing policy. And although the choice was applauded by the kind of people who consider Hilary Clinton to be a girlboss rather than a war criminal, many leftists and activists are able to see through it. Much as the language of radicalism is often diluted by liberal discourse, this misappropriation of identity politics represents a barrier to the actual structural change it claims to work towards.

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