From a Black perspective, Harris has something to prove

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., high-fives with 2-year-old Isabelle Chan of Newton, Mass. at the Common Man Restaurant, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2019 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) John Bazemore

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/13/2020 5:21:57 PM

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, the history-making woman during a history-making time, receives no free passes from the Granite State.

At least not among a small group of the state’s Black leaders. And probably not from other Black communities across the country who are at the same time hopeful for the future yet critical of her past record.

They’ll lay back for now, wait and see. In what might have appeared as a powerhouse decision by Joe Biden to choose Harris as his running mate, I heard questions about Harris’s ego and I heard questions about her lack of commitment to criminal justice system reform when she was California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney.

They know, however, that Harris sparkles in public. She can punch and counterpunch in a debate with the best of them, and her humble beginnings make for a great American story.

Terrific. Now how are you going to fix this problem, Madam Vice President? The problem of racism in this country.

“We’ve been here before, Blacks and whites, and the optimism of the ’60s has never played out,” said JerriAnne Boggis, director of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and a board member for the New Hampshire Civil Rights Commission.

“How will we address racial discrimination? What’s important is for people to look themselves squarely in the eye and address a dialogue about this, starting with enslavement and leading up to incarceration today.”

Boggis made it clear she’s excited that Biden chose Harris, and why not? As a Black woman with change buried in her soul, the number of firsts on Harris’s resume reads like a list of gold medals for Jesse Owens.

First Black attorney general in California, first woman to serve in that role and first woman with South Asian heritage (her mom was from India) to serve in the U.S. Senate.

These days and in the coming months, you’ll hear that Harris is “the first Black woman chosen for national office by a major political party.” A lot.

She’s seeking to become the first woman vice president in history, the first Black vice president in history.

The reaction to Harris’s Indian heritage has surfaced in a separate galaxy, far from the tension that her Jamaican roots have caused.

Balaji Radakrishnan, the president of the India Association of New Hampshire, said he’s never been hassled by the cops since moving here 30 years ago. He said he and Harris’s mother were from the same part of southern India, and Indians everywhere were excited.

“A really proud moment for me and all of India,” he said.

Radakrishnan also sympathized with Black people, saying by email that police treatment of the Black community is, “Bad, especially with racial profiling. It is getting worse especially this past few years with rising tensions in terms of race.”

Enter Harris. She’s got an unenviable spotlight on her, one that will want answers, and fast.

Black leaders around the country agree that Harris will bring much-needed oomph to the Democratic campaign. Biden is 77, he’s stuck at home because of COVID-19 and his opponent calls him Sleepy Joe.

“She is brilliant, she is great and she has energized the campaign,” Boggis told me. “This campaign needed this element, adding youth and personality and class.”

Boggis described herself as “a very excited and skeptical person. I don’t just jump in that way and support everyone. I have been following her, during the primaries, and it’s like the same feeling when we had Obama, that kind of sense.”

The GOP portrayed Barack Obama as someone more concerned with his own image and appearance and speech-making than substance. But logic says that, relatively speaking, few Black people will mount an all-out attack on someone this significant in U.S. history.

Shamecca Brown has a serious vetting system in place. She’s a Black woman whose Concord studio, Vibes of Style, introduces and explores Hip-Hop and cultural dance music to clients of all ages. Some of the kids are neglected by their parents. Most of those children are Black.

In one choreographed play at the Christa McAuliffe School, a 17-year-old student took the stage confined by plastic chains as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” filled the auditorium.

Late in the song, when Cooke sang the words, “But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will,” the student broke free from his chains, echoing a vision that Cooke, a world-wide superstar, had pleaded for nearly 60 years before.

“We brainstorm,” Brown told me. “We make people say, ‘wow.’ ”

Brown says she’s been called the ‘N’ word and told to go back to where she came from. She wants change, sure, but is Kamala the answer?

Brown was cognizant and nearly apologetic when, after three seconds of silence and a long sigh, she spoke about Harris and hope.

“I want people who say they are going to do it, to do it,” Brown said. “We’ve been fighting for Black Lives Matter forever and against police brutality and no one does anything.”

She continued: “All we want is human rights. We need to follow through and get a movement.”

Harris could take the lead in that movement, and in a sense already has. The biggest critic I spoke with was Rogers Johnson, the leader of the New Hampshire chapter of the NAACP.

Johnson saw problems or potential problems, as the others did, but he employed a sterner critical eye.

He worried that followers – blinded by Harris’s charisma and historical importance and youth and promise for progressiveness –might ignore her record on crime and the prison system during her law enforcement days in California.

Harris launched a program in 2007 that charged parents with a misdemeanor if their kids missed more than 10 percent of school days without an excuse. The parents could face a $2,000 fine or up to one year in jail.

But with her threatening nature, her generalization of truancy (with the blame placed solely on the parents), and the radical nature of the plan to begin with, Harris had a stain on her record that will follow her through the debate season.

She also wouldn’t support legislation that would have allowed the public viewing of police disciplinary hearings, and a statute that would have required her to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the deaths of citizens with police involvement.

“She had a history of putting Black people in jail for drug charges,” Johnson noted. “You cannot just overlook that. A lot of people would like for us to do that, but it’s becoming difficult to do.”

And from there, Johnson wondered about Harris’s sincerity, noting voters had told him they simply didn’t believe Harris was real enough.

“I am skeptical,” he said. “I saw her (during primary season) and she did not impress me. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, and I’m going to be criticized for that.”

Boggis attached profound importance to the upcoming election. She saw the results as a crossroads, a time to follow the right path, or head down another one, back to where we started.

“If we go down this road again,” Boggis said, “after seeing the events we’ve seen, that tells you what the American public thinks. It would be a definitive mark in the sand showing what we stand for.”

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