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Columns

Kamala Harris’ Authenticity Problem

By Oliver S. York, Contributing Opinion Writer
Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Having begun her political career as a high profile district attorney in San Francisco, Democratic presidential hopeful and California Senator Kamala D. Harris can certainly claim to represent “San Francisco values.” However, her local popularity has yet to translate into national support. Before Thursday’s debate, Harris was only polling in the high single digits in national and early state primary polls — a disappointment compared to an early polling bump when she threw her hat into the ring. My vote is far from settled, but, as a lifetime San Francisco resident, I’m intrigued.

Working against Harris is the constant refrain that she isn’t authentic enough. This past March, admittedly early in the cycle, I co-led a focus group of college students in my work with a national Harvard poll of young voter political opinions. The participants agreed that Harris didn’t seem genuine. Curious, I conducted an informal poll of my friends, and the consensus was the same. Some of that is certainly sexism (though I’ve heard it from audiences of different genders). Some of it is a legitimate reaction to the about-face that all politicians do when they update their policy stances to the current moment.

But we might want to consider attributing another part of her perceived lack of authenticity to something in the electorate — an inability to understand multiracial identity. With almost 3 percent of Americans self-reporting a mixed-race background in the 2010 census, many voters have very limited exposure to multiracial Americans (although the numbers are growing and a multiracial candidate like Harris may have even more natural support in another decade or two).

Harris is the daughter of immigrants; her father is from Jamaica, and her mother from India. To a multiracial student like me, it’s an appealing story. I still remember being disappointed as a kid that Barack Obama’s media narrative focused on his role as the first black president — I wanted to claim him for my own as the first multiracial president. My paternal relatives may have come from a different part of India than Harris’ mother, my maternal relatives from countries not represented in her background, but I still feel the natural excitement of a candidate who looks a bit more like me than the people who came before.

Cultural pluralism is a key ingredient in that liberal, West Coast political amalgam known as “San Francisco values.” Accordingly, being multiracial may have been an asset to Harris in California, where she handily won elections for state attorney general and U.S. Senate in a state with twice the share of multiracial residents as the rest of the country. But Harris’ presidential bid clearly doesn’t see her multiracial background as an asset in a national election — the biography on her campaign website makes no reference to her parents or ethnic background.

Perhaps this is a miscalculation. Without enough exposure to the story of her background, many voters don’t know what to make of Harris’ code-switching — the way people with multicultural backgrounds adjust their manners and dialect in order to fit their environmental context. When Harris posts Instagram videos that lean into her black heritage, voters who are used to seeing her speak as though she’s surrounded by old white men — in her role as attorney general or senator — might be taken aback and assume that this is an inauthentic affectation. Unaccustomed to multiracial identity, Harris is seen as “acting black” in this context; though Harris need not prove her race, these voters forget the obvious cultural credential that Harris attended historically black Howard University. When some of these same voters turn to scrutinizing her record as attorney general, she’s suddenly not “black enough,” because of past endorsements of tough-on-crime policies of the kind that disproportionately affect people of color.

This “multiracial confusion” may contribute to her authenticity problem. For most people, this response is somewhat innocent, if tinged with implicit bias. But an uglier version was on display this weekend during the racist backlash to Harris’ dominant debate performance. Reprising the birtherist conspiracies aimed by his father at then-candidate Obama, Donald J. Trump Jr. questioned Harris’ blackness in a roundly criticized tweet.

To double down on her recent rise in the polls, Harris may want to consider speaking more about her identity. I certainly don’t endorse catering to the Trumps, who have weaponized race for political gain, but everyone from moderate Trump supporters to the “wokest” among us might find Harris more authentic if we understood more about her background. (It’s unfortunate that white candidates don’t face this same burden.)

And, fellow liberals: Check yourselves. Consider how race may factor into your perception of Harris, and reevaluate her authenticity problem with voters. Why not give her the benefit of the doubt?

Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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