At the onset of her campaign, Harris was criticized as not sharing enough of herself. While she has touted her education at Howard University and raised her experience being bused to school as a young girl, her presidential campaign has stressed universality and inclusion. Her “3 a.m. agenda" has stressed that what keeps us up at night — medical bills, housing, our kids’ education — does not depend on whether one is a Republican or Democrat. She routinely states that “we have so much more in common than what separates us.”
That reticence, by necessity, has receded. Voters demand a level of candor and intimacy from their presidential candidates. To both define her message and defend her record, she has had to explain her tenure as a prosecutor and rebutted claims that she was a cog in the machine of mass incarceration. She’s been obliged to share stories of her experience as a prosecutor comforting mothers whose children have been shot and killed and in instituting anti-bias training for police officers.
Moreover, as the campaign has progressed, Harris has more overtly emphasized her connection to the African American community and posited herself as African Americans’ advocate in the halls of power. This was especially noticeable in her speech Saturday. She spoke of herself as standing on the shoulders of African American giants such as Thurgood Marshall and told the crowd, “We need soldiers in every phase, layer and trench of the movement for social justice.” There is a need to pair outside advocacy with the hard and “frustrating” work of insiders, she argued. To sustain change and promote progress, she said, “We must elect and lift up people to lead who are also immersed in our community, who represent us and our experience, and who know the deep flaws within the systems we serve.” She added, “We need to run into the fire … extinguisher in hand.” In short, it matters for black Americans to have black Americans in power, on the inside.
Who better to knock down “the systemic barriers to racism,” she posits, than someone who understands that system but also has a deep understanding of the challenges facing the African American community as only a member of that community can? We now see her make the explicit case that the outcomes she obtained — e.g., getting jobs for young, low-level drug offenders — were a reflection of her understanding and attachment to the African American community.
For Harris, the address marked a level of candor and earnestness about her identity as an accomplished, African American woman that we have not regularly seen on the trail. In a time of “overt racism,” she presented herself “as only the second black woman elected to the United States Senate and as a serious and top-tier candidate for the president of the United States.”
One can be cynical and say she is more vividly identifying as an African American candidate with an eye toward the critical South Carolina primary and the need to win over African American voters who heavily favor former vice president Joe Biden. However, it would be foolish for Harris to ignore her own identity, her own career and her own experience as she asks voters to take a chance on a first-time candidate for president, a woman still in her first term in the Senate.
All presidential candidates must personalize themselves. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talks about her Okie upbringing on the “ragged edge” of the middle class. Biden is "Middle-Class Joe,” and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is the gal from the heartland. Perhaps in fully inhabiting her role as an African American female trailblazer and a progressive insider, Harris’s will find the focus and clarity she needs.