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Jamaicans, Indians Love Kamala Harris For VP. Do Her Policies Support Black Lives?

Those who share her heritage have expressed pride at her nomination, but others have pointed out that we can't ignore her historical stances on criminal justice.

An excerpt of the text he sent on Tuesday afternoon: “Joe Biden here. Big news: I’ve chosen Kamala Harris as my running mate. Together, with you, we’re going to beat Trump.”

Big news, indeed! To announce Senator Harris, of California, as his vice-presidential running mate was also to set off the inevitable chain of jubilant headlines, each declaring the seemingly triumphant, “historic” nature of the occasion.

Harris, 55, is the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for the national office by a major political party. This title, to some, was immediately deemed a sign of progress.

Now, some quickfire background.

Harris is the daughter of two immigrant academics who met in grad school, amid the convulsing UC Berkeley protests of the mid-1960s: her mother was a five-foot tall breast cancer researcher from India, and her father is a retired leftist Stanford economics professor from Jamaica.

The VP-nominee was born in Oakland, but she spent a generous portion of her teenage life in Montreal, where her mother had a teaching job at McGill and where she graduated, in 1981, from Westmount High. (Per the Montreal Gazette, her 336-page memoir devotes just two pages to her time here in Canada.

The response from Jamaicans and Indians online

Yes, Harris has a special connection to Canada — even if she doesn’t always acknowledge it. She spent formative years here. She speaks French. “I’m not good at talking about myself,” she has said. “It’s like extracting stuff from me.” Still, some Canadians have been eager to claim her:

And just to continue along the axis of her heritage, there are many Jamaican and Indian folk scrambling on social media to claim Harris as their own, expressing their pride at sharing an ethnicity with the nominee.

Here, some Jamaican users expressing their excitement:

And here, some Indian users doing the same:

But, there are critical takes, too:

Many of Harris’ critics point to her fraught record on criminal justice

But Harris’ nomination triggered more than just a wave of pride from Jamaican and Indian people on social media. It also launched a review of her record on criminal justice, which haunts her present candidacy. An important fragment of the conversation around Harris’ nomination that has emerged among her critics has been that a Black identity does not amount to politics which benefit Black people.

Harris, a self-described “progressive prosecutor,” has held jobs as the San Francisco district attorney as well as the California attorney general, and so her politics on criminal justice have been widely discussed over the last couple of years. And as many of us likely now by now, not only does mass incarceration disproportionately affect Black people — who are almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans, more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences, and who have disproportionate levels of interactions with police forces — but the early penitentiary system’s roots cannot be separated from U.S. chattel slavery.

So when Harris’ policies on criminal justice are considered in the context of these facts, the position of her Black critics clarifies itself. Harris struggled to secure support from Black voters early on in her initial campaign for the presidency. As San Francisco’s district attorney, she was strongly supportive of an anti-truancy law that threatened parents with criminal charges if their kids missed school.

She has, on multiple occasions, failed to hold police and prosecutors accountable for instances of misconduct. Two years after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, she proudly called herself a “top cop.”

In California, she routinely refused to observe U.S. Supreme Court orders to lessen overcrowding in prisons. She has been criticized for her fight to keep innocent people in prison. “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” law professor Lara Bazelon wrote in the New York Times last year. “Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”

Much of the aforementioned history was newly scrutinized after the death of George Floyd. Against the backdrop of global protests and calls to defund the police, Harris’ seemingly pro-cop and pro-incarceration stance didn’t sit well with many of her critics, who were confused by her dual image as a criminal justice reformist and a “tough on crime” “top cop.”

In 2019, after extensive criticism, Harris outlined a plan to “transform the criminal justice system and re-envision public safety in America.” It included several tenets that opposed her earlier stances on criminal justice, with promises to reduce the prison population, create national standards in policing and accountability, ensure humane treatment for incarcerated people and prioritize historically vulnerable communities. She has also backed proposals to revise the country’s bail system and to make lynching a federal crime.

How these positions will stand throughout her bid for the White House remains to be seen. There’s a long way to go to election day, but the time will pass quickly. For now, Kamala is being proudly claimed by those who finally see someone at the top who shares their roots.

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