Immediately after Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential nominee, the race was on to define her. For millions of voters who didn’t know much about the junior Senator from California, first impressions would matter.
GOP pundits, led by the president, threw a lot of contradictory mud to see what would stick: She’s too liberal; she’s too authoritarian; she’s too “ambitious;” she’s “pro-criminal;” she’s “nasty;” she’s “mad;” she’s “not even Black.” A baseless birther conspiracy did the rounds, claiming Harris was ineligible for the vice presidency despite being born in Oakland.
Even on Wikipedia, war raged over how to define Harris. Her page was locked as trolls attacked and editors debated their description of her race. Harris’ mother was a UC Berkeley cancer researcher born in India; her father was a Black Jamaican economist She identifies as both African American and South Asian American. Eventually, the editors agreed to define her as such.
Luckily, there’s a better source for understanding Harris than the judgment of her political opponents or Wikipedia editors: Her own words. We’re not talking about her speeches or tweets, but her two very different books on either end of a decade of political upheaval. Smart on Crime was published in 2009 as Harris prepared to run for California Attorney General. The Truths We Hold followed in 2019 as she was preparing her run for president.
Here’s what I discovered when I sat down to read both books in the wake of Biden’s announcement. As with most autobiographical works, they reveal more than the author intended. The image Harris projected of herself changed significantly as she moved from prosecutor to politician, and as the Democratic base moved left. Both times, what she chose to leave out about herself — and about race and policing in America — is as interesting as what she included.
Reading the books isn’t a slam dunk when it comes to minting new supporters. Harris may come across as too wonkish to some, too likely to shift with the political winds to others. There are a few heartstring-tugging personal moments to be had — Harris isn’t afraid to tell us how much she ugly-cried when her husband proposed, for example — but they are outweighed by lengthy recitations from her hearings and conference calls and speeches, topped with generous sprinkles of statistics.
All of which led me to the first of three main conclusions drawn from the source material:
1. She’s an unabashed Obama-style policy nerd.
You can debate the role of Harris parents’ race on her life, but you can’t ignore the impact their work-life had on her. Harris thinks like a scientist and enjoys a good debate on economics. Growing up, she says in Smart on Crime, the school was the be-all and end-all of her life, “like breathing and eating.” And by all appearances, that never stopped.
As with Barack Obama, who also published two rather different books before running for president, a good adjective to describe Harris is “professorial.” Whatever you make of her politics, she will forever be the daughter of academics. She’s excited by experiments, such as the Mayor of Stockton’s plan for a form of universal basic income, which gets a big shout-out in The Truths We Hold.
Smart on Crime is many things, but it is first and foremost a barrage of data. It’s the San Francisco District Attorney trying to convince fellow DAs they should let low-level offenders rehabilitate, focusing their energies on violent crimes instead. Often her arguments are cooly financial: It simply costs too much to prosecute these kids, not to mention the cost of jailing them.
Describing a triangular hierarchy of cases, with petty crime swamping the system at the bottom, Harris comes across like a cringingly trendy professor when she calls on readers to “rock the crime pyramid!”
The Truths We Hold is a more soft-edged autobiographical work. But Harris is never as animated as at the end, where she presents a scientific formula for the work of government itself. Step one, test your hypothesis — and expect temporary glitches when new ideas are introduced. (Obama’s 2013 healthcare.gov rollout is Exhibit A).
Step two, go to the scene: You can’t understand an issue like globalization until you see how it affects your constituents. Step three, embrace the mundane details of the topic (Harris points to Bill Gates, whose focus on developing world problems led him to become a nerd about the contents of fertilizer).
“You have to sweat the small stuff,” Harris writes in the later book. “Because sometimes it turns out the small stuff is actually the big stuff.” You can easily picture her as the kind of workaholic politician who likes to drown in policy papers rather than rely on her gut. No wonder she became fast friends with fellow Senate policy wonk Elizabeth Warren, who also gets a shout-out in Truths.
2. The race wasn’t a factor. Until it was.
Time has not been entirely kind to Smart on Crime. In many ways, it is a relic of 2009, that hazy post-election year that preceded the rise of the Tea Party. Back then it was very common to dream of bipartisan progress on a range of issues, and for Democrats to assume that the election of a Black president had somehow solved racism.
Whether that’s the reason, or whether she was “code-switching” in order to talk to white law enforcement officials and be heard, Harris barely mentions her multiracial upbringing and completely avoids the history of racist policing in America.
The word “race” doesn’t appear until page 101, where she warns public defenders not to assume African American juries will be sympathetic to African American defendants. To a reader in the age of George Floyd, her silence on other points regarding the Black experience of law enforcement is deafening.
Sometimes the absence is understandable, given the time frame and the data available. For example, today it’s hard to talk about the “broken windows” theory of policing low-level crimes without acknowledging the many studies showing that it often leads to an increase in people of colour being arrested, but those studies arrived in the mid-2010s. (Harris mentions it neutrally, in the context of why prosecutors decided to become “tough on crime.”)
Other times, it seems downright credulous. Early in the book, Harris mentions the case of Willie Horton, who was used in a pivotal attack ad by George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Horton was a Black prisoner who had raped a woman on a work furlough endorsed by Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis.
Even at the time, many observers noted that Horton’s race was played up in the ad, the brainchild of infamous GOP racist Lee Atwater. In Harris’ telling, though, Horton had merely become “the poster child for failed rehabilitation programs,” yet another reason for politicians in both parties to act like “swaggering lawmen.”
Sure, the positions she outlines in the book, such as her “Back on Track” program which helps find jobs and education for low-level offenders, undoubtedly benefit marginalized communities. It’s also worth noting that Harris’ office had a policy of not prosecuting marijuana possession charges, which had been disproportionately brought against Black defendants. (She was, as one public defendant wrote in a recent USA Today op-ed, the most progressive DA in California.)
But in 2009, she dared not say such things explicitly, perhaps to avoid irking the GOP types mentioned in this bridge-building book. (Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz are all applauded for occasionally seeing the importance of rehabilitating offenders.)
By 2019, though, Harris could not avoid the subject. “We need to accept hard truths about systemic racism,” she writes in The Truths We Hold, touting the implicit bias training she instituted as California AG. “Police brutality occurs in America and we have to root it out wherever we find it.”
She name-checks Philando Castile and Eric Garner. At the same time, Harris insists that “it is a false choice to suggest that you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both. Most people I know are for both. Let’s speak some truth about that, too.”
The irony of this sudden rash of truth-telling is that Harris isn’t telling the whole truth about herself and her evolution on the subject of race. Why not talk honestly and openly about how the events of the 2010s swayed her thoughts? Polls show support for Black Lives Matter has risen steadily since the movement began in 2013. Millions of us have had our eyes opened by shocking events. Harris knows there should be no shame in changing your mind based on new data.
But nowhere in the second book does Harris address the curious racelessness of the first. Presumably, she feared any kind of mea culpa would provide her opponents with an opening. Fair enough, but it does make a mockery of quotes like this: “I choose to speak the truth. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it leaves people feeling uneasy.”
That may be part of her brand as a Senator and VP candidate and certainly holds true of her famous questioning of Brett Kavanaugh (which makes it into the book) and Attorney General Bill Barr (which happened after its publication). But it wasn’t necessarily the case in her career as DA and AG.
3. Her upbringing had a proudly activist, international flavour.
There is at least one area where Smart on Crime and The Truths We Hold tells the same story, and that area is Berkeley. Harris loves to recount her time growing up in a duplex on Bancroft Way, then a working-class street in the university town; her “earliest memory” in both books is of a “sea of legs” in a civil rights march. In both books, she is a fussy toddler who, when asked by her mom what she wants, yells back the adorable response “fweedom!”
Beyond those basics, however, it’s interesting to note what Harris chooses to tell in each book. Smart on Crime tells us more about her Indian family, including the fact that Harris used to visit India every two years. Her earliest memories on the subcontinent were of “walking along the beach with my grandfather.”
He was diplomat and veteran of the struggle for Indian independence, who “would talk to me about the importance of doing the right thing, the just thing.” Her Indian grandmother was an activist for women’s rights, and would, well into her 80s, call her to debate San Francisco politics.
In Truths, however, the trips to India were merely “periodic,” and you’d never know she had quality time with granddad or calls with grandma. Perhaps the Tea Party’s birther nonsense, with Donald Trump devoting years of his life the lie that Obama was born in Kenya, had made Harris wary of clouding her presidential campaign with any talk of the time in a foreign country.
(She also spends little time on her family’s move to Montreal when she was 12, except to note that both her parents came to her high school graduation there despite no longer speaking to each other.)
Instead, Truths offers plenty more detail of Harris’ Black experience in Berkeley. She was bussed to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in a very white part of the city. On Thursdays, her favourite night, her family went to Rainbow Sign, a performance space and restaurant started by 10 Black women.
In her formative years here she saw James Baldwin, Shirley Chisholm, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone. Rainbow Sign, Harris says, “was where I came to understand that there is no better way to feed someone’s brain than by bringing together food, poetry, politics, music, dance, and art.”
There was a time in American politics, not so long ago, when Harris’ biography alone would have marked her out as a radical. Berkeley, San Francisco, California: These used to be bywords for the kind of liberal politician who could never be in touch with “real America,” whatever that actually meant.
Same goes for a politician opposed to the death penalty, which Harris refused to call for in her prosecutorial career, despite substantial pressure from police. Dukakis was against it, and that tanked his presidential chances in 1988 almost as much as the Willie Horton ad.
But in 2020, the centre has shifted. And a politician like Harris, one of the most liberal senators, someone who once would have been seen as a transformational figure in the Obama mould, is derided by many on the left as “a cop” because … well, because she was good at her job.
She increased the percentage of successful prosecutions as both DA and AG, and threatened to prosecute parents of school truants (though she never actually did) because it cut truancy rates, and cutting truancy rates cut crime.
Is her treatment fair? No. But politics rarely is. And in these books, Harris shows she knows how the game has been played thus far. She has spoken different truths to different audiences, honed her message and her brand, and dived into the issues like a true technocrat.
What remains to be seen is whether she can adapt again, to an age that prizes passionate and unvarnished politics over the dry and polished version. That version of Kamala Harris certainly exists, as anyone who has seen her increasingly fiery speeches over the past year can attest.
If there is a third book — written, perhaps, from the Vice President’s residence in the U.S. Naval Observatory — we may even get to really meet her in print for the first time.