Who Is Kamala Harris?

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On August 11, 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden announced that his running mate for November’s election is to be Senator Kamala Harris. This did not come as a surprise to many, given Kamala Harris’ prominence within the Democratic Party and reputation as California’s Attorney General. However, to those isolated from the world of politics, the name may be unfamiliar, evoking the question: “Who is Kamala Harris?”

A first-generation American, Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California, her mother from India and her father from Jamaica. Female empowerment has been ingrained in her identity since birth. According to the August 11th Politico article, “55 Things You Need To Know About Kamala Harris,” her name, Kamala, “means ‘lotus’, and is another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.” A line of passionate women precedes her: her grandmother was an advocate for birth-control awareness in India and her mother worked in the field of cancer research while raising Kamala and her sister, Maya, alone. Her family as a whole pursued activism; her grandfather fought against British rule in India and her parents participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This history of activism is likely what led her to protest the prohibition of children playing on the lawn in Montreal, Canada, her home during middle school and high school. Reflecting upon her background, it is not surprising that she pursued a career in law and rose to become California’s District Attorney. 

Harris’ career began in 1990 at Oakland’s Alameda County Prosecutor’s office as an assistant district attorney specializing in prosecuting defendants accused of sex crimes. She advanced to San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office in the mid-90s and later became the DA in 2004 after campaigning in the grassroots style of distributing fliers outside supermarkets. According to the July 29th, 2019 New Yorker article “Kamala Harris Makes Her Case,” “instead of a table, she brought along an ironing board—’cause, you see, an ironing board makes an incredible standing desk!” she sa[id].” This illustrates the core of her values as a prosecutor: to retain her identity as a fellow citizen, not an untouchable entity. As the District Attorney, she established her role as a trailblazer, becoming the first African American and female individual to hold the position. One of her principal doctrines lay in the opposition to the death penalty. She believed in sympathizing with defendants as members of her community, proclaiming to The New Yorker, “I knew the unilateral power prosecutors had with the stroke of a pen to make a decision about someone else’s life or death […] I knew that it made a difference to have the people making those decisions also be the ones who went to our church, had children in our schools, coached our Little League teams, and knew our neighborhoods.” 

In 2010, her passion for her community later drove her to pursue a punitive policy that addressed the high truancy levels by sentencing parents to jail time or fines. According to The New Yorker, the advancement of this program was one of her primary reasons for running for Attorney General of California in 2011 – a race which she would go on to narrowly win. In 2015, she attempted to address the issue of racial injustice with regards to law enforcement by adopting a system of body-cams and a training course in addressing implicit bias. According to MSN News’ “Kamala Harris Attorney General History, Explained”, “wearing the body camera was not mandatory for all local police officers in the state, only those working directly for Harris,” restricting the impact of the policy. 

Later in 2015, she announced her decision to run for Senate, followed by her taking office in January 2017. Her career as a prosecutor led her to serve on the Select Committee on Intelligence and on the Judiciary Committee. During her time in the Senate, she has received criticism for her intense interrogation style during hearings, particularly from Republicans. However, her career as a politician has only advanced, and she was among the Democratic Presidential candidates in 2019. Her exchange with Joe Biden over school busing in the 1970s at a Democratic debate was notable during her campaign. She claimed that his opposition to busing children across town to schools in more affluent neighborhoods was supportive of segregation, and that she was affected by it. According to the NY Times’ article “Kamala Harris: Berkeley Busing,” Harris believes that “school integration is one of the reasons she was able to become a senator.” Despite this point of contention, Harris eventually endorsed Biden in March 2020 and, in accordance with recent events, her support led to the partnership that is Biden-Harris.  

Reflecting upon Kamala Harris’ career is impossible without acknowledging the many firsts she’s accomplished for the African American and female communities. Her achievements can be distinguished by the fervor with which they were done. A woman of conscience, Kamala Harris was well aware of the impact her decisions had upon a great many people, and thus took every step with great care and an intention to create opportunity for others. Her mother always said, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last,” and, as is the nature of a trailblazer, she precedes many on the path she has forged.