Sunday, December 29, 2019

Kamala Harris and the Complexity of Racial Identity Politics

On December 3, Senator Kamala Harris ended her bid to become the 2020 Democratic nominee for President.  Harris has been the most prominent and popular woman of color to be a major party presidential candidate in any election cycle [1].  Back in February 2019, shortly after she had announced her candidacy, I wrote about Harris’s diverse background and multiple identities.  I posed the question of whether she could employ those identities as effectively as Barack Obama did during his 2008 campaign and subsequent presidency.  I concluded by noting that “watching Kamala Harris over the next year may provide many lessons not only on racial identity politics, but also on success and progress in an increasingly diverse America.” 

Sadly, the lessons were mostly about challenges and divides rather than success and progress.  Harris and Obama both had to deal with racism, but Harris also had to confront the unique challenges that women of color, and particularly Black women, face as candidates for leadership positions.  Her campaign highlighted the sexist lens through which we judge such candidates—paralleling the gendered nature of Hillary Clinton’s failed bid in 2016.  Additionally, Harris’s experience illustrated tensions among the Black electorate, with its various cultural and generational divides.  Racial identity politics are often framed in a simplistic, “Black-and-White” manner, but Kamala Harris—even more than Barack Obama—shows how racial identity politics are more complicated and constantly evolving.

One of Barack Obama’s biggest challenges was to mitigate racial stereotypes in front of a national audience, much of which was initially skeptical of him.  But Obama was well-equipped for this challenge.  His background as the first Black Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review, among many other accomplishments, quelled most doubts about his intelligence. Obama carefully cultivated a non-threatening persona—rarely did he appear confrontational, lest White Americans and others perceive him as hostile and intimidating.  Instead, Obama exuded a dignified masculinity—he was smart, cool, assertive but not overbearing, and he was more relatable than one might expect from an Ivy League-educated law professor.  He speaking style was well-polished, “articulate”, and sometimes professorial—but with just enough fillers like “you know” to appear human and down-to-earth.  His references to Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and other pop culture icons made him seem hip and in touch with young people.  Obama was also a loyal, family man—an image buttressed by the strong presence of First Lady Michelle Obama, along with their daughters, Malia and Sasha. 

In this way, Obama presented himself as counterstereotypic: he defied every prominent negative stereotype of Black males and thus made himself electable. And as he aspired to become the first Black President—Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was inspirational, almost by default. Even so, Obama faced racism in numerous forms: the birtherism promoted by Donald Trump, accusations of being “uppity”, obstruction of his agenda, attempt to tarnish his legacy, and other types of disrespect [2].

But Kamala Harris had to deal with more than these racial stereotypes.  Thirty years ago, Professor Kimberlee Crenshaw devised the concept of intersectionality—a framework that focuses on the dual oppression faced by members of multiple marginalized groups: for example, Black women facing the combined oppression of racism and sexism.  Harris’s campaign embodied such intersectionality.  She had to demonstrate that she was competent and assertive, but without appearing overbearing and unlikeable—lest she suffer the fate that Hillary Clinton did in 2016.  While White male presidential candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders can actually reap rewards for displays of anger and passion, women and minority candidates are often punished just for displaying ambition and assertiveness.  These dilemmas were compounded for Harris because the media often portrays Black women in particular as irrationally aggressive.  Harris often employed her background as a prosecutor to ask sharp questions and give pointed responses, but viewed through a racist and sexist lens, these actions also served to reinforce the “angry Black woman” stereotype.  And unlike Obama, American gender norms did not afford Harris a way to avoid this stereotype and still be seen as a bold and assertive leader.

In their efforts to gain support from Black voters, Obama and Harris also both faced the dilemma of relating to African Americans.  Neither of them had African American parents, and both had their Blackness (or at least their “African American-ness”) questioned—something that would not happen to White candidates who are courting Black voters [3].  Obama and Harris had to deal with the complex and sometimes contentious relationship between African Americans and Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean—a divide that has gradually become more nationally visible.  During the 2000s, several academics pointed out that among Black students at elite universities, Black immigrants and their children are highly overrepresented compared to multigenerational African Americans [4].  This raised questions about whether affirmative action at elite universities was fair and just.  In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his well-known essay, “The Case for Reparations.”  Public discourse on reparations has increased significantly, to the point where the issue has come up in the 2020 Democratic nomination process; in fact, candidate Marianne Williamson largely based her platform on a call for reparations [5].  Also, groups such as American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) highlight not only the tremendous racial wealth gap rooted in slavery, but also the distinction between African Americans (many of whom have ancestors who were enslaved persons in America) and Black immigrants (who do not have such ancestors, even if they descend from enslaved persons elsewhere in the world). 

Within this milieu, the contrast between Obama and Harris is also revealing.  Obama’s mother was White and his father was Kenyan.  He was raised largely in Hawaii and Indonesia—places with very few African Americans.  In his twenties, Obama did work as a community organizer in predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, where he developed relationships with various African American leaders.  But Barack Obama’s strongest connection to African American communities was his wife, Michelle Obama.  She grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.  Both of her parents were descended from enslaved persons in South Carolina, and she had grown up with a keen awareness of her African American roots.  Through her strong, graceful, and elegant presence, Michelle Obama herself was inspirational.  She thus provided Barack with a foundation within African American communities that he may otherwise have lacked.

On the surface, Kamala Harris actually had more roots in African American communities than Obama.  She was born in Oakland, California—for many years the hub of activism for the Black Panther Party—and she lived in the Bay Area for much of her childhood.  Although they were not African American, Harris’s parents were both people of color and were civil rights activists in the 1960s.  Thus, they were more attuned to American racism than Obama’s parents.   As a child, Harris was part of the first group of students to desegregate Berkeley schools via a voluntary busing program.  She attended a Black Baptist Church while growing up (along with a Hindu Temple), in contrast to Obama (who did not do so until his adulthood).  Harris’s college-age experiences also exemplified her identity as an African American woman: she attended Howard University and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. 

In 2008, Harris had defended Obama when some raised questions about his authenticity.  But in 2019, she had to confront these issues in a more charged context—due to the rise of ADOS and developing discourse on reparations, affirmative action, and related issues.  ADOS and others questioned whether Kamala Harris could relate to the experiences of African Americans.  Her background as a prosecutor also worked against in her in African American communities, where the mass incarceration of Black men is a major concern.  And importantly, Harris did not have Michelle Obama to anchor her connection to these communities.  All of these challenges made it more difficult for Harris to gain a footing among African American voters.

Additionally, the 2020 Democratic nomination process illustrated the generational divide among Black voters, and it debunked the common belief that Black voters will simply prefer Black candidates.  Former Vice President Joe Biden has led the polls among Black voters by a large margin.  Biden’s support comes largely from older Black voters, but even among Black voters age 18-29, Senator Bernie Sanders is the leading candidate—in spite of his challenges connecting to Black communities.  Biden’s overall lead among Black voters has remained steady, in spite of criticisms of his record on racial issues, a series of racial gaffes that he has made, and repeated attempts by Harris and Senator Cory Booker to paint Biden as out of touch with Black voters. During the nationally televised Democratic primary debate on June 27, 2019, Harris confronted Biden on his opposition to court-ordered busing to achieve school desegregation back in the 1970s.  She highlighted her own experience with busing and asked for Biden to apologize for his position.  Right after the debate, Harris tweeted a picture of herself when she was a young girl, which humanized her and served to partially mitigate the “angry Black woman” image.  But while Harris received a temporary boost in the polls from this exchange, she faltered when asked whether she would now support court-ordered busing.  Biden’s record and position on busing are more complicated and nuanced than presented in the media, and he is well-respected in Black communities as a proponent of civil rights.  The exchange with Biden ultimately backfired for Harris [6].  In the next debate on July 31, Representative Tulsi Gabbard attacked Harris’s health care plan and her record as a prosecutor, and Harris appeared flustered by the criticism.  Her poll numbers soon went back down, and she did not recover.  Ultimately, although she had some prominent Black supporters, Harris did not fair particularly well among Black voters. 

There were other reasons for the demise of Harris’s campaign.  Barack Obama did not cement his support among Black voters until after he won the Iowa Caucuses, and Harris’s campaign did not last that long.  Moreover, in contrast to Obama, whose only serious competition was Hillary Clinton, Harris had over 20 competitors, including several candidates of color.  Thus, she could not garner the same amount of attention that Obama commanded.  Harris had to work harder to distinguish herself from the field, and she struggled to do so. 

More general problems also plagued Harris’s campaign.  She had trouble defining her vision, caught in between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.  Her changing position on health care exacerbated this dilemma.  Additionally, her demeanor during the debates was not always friendly—a perception augmented by the race and gender biases noted earlier.  Harking back to her days as a prosecutor, Harris sometimes came across as if she was lecturing or scolding the audience.  And she made some other mistakes.

But Kamala Harris was punished more for these types of mistakes than her White male colleagues were, and also more than Barack Obama was.  Her candidacy underscored the multifaceted nature of racial identity politics, showing how these are infused with sexist gender norms, and with cultural and generational divides.  And most significantly, it highlighted the difficult challenges that women of color—and especially Black women—face when pursuing their ambitions.


[1] There have been a handful of women of color candidates in prior election cycles, including Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, Carol Moseley Braun, Cynthia McKinney, and Lenora Fulani.  Additionally, Tulsi Gabbard is a woman of color candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

[2] Black commentators such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley also criticized Obama for failing to address issues that were important to Black communities.  Conversely, my mentor, the late Professor Derrick Bell, was sometimes critical of Obama but also highlighted the difficult task faced by the first Black President—the various directions he would be pulled, and the virtually impossible balancing act that he would have to play.  I will not speculate on which candidate Professor Bell would favor in the 2020 Democratic nomination process; however, I am quite sure he would agree with me (a relatively uncommon occurrence) that Kamala Harris faced an even more difficult balancing act.

[3] Although their Blackness is not questioned, White candidates do face criticism when they are unable to relate to Black communities.  During, 2020 Democratic nomination season, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders in particular have faced this dilemma.  Conversely, unlike Buttigieg and Sanders, Joe Biden has a long history of reaching out to Black voters and has been given more leeway.  Biden’s connection to Barack Obama has also helped him greatly in this regard.

[4] These include Harvard professors Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates, Indiana University law professor Kevin Brown, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Camille Charles, and Boston University School of Law Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig.

[5] In 2019, even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column in favor of reparations.

[6] Cory Booker did not have any more success in his attempts to win over Black voters from Biden.  For example, in the July 31, 2020, Biden and Booker had an exchange about their respective records on criminal justice issues.  Booker said to Biden, “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor[.]”  While some found this line to be clever, many found it to be trite, passé, and pandering.  Ultimately, the exchange did not benefit Booker.

Acknowledgement: I thank Professors Sonia Gipson Rankin and Stacy Hawkins for their helpful comments on this blog post.

December 29, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 20, 2019

Michael Vick, Robert Byrd, and the Case for Redemption

At the 2020 Pro Bowl, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick will be honored as one of the legends captains.  Vick’s selection has sparked controversy, because in 2007, he was convicted of operating a dog fighting ring.  Details about the ring revealed that many dogs were killed by Vick and his associates in extremely cruel fashion.  There have been several petitions, garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures, condemning the NFL and demanding that Vick not be honored. 

But his detractors act as if Michael Vick still supports dogfighting.  Vick has served his prison sentence, and beyond that, he has sought redemption.  He admitted that he was wrong and that dog fighting is a reprehensible activity.  Moreover, Vick became quite involved in the effort to eradicate dog fighting.  He has spoken out against it, donated money to animal rights organizations, and also advocated for the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act of 2011.  Representative Jim Moran, Co-chair of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, even called Vick “a ‘leader’ in the fight against animal cruelty.”   Honoring Michael Vick will be a statement against dogfighting, not for it.  Moreover, it will send the message that redemption for wrongdoing is possible and desirable.

Vick has brought an anti-dog fighting message to an audience who might not otherwise hear it.  The membership of most animal rights organizations is, by far, predominantly White.  People of color do care about animals, but we tend to prioritize issues that directly affect our communities and to devote our energy to movements like #BlackLivesMatter.  But by working with the Humane Society, Michael Vick has added another dimension to the animal rights movement.  He has reached many Black and Brown children who are from communities where dog fighting occurs commonly. 

Vick was one of those children.  He was exposed to dog fighting at a young age, and like many youth in all walks of life, he came to accept what he saw as normal.  In fact, dog fighting was common in the U.S. through much of the 19th and 20th century: the United Kennel Club was actually founded to organize pedigrees for dog-fighting.  Even today, unfortunately, dog fighting is legal in Japan, China, and some other countries.  And when Vick was growing up (and during my own lifetime), it was still legal in some U.S. states.  So Vick’s former behavior has to be viewed in context.  Nevertheless, through his advocacy over the past decade, Vick has probably saved more dogs from dying than he and his associates killed in the past.

There is also a broader historical context to consider here.  America has so many monuments and honors to people who owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy, promoted the oppression and genocide of Native Americans, and committed many other heinous acts.  What kind of message does it send to children when we can honor those who enslaved and lynched Black people, but we must shun those who killed dogs--even when they have repented? 

Are Black lives are worth less than dogs’ lives?  Throughout much of American history, White people and others viewed Black people as sub-human.  Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan existed to terrorize Black people.  And as recently as 2010, nine years ago, we had a U.S. Senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who had previously been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Ironically, Senator Byrd was one of Michael Vick’s most vocal critics in 2007, when Vick’s involvement with dog fighting was exposed.  Byrd famously stated on the Senate floor that he was “confident that the hottest places in hell are reserved for sick and brutal people who hold God’s creatures in such brutal and cruel contempt.”  Those are very strong words, and since Byrd passed away a few years later, we don’t know if he would have ever forgiven Michael Vick.

But like Michael Vick, Senator Byrd sought redemption for his own past actions.  Many years after he left the KKK, Byrd called his involvement in it “the greatest mistake I ever made.”  In his autobiography, Senator Byrd reflected:

I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions. ... I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened … [.]

Senator Byrd recognized that he could never fully make amends for his membership in the KKK, but he was going to try anyway.  While he was initially quite hostile to civil rights legislation, Byrd later changed his views.  He had filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but for the last three decades of his life, Byrd was one of the Senate’s most effective advocates for civil rights.  Because he was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history and held many leadership positions along the way, Byrd had a lot of influence on his colleagues.  Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy, noted that Byrd “was a master of the Senate Rules, and helped strategize passage of legislation that helped millions of Americans.” 

Just as Michael Vick was able to reach Black and Brown youth that PETA and the Humane Society could not, Robert Byrd could marshal his influence, knowledge, and his White male privilege to promote civil rights.  At the time of his death in 2010, Byrd had a 100 percent voting record on 33 issues that were deemed critical by the NAACP—a designation attained by less than 20 percent of Senators.  He supported hate crimes legislation and other civil rights bills, and he played a key role in the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act—forty years after he had originally opposed the Act.  And upon his death, the NAACP called Byrd "a champion for civil rights and liberties" and stated that he “came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda.”  

We can’t know Senator Byrd’s motivation.  He may have just wanted to improve his historical legacy, or he may have genuinely seen the immense error of his earlier beliefs.  It was probably some combination of both.  But whatever the case, because he sought redemption and tried to make amends, the nation’s leading civil rights organization forgave Senator Byrd and even honored him. 

There are many other examples of Black people forgiving heinous acts such as unjustified police shootings and even racist mass murders.  The perpetrators of these acts may not always have been deserving: some have not even repented.  But Vick has sought redemption and tried to make amends.  And just as the NAACP forgave and honored Senator Robert Byrd, we should extend forgiveness and let the NFL honor Michael Vick.

December 20, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Identity Politics is Failing Women in Legal Academia


Two universal truths about patriarchy: it’s global and it’s tenacious. As women in legal academia, we are not shielded from the consequences of this reality.

Starting from this premise, my contribution to this important (yet perennial) discussion on gender (in)equity in legal academia is framed around three points. First, formalistic identity politics grounded in immutable characteristics is failing our generation of women (and women of color in particular) in the legal profession, including in the academy.

Second, women who have managed to overcome the hurdles imposed by patriarchy to reach official leadership positions are as subject to institutional capture and conflicts of interest as their male counterparts. Third, the politics of civility in law schools is a patriarchal tool deployed to constrain women’s ability and willingness to radically reform existing systems of inequality.

Let’s start with the failure of formalistic identity politics. The reasoning that more women and more minorities in power will necessarily produce less sexism and less racism is flawed if the patriarchal systems are left in place. One need only look at formerly colonized countries whose social and political systems continue to perpetuate European white supremacy.

Lighter skin color is still represented in media as more beautiful than darker. Western civilizations and religions are still perceived as superior and more sophisticated.   Just as native rulers in the global south and east do not eliminate inferiority complexes deeply entrenched after centuries of white supremacy and European colonialism, increasing female (or racial minority) leaders does not eliminate patriarchy.

Absent purposeful dismantling of these oppressive systems, the change is limited to who implements patriarchy.

When women and racial minorities were either non-existent or miniscule in numbers at law schools, law firms, and law faculty, identity politics served a utilitarian purpose. In sharing the immutable characteristic of gender and race, members of categorically marginalized groups had a common interest in reforming or even destroying existing systems under-paying, demoting, or outright excluding them. Their shared adverse experiences on account of their status as women, people of color, or women of color galvanized them to unite in pursuit of change in their collective interests.  

As direct losers in the male and white dominated status quo, their tolerance for slow incremental change was low. These women’s daily lived experiences were proof that the patriarchal foundation of the system needed to be challenged head on, not merely tinkered with around the edges. Increasing the number of women (and minorities) in the legal academy was a necessary step toward those ends.

Due to concerted advocacy over decades, the number of women law students, faculty, and administrators gradually increased. In 2018, women comprised 52% of law students. On law faculties, women are estimated to be between 32% to 38% with women of color comprising less than 10%.  In 2013 when the latest data was collected, 36% of tenure-track and tenured professors were women, with the number slowly rising since then. In 2019, approximately 35% of law deans are women.

However, over 70% of legal research and writing professors are women, most of whom do not have tenure-track or tenured positions and are paid significantly less than tenure track and tenured (male and female) law professors.  Hence simply putting women in high status positions is no guarantee the gender inequity in pay, promotion, and pedagogy will disappear.

The rise of women into high status tenured and tenure track positions (albeit at a painstakingly slow rate) thus begs the questions: why are so many women still concentrated in non-tenured, lower pay legal research and writing jobs?  Why do women law professors earn less on average than male law professors? Why is legal academia experiencing the same phenomena as other industries where positions comprised disproportionately of women become low status and lower paying, including the same jobs previously occupied by men?

More to the point, has the rise in numbers and status of women within the legal academy produced the systemic changes anticipated by our predecessors whose identity politics strategy for change centered around advocating for more women on law faculty and leadership?


To read the full article forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education (Fall 2019), click here.


December 11, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)