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A Kamala Harris candidacy is a test, and not just for the candidate

2020 hopeful’s life story is the story of America, even if many don’t see it that way

Sen. Kamala Harris won’t just be confronting her Democratic rivals in her quest for the presidency, but also questions about her “exotic” identity that few other candidates face, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kamala Harris won’t just be confronting her Democratic rivals in her quest for the presidency, but also questions about her “exotic” identity that few other candidates face, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Of course, a reporter asked Kamala Harris how she would describe her identity. The California senator, a new entry into a crowded and growing Democratic field to challenge Donald Trump next year, answered simply, “I describe myself as a proud American.”

It’s a question no other candidate has been asked, and one that Harris will no doubt be asked again before the long slog to November 2020 is completed.

It’s not just her competitors Harris will be confronting in the months until then (or until her campaign comes to an end). It’s also questions like that one, understandable in the coverage of her historic quest. But it’s the extra scrutiny that can be exhausting for anyone just trying to live as herself or himself while being seen as an “other” by so many.

Being the daughter of two accomplished immigrants — a scientist mother from India and an economist father from Jamaica — is her reality. It’s also the story of America, “exotic” only to someone who doesn’t get around much. That question, let’s hope, has been asked and answered.

Harris’ political record is already being examined under a microscope. Her actions and decisions as a senator, California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney are part of what voters and anyone else can and should judge as they listen to the policies she says she would pursue as president.

That’s a good thing for every candidate for every office. Certainly, many Americans now wish the current president’s past dealings in business (domestic and foreign) and real estate had gotten more attention than his reality-star résumé and the ratings his rallies delivered.

Also watch: ‘They’ve become radicalized’ — Watch Trump’s response to Pelosi’s SOTU disinvite

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A matter of identity

Lawyer Harris has received some attention for her questioning as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially her exchange with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on campaign contacts with Russia. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” he said. “It makes me nervous.”

One wonders how Trump would fare debating an about-her-business woman of color. His dismissive bipartisan rhetoric for black female congresswomen such as Democrat Maxine Waters and Republican Mia Love has shown he’s not comfortable with the concept.

Consider that no one asked Trump about his identity, though his straight, white maleness was front, center and worn as a badge of honor during his campaign to follow two terms of the first African-American president of the United States. Trump built his base, in part, on his breathing life into the “birtherism” lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, while characterizing all African-Americans as living in dystopian hellholes. Later he would reference black and brown people from outside the U.S. as coming from countries described in a similar, though much more profane, way.

Members of the first black family in the White House were subjected to all sorts of conspiracy theory musings and questions about patriotism, with demands that Obama do more to solve all the country’s racial ills and criticism if he talked about race too much.

Let’s hope the politicians and pundits have learned a few lessons since then.

There is a certain irony that curbing legal and illegal immigration has become the signature, government-closing issue for Trump, a man with a mother from Scotland and grandfather with roots in southern Germany, whose current wife is an immigrant with parents who became citizens just last year through a family-unification policy derided as “chain migration” by the president.

But Trump pretty much gets a pass on that because his identity is taken for granted as the norm — even in 2019. “Identity politics” is a big part of his appeal, according to polls that show racial anxiety more than economic anxiety drove his electoral success. Yet the term is most often used to negatively tag the political aspirations of Americans who are not male, white, Christian or heterosexual.

Lessons to learn

There was special resonance when Harris announced her candidacy on the federal holiday to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was 47 years ago this week that Shirley Chisholm launched her campaign for president. The timing was important for her, Harris said, as it should be for all Americans since King and Chisholm were proud Americans who fought for justice for all.

Americans and many of the reporters covering Harris will get an education, perhaps, on the role of historically black colleges and universities, starting with her alma mater, Howard University in Washington, where she held a press conference this week.

Expect to hear more about the mission and values of black sororities when Harris is scheduled to speak Friday in Columbia, South Carolina, at the Pink Ice Gala fundraiser for the local chapter of the inclusive Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Harris has been a member since her college days.

And it will be interesting to see coverage of a campaign based in Baltimore, my home town, with an office in Oakland, California, cities in need of in-depth and nuanced coverage instead of generalized, tired tropes.

It won’t be news for the people of color who need a broader base of knowledge to survive or accomplish anything in this country while whites are seldom penalized on the way to the top in business, politics or society for being unaware or uninterested in the realities of many of their fellow citizens’ lives.

For a political journalist, the “more the merrier” will make covering the upcoming contentious presidential race very interesting. This diverse slate of Democratic hopefuls — the latest being Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana – might also see the beginning of looking at each of these proud Americans as individuals.

That would be a good place to start.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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