Friday, August 14, 2020

Harris, Obama, and Race in America

Joe Biden is nothing if not predictable, and for VP on his ticket he picked the person I and many, many others predicted he would. My eldest son asked me how I "knew." Of course I did not know, and might have been wrong, but I thought that 1) Biden was not going to pick an interesting newcomer because his whole strategy is about playing it safe, and 2) he probably sees his main vulnerability vs. Trump on the issues of riots and defunding the police. As a former "tough" prosecutor, Harris is going to be hard to bait over being soft on crime or hating cops. And just by not being white she neutralizes a lot of potential criticism from the left.

Which gets me to one of the two things I want to bring up, the weird way race plays into American politics. We have two kinds of politics: left-right politics over economic issues, environmental issues, crime and so on; and race. We sometimes like to pretend that these are the same, that support for racial equality is just another part of an agenda for liberation and equality writ large, or contra-wise part of government overreach, social engineering, and a hatred of real excellence. And there are many people who fuse all of these positions. But in practice race politics and general left-right politics are not at all the same thing. You can see this most clearly in the career of Barack Obama, who was honestly a quite conservative person. He didn't advocate for gay marriage until the country was through "evolving," he kept trying to cut a budget deal with Republicans that would slash the deficit, etc. But because he was black and prone to rhetorical flights of fancy about "change," many people on the left and the right saw him a a far more radical figure than he was. On the left some people had the weird notion that he was a revolutionary and professed themselves bitterly disappointed in his presidency, whereas on the right many invested him with all their fears about race war, socialism, and the government taking everyone's guns – this last about a man who consistently got an F from the Brady Campaign for his indifference to gun issues. I agree with Andrew Sullivan that Obama was more like a moderate Republican than a left-wing radical, and I think the main failings of his presidency all have to do with his constant pursuit of a middle way. But getting most Americans to talk sensibly about his actual policies seems impossible.  

Kamala Harris strikes me as very much like Obama in this way. She is not at all radical, and is in fact too conservative for me on some of the issues I care about the most: environmental concerns, police violence, prosecutorial overreach, fondness for foreign wars. But she gets support from some radicals by virtue of being a woman of color who both lives and fights for racial and gender equality.

Another thing Harris shares with Obama is a complex racial background. Both are the children of immigrants, not the descendants of slaves. Both grew up mixed-race in places (Hawaii for Obama, Berkeley and Montreal for Harris) where the racial divide was not particularly important. Both of them could have proclaimed themselves "post racial" and set about making race as unimportant in their lives as possible. Instead they both made a conscious decision at a key moment in their lives to be Black. For Obama this was after law school when he moved to Chicago, became a community activist, and joined a black church, eventually entering politics. For Harris it came when she chose to attend Howard University in DC, pledge a black sorority, and then enter politics as a black candidate. These days when she is challenged for not really being black (which happens frequently) she points to her time at Howard as a key experience in her life.

Anyway I wonder what the prominence of Harris and Obama, two people who have in their lives slid in and out of African American culture, says about race in America. Is it just a matter of being black enough to get black support but not so black as to threaten white people? Was their experience influenced enough by race to make them into activists, but not enough to turn them against the dominant culture and the political process? Or is it something in their own psychology, some sort of insider-outsider dichotomy, that drives them to reach for the top? (Remember, readers, that I think all presidents are crazy, and that I consider wanting to be president to be a sort of mental illness.)

I also think the wave of non-European immigrants over the past 40 years has been hugely important in changing race relations in America. I think the entry of millions of people who are not white but also not enmeshed in the endless trench warfare between black and white America has shifted the dynamic and pointed the way to a much better future. It will be much easier to achieve racial equity in an America with four big racial groups, none dominant, than under the old demographic regime of 85% white - 15% black.


Shadow said...

I laughed because I consider Harris "New." Little experience at the federal level compared to Rice or Warren. And I thought she performed poorly campaigning for the Dems' nomination.

On an aside, I'm hearing what I previously heard when John Edwards was Kerry's choice: "Oh, he's such a great attorney. I can't wait until he gets to question Cheney at the debate." Cheney left Edwards in a pile of bones on the debate floor like Tulsi left Harris in a pile of bones on the debate floor. Debates are not courtrooms. You don't get to control your debate opponent like you do a witness in a courtroom, and prosecutors and defense attorneys are not used to their witnesses attacking or maligning them or answering questions they weren't expecting from moderators.

Having said that, this is all about Trump, so I don't think it matters who Biden chose. This is his to lose. Unfortunately, he is quite capable of doing just that. Also, Harris will be up against Pence not Cheney. Cheney had this way about him that made him look like the experienced CEO putting an inexperienced, young executive in his place. And he could be mean without ever coming off as mean. Pence can't do that. Most people can't do that.

David said...

Cheney was ruthless, domineering, and cruel, like a First World War general calmly sending the third wave straight into the machine guns.

I'm very glad Biden didn't pick Rice or Warren. Warren is nobody's number two--which is to her credit, but would make her a terrible VP (I'd also rather have her in the Senate--one of Obama's biggest missteps, I think, was removing too many bright Dem stars from the Senate). Rice is too close to the Clintons, and a genuine "problem from hell" liberal interventionist in a way that I very much doubt Harris is. Rice also had no electoral experience, to my knowledge.

Shadow said...

Exactly why Cheney left a lump on the debate floor that used to be Edwards.

Very true about Warren. As to Rice, I'm happier with someone as VP who has no electoral experience but plenty of experience in high profile, high pressure federal jobs than I am with someone with the opposite qualifications. But the interventionist tendency gives me pause.