When Barack Obama was elected president, some said it was the end of racism. That was false, but it did put an end to one thing, the belief that a black man could not be elected president. The point wasn’t that he was elected because he was black, but that he wasn’t not elected because he was black. No longer was race a preclusive factor.
But what about gender? When Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, unquestionably the most unfit, unqualified, candidate for the presidency since Andrew Jackson (and likely ever), many feminists argued that it was because she was a woman. In fairness, Clinton played the gender card, from pantsuit nation to announcing during the debates that she was the candidate for women. Unfortunately, the job was for the presidency of the United States, not the presidency of the women of the United States.
If race was no longer preclusive, then Kamala Harris was the candidate who checked the identitarian boxes for the progressive left this time around. She served in offices, up to her twelve minutes in the Senate, so she had a resume for higher office even if her tenure consisted of a mere twelve years from line prosecutor to smirking presidential candidate. But she had something no other candidate had: she was a black woman.
It’s not as if one could pluck any random black woman off the street and put her into the White House, but then, it’s not as if there would be any excuse not to put a black woman with a political pedigree into the White House either. Unless, of course, it was because America wasn’t ready for a black female president.
There are many people for whom identity matters. And to be honest, i would like to see woman elected, a black woman elected, for the sake of our ability to move beyond the question of whether anyone would be precluded from being elected president based on race, gender. But then, the assumption underlying the candidacy of Kamala Harris was that race and gender made her the perfect candidate for this election.
Just as California is so often viewed from afar as either glittering paradise or dystopian disaster, so Kamala Harris was crowned as the perfect Democrat for 2020.
From her roots through her rise, Ms. Harris’s trajectory reflects touchstones of California. Her parents emigrated from India and Jamaica, drawn like so many to the world-class public university at Berkeley, where they became active in the civil rights movement. Ms. Harris was born in October 1964, the same month as the Free Speech Movement. After college in the East, she started law school in San Francisco in the fall when Californians overwhelmingly adopted English as the state’s official language. She entered politics amid the anti-immigrant fervor of Proposition 187 and came of age in the first large state where whites became a minority.
Harris checked the boxes. Against Darth Cheeto, what sort of racist, sexist nation wouldn’t elect this black woman? And to the young, simplistic and passionate, nothing was more important than Harris’ checking the race and gender boxes.
Indeed, when Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, ran for Queens County District Attorney, her foremost, if not only, argument for her election was that she was a “queer Latina.” That was supposedly sufficient to make the case, because if one was a “queer Latina,” what other qualifications could one need? Didn’t that say it all? Wasn’t that enough? She lost, but it was close.
The consideration of race and gender in elections, in employment, in friendships, is wrong. It’s based on invidious discrimination, the use of an irrelevant factor to distinguish people. But more importantly, it’s counterproductive, as it removes the potentially best qualified person from the mix. Foreclosing consideration of a person because of their race or gender is absurd, as there can be no rational reason to not seek the broadest universe of people from which to select the best and most qualified person. To remove anyone from consideration for an irrelevant reason is unjustifiable and, well, foolish.
But that’s the elimination of race and gender as a preclusive factor. Whether it’s the job of president or the job of coder, the job should go to the best person for the job so that the best person can perform the best job. That Kamala Harris was a black woman should not, under any circumstances, impair her consideration or electability for the office of president. Her problem was that, black woman or not, she was still Kamala Harris.
Sure, there are some, perhaps many, for whom identity means all. They would vote for a rock if it had a vagina, just because that’s all they care about. For many these days, voting for someone who “looks like them” has become the rage, not necessarily to suggest they’re the best qualified as that is secondary to identity. For these people, Kamala Harris’ dropping out of the race proves that we remain a racist and sexist country, for it we weren’t, then we would vote race and gender and be done with it.
But there were polls, and Harris, despite her race and gender, couldn’t muster the support necessary to stay in the game. California didn’t support her. Black and brown people didn’t support her. America didn’t support her. Neither billionaires nor the 99% supported her. It wasn’t that she was a black woman.
Her carefully crafted image crumbled under the scrutiny of a national campaign. The bright beacon of hope in a dismal time dissolved into sound bites and bumper sticker slogans. “Justice is on the ballot.” “Dude gotta go.”
Being a black woman isn’t enough. There will be a female president. There will be a black woman sitting in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk. It will happen because being a black woman will not preclude America from electing that person to that office. But not until the black woman is also the candidate who wins the support of America. That’s as it should be.