Kamala Harris: The existential threat to Donald Trump
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
The world knows by now that Kamala Devi Harris, the junior senator from California and number two at the top of the Democrats’ electoral ticket this election cycle, was born in October 1964 to a Jamaican father and a Tamil Nadu mother. Both were immigrants and both were PhDs.
Her babyhood was spent being taken to anti-racist and anti-war demos. Her parents divorced and she and her younger sister, Maya, were raised by her mother. As a youth, Harris attended both Christian churches and Hindu temples. She went to arguably the greatest of what are known as the ‘historically black universities’ – these are the institutions set up in the 19th century to educate newly-emancipated African Americans. That university is Howard, in Washington DC, where she became a member of one of the most powerful sororities in Black America: Alpha Kappa Alpha. Her husband is California lawyer, Doug Emhoff, born a week before her. He is white.
In one of the most fiery moments in the Democrat nomination debates, when she was seeking the top job, Harris attacked her now running mate, Joe Biden, on the issue of ‘bussing’ – the practice of transporting students to schools in different neighbourhoods in an effort to address racial segregation.
She accused her then rival of – in his earlier career – supporting segregationist senators and opposing bussing. It was an issue close to her heart as she had been bussed to school every day, as public schools in California were integrated in the 1970s. It was early in that decade that the now 77-year-old Biden was first elected as a senator.
The exchange in that debate revealed a great deal about the two of them, and also underlined something about Harris: she is 100% ‘Generation Jones’.
This is the social cohort squeezed between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. And she is its sole representative in this race for the White House. Mike Pence – born only five years before Harris – might qualify on some technical definition of Gen Jones, but in every meaningful sense he is a Boomer, like his boss, Trump.
I too am a Boomer. We African American Boomers grew up after the Second World War, with veteran fathers who had suffered racial segregation in the armed forces of the United States even as they had fought America’s enemies. They had returned angry young men, full of the new music, bebop – which was a revolution against conventional, white-dominated jazz – and a demand for change. Big, fat systemic change.
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Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer and later to be the first African American Supreme Court Justice, led the charge to prove in court that the doctrine “separate but equal” was unconstitutional on its face. This led the way to the Civil Rights Movement, which my generation grew up watching on television and which we became a part of in our teens and early adulthood.
The Vietnam War, police brutality and the fight to identify ourselves led us to create ‘Black Power’, the Black Panthers and our motto, ‘Black is Beautiful’. It was all about being that and if you could not get with that programme, you were out of the loop and called names to boot.
But while we teens were changing our hair to Afros, Kamalas and Baracks were born. Born of one black parent and one not black parent. They identified as black, looked it and talked it and walked it – but they were also comfortable in a world in which we black Baby Boomers were not: the white world.
This is one of the markers that indicates to me that Harris is not Black Boomer, but Generation Jones.
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The phrase is possibly better known in the US than the UK. Its members are sometimes called the ‘Lost Generation’ – born between the noisier Boomers and Gen Xers. Barack Obama – three years older than Harris – is considered to be the exemplar. But I see him as late Baby Boomer: he married and raised his children within the community. This translated out as “one of us”. Safe.
Even though in the 1980s, Obama was a community organiser not far from the Southside Chicago neighbourhood that I grew up in, he never actually lived the experience of those from that area. This gave him a kind of aura, the sense that he lacked the chip on his shoulder that my generation is perceived to have. But he was safe.
Harris has that aura, and on the surface she looks safe. After university, she conquered the political circles of San Francisco, having qualified for the California bar, and rose to become the first black woman attorney general and, later, the first black woman senator from California. Progressive critics labelled her a “cop”, which is almost as bad as it gets if you are a woman of colour, especially a black woman. Obama was never a “cop”. He would not have wanted to be that.
But Harris accepted that label and kept going. During last week’s vice-presidential debate, when Mike Pence attempted to interrupt her in the tone of a friendly doctor talking to his raving patient, she said firmly: “I’m speaking.” Which swiftly became an internet hashtag.
Despite Harris’ attacks on him during that early Democrat debate, Biden turned to her, as his choice for vice president, partly because of her friendship with his late son, Beau.
The two – Harris and Beau Biden – had served as attorneys general of their respective states in the first half of the last decade. They worked together on various causes and had a closeness. That closeness – which my generation would have had to explain to the black community – was normal for her.
Another thing that marks out Gen Joneses, some say, is a sort of ‘everyman’ quality. They are said to have been born with the optimism, or desire for change, of the Boomers, but to have seen how long real change actually takes, their optimism more quickly leading to pragmatism. Gen Jones people live in the real world.
But for me, one of the defining characteristics of Gen Jones – born, most suggest, from as early as 1954 until, all agree, 1965 – is a love of Prince, the singer – born, Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 .
I am friends with a major cultural figure; as straight on the outside as can be. But he is a Prince devotee, an archivist on all things Prince and a killer expert on the Purple One’s B-sides. In this he is 100% Generation Jones.
It is said that when news reached the world that His Purple Majesty had been found dead in his lift at Paisley Park in April, 2016, it hit Kamala Harris hard. Some say that she held a kind of wake, dancing to his tunes, remembering him. Many may see this as an affectation but actually this is a marker of the true Gen Jones.
Exactly what does Prince stand for, a Boomer might ask. Answer: nothing but his music. He sang and preached ambiguity; a crossing of boundaries. A master of African American music forms, he was also a great rock guitarist. His solo turn at the induction of the late George Harrison in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, onstage with rock guitar gods like Tom Petty, with Paul McCartney behind him on piano, is an epic example of why he matters to the likes of Harris.
Like him, she is at ease at crossing the line; shape-shifting; being more than one thing; self-correcting in full view. And being not quite perfect. We African American Baby Boomers had to be consistent and correct. African American Generation Jones does not. So she criticised Biden. And accepted his invitation to join him on the ticket. Yesterday is done. There is today and work to do.
The elevation of Kamala Harris to be the vice presidential candidate for a major political party is an existential threat to Donald Trump, no matter the outcome of the election. She is the American Dream to his American Nightmare, the worst successor to him that he could imagine: the child of immigrants who self-identifies as a black woman. In achieving this, Kamala Devi Harris has won. And so have the Democrats.
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