U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D- California), the only black person on the second Democratic Presidential Primary stage, proved the importance of a term political scientists refer to as “descriptive representation.” This is the notion that elected representatives should share not just viewpoints, but also demographic characteristics in common with their constituencies. Harris, claiming the spotlight from her competitors, began with a story of the racial bias she experienced as a young girl just looking to make friends.
The candidate then broke new ground when she called out Joe Biden for his opposition to federally mandated school busing during the 1970s. Biden found himself embodying a group that frustrated even Dr. Martin Luther King; the good old boy club of white moderates who reached across the aisle in a spirit of compromise, but made deals that either ignored or directly harmed poor black and brown communities across America. A surprisingly unprepared Biden sought to evade Harris’ strong critique by asserting that he took the pragmatic position—letting the states and local municipalities decide on their own.
Whether or not Biden’s position could realistically have been more progressive at the time is a debate for historians. What Harris did was force a prominent centrist like Biden to be confronted, very publicly, with the local reality of past decisions made on civil rights and racial justice at the federal level. In stating that “on this subject it cannot be an intellectual debate amongst Democrats” and “the federal government must step in,” Harris channeled her experience as a member of the black community to demonstrate the importance of moral courage and the recognition that too much compromise sacrifices “the fierce urgency of now” that civil rights leaders declare is a must for progress to occur.
Now, however, the robust critiques about Harris’ tough-on-crime record as California attorney general undercut her stated commitments to racial justice. She also stated in the days following the debate that while she views federally mandated busing as having been necessary when she was a child, it should now be a last resort when localities fail to integrate. As such, while her debate performance shows the importance of descriptive representation, it has muddled the picture of whether or not Harris is a bold or moderate voice on issues of racial justice. A photo of the defiant-looking future senator on a T-shirt (“that little girl was me”) is neither a replacement for substantive policy nor for clear stances on the issues.
Many voters are hungry for bold ideas and plans. Time will tell whether or not Harris can deliver.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, holding a B.A. in Political Science. He is currently serving as the Civic Engagement Program coordinator at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.