White liberalism, Kamala Harris, and the symbols of race and status

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As Kamala Harris prepares to accept the Democratic Party vice presidential nomination, it has been painful to watch Black women politicians feign excitement over the historic selection. They no doubt recognize that Harris is a complex symbol and standard-bearer for Black political accomplishment. And some may even view her as a throwback to an earlier time and image that Black women have challenged to affirm their own existence.

First, Harris’s selection revisits a stereotype of racial preference and social acceptance in America: fair skin, straight hair, a fluid racial background disconnected from the traditional Black experience, and an easy appeal to the inclusive sensibility of white liberals.

Second, the selection paints into a corner Black women leaders with more authentic experience. It forces them to embrace a historical first that undercuts their own natural beauty, culture and hard work to earn a place in the sun. At the same time, it allows Harris to ride on the coattails of the civil rights struggles and achievements. So, once again, the Black political class finds itself somewhat duped by its over-dependence on liberals; in fact, one could say that they are party to their own undoing. 

In these racially divisive times, the VP choice sent a not-so-subtle message to the Black folk: It expressed that Black lives matter to the Democratic Party elite, but that the elite may value those Blacks of light skin and untraditional background a little more. And it caters to an old social psychology of colorism and status in our culture — defined as the “slave mentality,” or the “colonial mind” in some aspects.

In 1917, Edward B. Reuter, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, explored such thinking in “The Superiority of the Mulatto.” The article published in the American Journal of Sociology documented the advantages of the light-skin class in American society. Reuter studied a population descended from the unions of Blacks and whites; in these times, however, the status can work for people with nontraditional racial backgrounds such as Harris as well.

Surely, some in the Black political class were crestfallen when the Biden campaign bypassed numerous women representing authentic Black communities? These included Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, Stacey Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and, to a lesser extent, former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. 

Even more, the talented women politicians were put in the position of runner-up contestants in a Miss America pageant. They had to stand in the figurative public spotlight with awkward smiles and applaud as media pundits crowned Harris with the rambling description as the “first African American, first Asian American, and first woman of color” vice presidential nominee.

Just as curious may have been the comments of pundits that Black girls now have a role model to emulate. Such statements, though well intentioned, tend to ignore the reality of colorism and the struggle of some dark-skinned girls to be confident in a white culture. Such angst has been explored in the documentary, “Dark Girls,” produced by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry in 2011.

As it regards political leverage and coalition, the nomination illustrated the ease with which the Democratic establishment can disregard the Black political class and manipulate Black women voters. It is an old story of whom to trust to speak for the group. Historically, white liberals have shown an affinity for politicians with a mixed racial heritage to represent the ordinary folk. In the 19th century, figures such as the biracial Frederick Douglass were elevated; in the 20th century it was fair-skinned NAACP leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.

In fact, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis were among the first to break through such barriers. They were dark-skinned leaders able to present the cause of their people to the liberal establishment. Barack Obama, raised by his white maternal family in Kansas, gained credibility by marrying Michelle. Her family story was rooted in the authentic experience of African Americans. Could Harris’s selection diminish the former first lady as a role model for dark-skinned girls, among others?

The Harris biography may be a difficult one for many in the Black community to embrace. While her father was an immigrant from Jamaica, the mindset of colorism in that society has been well-documented. Marcus Garvey, a dark-skinned Jamaican and Pan-African advocate, famously exposed its flawed emphasis on lightness. He called on people to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” — a phrase taken up by the reggae singer Bob Marley in “Redemption Song,” an ode to overcoming slavery. 

Harris’s father came to America to study and married an immigrant from India (also a former British colony with the problem of colorism). India’s culture placed at the bottom rank of society the Dalit caste, a population known for its African heritage. As an adult, Harris chose to marry a white man who appears to stay out of the political limelight.

To be clear, the right to free association and love must be protected; however, the symbols of race and status do have force in society. And symbols that may be embraced by white liberals as inclusive can be stinging to the sensitivities of the Black folk — which returns us to the question of Black political dependency on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. How many times must their interests be overlooked before they understand the imperative to shake loose from the dominance of one political wing and one political party?

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”

Tags 2020 presidential election Barack Obama Black women Colorism John Lewis Karen Bass race and society Val Demings

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