Oakland native and Berkeley professor Brandi Thompson Summers tackles the contradictions wrapped up in Harris’ nomination.
Mark Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Mark Steiner. Good to have you with us. As we all know by now, Joe Biden has made his choice, and it’s a complicated one for progressives especially. Kamala Harris evokes a lot of response in people and yawns as well. Her past as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General were mixed, with many feeling her tough-on-crime stances outweighed her restorative practices. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, she sounds like she’s part of BLM. This is significant, though. She could be the first woman of color, first Asian American, first Black American to become Vice President, and with the growing power of progressive movement within the Democrats, this is an important step. It’s not a minor issue.
Some, like Jeet Heer, who writes for The Nation magazine, wrote this. He said, “Perhaps the best hope that America has is that the ambition and flexibility of a Biden-Harris team will ensure that they will yield to popular pressures they almost certainly will face,” and we’ll see if that’s true. Others think she’s proven much less and has not proven her to be a progressive voice and that they can’t support her.
Well, what is reality about what we’re facing with Trump, and where will this take us? We welcome now to The Real News for the first time Dr. Brandi Thompson Summers, who is Assistant Professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and grew up in Oakland. Her book is Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City, and she’s also working on a new book now that’ll be coming out in the spring, I think, and joins us here at The Real News. Dr. Summers, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Thank you so much, Mark.
Mark Steiner: Talk to us first as a Californian, as an Oaklander, as someone who’s experienced, with others, her as DA and as Attorney General. What were your initial thoughts when you saw that she was nominated?
Brandi Thompson Summers: My initial thoughts? So, again, thank you for having me on today.
Mark Steiner: My pleasure.
Brandi Thompson Summers: It’s not only this connection to Oakland, but also Berkeley and thinking about my family lived in San Francisco. They migrated from Louisiana to San Francisco, so there’s a lot of connections, thinking about Kamala Harris. My initial reaction, I wasn’t surprised. I think that there’s a way in which the Biden group, his team, is looking to hope that representation means a whole lot to a lot of people. So to have this first woman of color, specifically identifying as a Black woman of color, but also Black and Indian woman of color, is something that’s very significant and really is a nod to the work that a lot of Black women and other women of color have done in terms of putting really important issues to the fore.
For me, I think I have been skeptical generally of the Biden campaign, but then also seeing the ways in which Kamala has … like you said at the outset, that she’s had some policies that particularly are troubling for Black communities, specifically for working class and poor Black people in San Francisco. So I’m curious to kind of imagine how they intend to first attack Trump, but then, on the other hand, if they’re successful, then what happens once they win an election? I’m still unclear as to what it means in terms of our future.
I mean, we think about the protests that are happening worldwide. It’s not just the United States. It’s certainly worldwide. Thinking about Black Lives Matter and the political climate that’s happening right now really requires us to think beyond representation and think more so in terms of … I’ll say, for example, she’s focused a lot on attacking crime, right? But it really hasn’t seemed to attack criminalization. So if we shift the conversation to focusing on why different populations are criminalized rather than be victims or perpetuators of crime, then that might be shifting kind of this conversation to a different lens, hopefully.
Mark Steiner: Well, I was thinking about her record, which a lot of progressives are really focused in a very serious way around her record as both Attorney General and as the District Attorney for San Francisco.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Yes.
Mark Steiner: They raise cases like the Larsen case, Danny Larsen’s case, which people thought was a total travesty. He was being set up by the police, and she wouldn’t let him out of prison and kept prosecuting him. There are other cases and how she was criticized by judges for some of that behavior. Even though she fought against the death penalty for someone who killed a police officer, instead, she was, again, putting people in jail for life for minor crimes after three strikes. She really, as a result of her work, put a lot of black and Mexican American and other people of color in prison in California for crimes they probably should not have been in jail for, that she could have done something different. She could have been the progressive voice, but wasn’t. So what does that say to America? What does it say to the Black community, to communities of color in this country that are terrified of Trump on the one hand, but are skeptical? Well, where do you think that politics lives?
Brandi Thompson Summers: Well, I mean, I think it’s really complicated. So on the one hand, she’s flip-flopped on a number of issues. So if we think about the legalization of marijuana, first, she was against it. Then she was in support, and Biden hasn’t come around yet in terms of supporting legalization. But then there are others who are touting her progressive record in terms of thinking about the $25 billion settlement against Wells Fargo and other institutions after the Great Recession, right, how that was a huge feat, but then, at the same, she didn’t prosecute One West Bank for the foreclosure violations.
So it seems as though there are steps in the right direction, and then there’s some kind of intractable move back. I think for a lot of people … Oh, and we can’t forget the truancy laws, right? [crosstalk 00:06:16].
Mark Steiner: Right, right.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Right? So mostly Black and brown mothers were essentially cited, intentionally arrested for their children not going to school. So people have long memories, especially in terms of fear that’s been evoked, the criminalization, surveillance, the policing that has happened under these conditions. But then I think right now, as she’s being attacked from the left, as “Kamala is a cop,” right? We we’ve seen that happen, and it’s probably going to come back in true form now, but her claims that she’s spent her career trying to reform criminal justice and reform incarceration, it rings hollow, I think, for a lot of people. It’s difficult to think about this as a progressive move when, in reality, it seems more of an outdated way of attacking, again, crime, rather than criminalization.
So I think with the last few months, these crises that are happening concurrently, the system and its way that we’ve kind of existed has been challenged by more progressive Black activism. So for those people, I think they’re now seeing that there are other options, that you don’t necessarily have to go with someone who’s a corporatist or who might make some movement in terms of reform, but not really interested in abolishing the systems that are keeping them oppressed.
Mark Steiner: So I was thinking about this election in terms of where she stands, and people like Jeet Heer, who I’ve interviewed a number of times from The Nation, and when he said that … There are a couple of different views here. One is that what Jeet would point out would be saying that Kamala Harris can be pushed to the left by movements. It makes me think of the election of 1860, when abolitionists, many of them reluctantly, backed Abraham Lincoln, but were able to push him once he got into office and push him further. Some people argue that the Left [inaudible 00:08:15] the Progressive Movement can do that and she would mold herself to that. Others would argue, looking at people who finance her campaign, that she would be very close to the corporate elite, and that’s where she’ll live.
So this is an election where people are really torn about that. So in the process of the election, we’ll have to weigh where we are and what all this means. I mean, I think it’s a very complex thing, and it seems we’ve also got a moment now where I’ve been reading a lot of blogs by Black conservatives last night. The line is going to go out there, “Kamala Harris is not really black.”
Brandi Thompson Summers: Ah, okay.
Mark Steiner: I’ve seen that in five different blogs, from five African American conservatives who are friends, who I read their stuff. I said, “Oh,” and I write back, “What are you talking about? Does that mean my children aren’t Black? What do you mean?” So I wrote them that stuff back. Then, on the other hand, you’re also seeing that Republicans are not going to use her prosecuting and putting people of color in prison as a wedge, even though they were part of it as well. So I can see a real complex political battle taking place between now and November.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Absolutely. I mean, I think the argument that she can be pushed or at least she can push and hold Joe Biden in particular accountable for different measures that he’s had in the past, if we’re thinking about ’94, if we’re thinking about the Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas hearings and the other areas where he’s … I mean, we can go down a laundry list of reasons why there’s been some critiques, a lot of critiques of Biden from the Left and progressive people. But I think her record is being someone who’s supported neoliberal, public-private partnerships, even in terms of support services and jobs for people in California. It’s difficult to kind of see those solutions as being pushed further left or becoming more progressive, if you have a particular ideology in ways that can help people.
So I think there were similar arguments made about President Obama, that there’d be a possibility that he could move people to a more progressive space, but for so many, that wasn’t necessarily the case, or at least it didn’t meet out that way. But certainly she is going to and she has received unbelievable and unprecedented sexist and racist commentary about who she is, about her record. I did see some conservative, I can’t recall who it was, but he made an argument, and maybe it was even Dinesh D’Souza, was talking about how because, “Well, she’s not African-American, because her father is Jamaican,” and that not recognizing how Jamaica became Black in terms of … There was no recognition that there were slaves in Jamaica, and therefore she has no connection to slavery.
So those types of arguments to diminish her identity I think is probably their attempt to play into kind of these questions of diversity and culture and multiculturalism. But I think a lot of people have and continue to have and are fighting against the concept of identity politics. So she’s got to fight so many different battles, and I think that’s the problem that’s going to be really complicated. Then at the same time, there’s the question of who is this ticket trying to appeal? Are you trying to get more people to vote, or are you trying to sway voters who were going for Trump or who were on the fence to now go for this ticket? I’m concerned that let’s say Trump is doing the dog whistling right now, talking about soccer moms or suburban moms. My concern is that with white women, middle class white women, educated or not, that they’re not necessarily going to be swayed to support this ticket and instead might continue, because they did previously vote for Trump.
Mark Steiner: Right. You can already see some of the racist response to the way Senator Kamala Harris interrogates people and pushes hard, whether she did it in debate with Biden, which she does inside the committee, and so you, A, get the misogynist thing about being too tough as a woman-
Brandi Thompson Summers: Sure.
Mark Steiner: … and you get the racist, misogynist combination of a Black woman actually getting in the face of somebody white and telling him something in a very pointed way.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Absolutely.
Mark Steiner: So those are some of the kind of almost unconscious, subconscious, and sometimes conscious ways that people respond to Black women, and that’s going to be part of this as well.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Absolutely. I think what we’re also seeing is the complexity of Blackness and that she can be a Black woman and still have an Indian mother, right? But she can inhabit both of those identities at the same time, multiple identities at the same time. I think that’s what’s troubling for a lot of people, is that they don’t understand that. So their attacks will be on her as a Black woman, despite the fact that she recognizes her cultural upbringing or ways and what she was really exposed to so many different ways of living, ways of seeing, ways of understanding the world. So I think that’s what oftentimes we have to contend with generally, and now we’re going to see this on the political stage in a much brighter light. I’m just not certain what change that’s going to enact.
We’re definitely, again, seeing a lot of excitement around the concept of diversity or, again, multiculturalism. It’s just we’ll really have to reckon with what that’s going to mean for our political landscape and what we do for now. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others has really shifted the terrain, or at least it’s opened some people’s eyes up. For the rest of us, we knew this was going on, right, before a lot of others, with the combination of us recognizing the ways that the coronavirus or COVID-19 is disproportionately killing, decimating Black and brown communities. It’s those things together that are requiring us to think differently about how we want to think about the future.
Mark Steiner: So I wonder, also, I think it was Professor Larson in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, as soon as she was nominated, said that Kamala Harris has to break with her past and come clean. That, to me, is a really interesting kind of push people are going to make. So let’s talk about that for a moment. I mean, her record as prosecutor, does she have to break with the past and come clean and really kind of wrestle with what she did then in an honest way, which she hasn’t already done? For many people, her record was problematic. As we’re weighing where to go, as with many people who just like her because they like her or what she stands for, but people do not like what she did in the past. Does she have to break and come clean?
Brandi Thompson Summers: I think that’s a really interesting way to phrase it, because part of it is we do … If we think about politics that we think about our political leadership, we do … and we think about just humans, right? We do have to give people the room and the space to change. We have to give them the room and the space to grow. So we can’t necessarily assume that if she believed something at point A, that she’s necessarily, without any additional information, knowledge, experience, going to change her mind in point B. We do have to provide that grace.
At the same time, I think it becomes challenging to understand how someone can change when, let’s say, their particular stance on views was similar. So let’s say last month, she made a claim about the death penalty, or last month, she made a claim about marijuana. I’m not saying she did, but it’s going to be difficult for us to believe that that shift is going to happen once the nomination has come in.
So I think if we start to look at other examples, like I think earlier referencing the squad, right, in Congress, those women of color who are really kind of pushing for more progressive reform and change, not just reform. I think that might be the crux, that with Senator Harris, it’s going to be she might have to make about-faces. She can’t do gradual shifts. If she really wants to show people that she does want a different way of living, if she does want to convince people that she sees what’s going on and wants to reflect that in the policy that she’s promoting, then she’s going to have to completely break from her past in a lot of ways.
I don’t know. American politics are like theatre. So it’s difficult to know whether you can believe someone or whether you can kind of just be carried on by the hope and thinking about the future as something that’s possible and limitless, right? Ultimately, I know for really astute voters who are doing a lot of the work in terms of research and also kind of paying attention to what’s gone on historically, they realize that this particular candidacy will not get us free. So what we have to do is understand what it’s going to take to get us free or if we just want to change what’s going on, because the empire is not going to fall based on this run. We’re going to have to really understand what our desires are and limitations in order to kind of see them take on this leadership role.
Mark Steiner: That’s really powerfully said. That’s an interesting analysis. Let me conclude with this. I’m curious. As someone who up in Oakland and lives there, in the Bay Area now, I’m curious if you can give us a sense of the tenor on the ground. I’m very interested, especially in the Black community in the Bay Area, especially in the Mexican American community in the Bay Area, what is that sense of Kamala Harris and the past and the present? Do you have a feel or an even deeper understanding of what’s really going on?
Brandi Thompson Summers: So I moved here. I moved back here last year, and I recall even when I was living in Washington, DC, when she was running for Senate, when she was running for AG, I remember all of the different points in time where there were parties. There were celebrations when she’d win. There was a groundswell-ing of support for her, especially from, I’d say, upper middle class Black supporters. So there’s a way in which she’s always had the support of a more elite class of Black people, particularly in the state. At the same time, I think that representation still matters, and so for even working class and poor people of color, to see this woman, this black woman, black and Indian woman be a first in so many different areas of her life, it’s meaningful.
So on the one hand, I think on the ground, this is the challenge of still sheltering in place and having to quarantine, that you actually can’t walk the streets and really see how people are taking it in. But I think just in terms of reading, having different conversations with people, there’s excitement on the one hand, but then at the same time, I think there’s fatigue. So people are tired. People are sick. People have lost their jobs. People are putting their lives at danger because they might be essential workers. So I don’t know that they’re feeling the same kind of excitement that they would have two and three years ago, when everything seemed better.
After the Great Recession, there’s just been this real shift in the Bay Area, and it feels different. It’s affective. It’s, it’s a different sense, a different tone here. So I think, again, the excitement around having these firsts happen doesn’t seem to have the same kind of impact as it might have years before, before people were losing their homes, before people were being displaced and dispossessed. We’re seeing more excitement and fervor around the Moms for Housing activism than I think more of the political theatre that’s occurring on the national stage.
Mark Steiner: This has been a fascinating conversation. I’m glad that our friend [inaudible 00:20:44] introduced us and you joined us here on The Real News Network. It was a pleasure to have you with us today. We’ve been talking with Dr. Brandi Thompson Summers from Berkeley about Kamala Harris. We’ll be talking to her more over the course of this campaign, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Brandi Thompson Summers: Thank you for having me, Mark. I really appreciate it.
Mark Steiner: My pleasure, and I’m Mark Steiner with The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. What do you want to hear next? Take care.