What Kamala Harris's Past As A Prosecutor Can Tell Us : Code Switch The VP candidate's biography and heritage allow people to project all kinds of ideas onto her, and to see what they want to see. But Kamala Harris's identity is a very important lens into not just her own politics, but also Black politics around crime and punishment more broadly.
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Let's Talk About Kamala Harris

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Let's Talk About Kamala Harris

Let's Talk About Kamala Harris

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH

MERAJI: From NPR.

DEMBY: So not too long ago, y'all remember we did an episode that focused on the big divides among Black Democrats based on age. And in that episode, which we did right after Kamala Harris was named the Democratic nominee for vice president, we asked y'all if you wanted us to do an episode getting into her complicated history as a prosecutor. And a lot - a lot - of y'all emailed or tweeted us saying, uh, yeah, TF, you should do that episode. So we heard you, and this is that episode.

MERAJI: Not that long ago, Kamala Harris' record as the first Black district attorney of San Francisco and the first Black attorney general of California would have been very large feathers in her cap. But over the last few years, voters in the Democratic Party have moved to the left on issues of race and criminal justice.

DEMBY: That has made things kind of complicated for Kamala Harris, who, at different points in her career, has proudly called herself California's top cop and other times has called herself a progressive prosecutor. As recently as the vice presidential debate last week - you know, the one with the fly - she described herself as...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: The only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.

MERAJI: When she was first becoming a national figure, she was being called the next Barack Obama by some people. And like Obama, her biography and heritage allowed people to project all kinds of ideas onto her and to see what they wanted to see.

DEMBY: And her identity is a really important lens into, well, not just her politics, but Black politics around crime and punishment more broadly. So we're going to get into Senator Harris' career as a California prosecutor in a bit, but before we do that, we got to zoom out, y'all. We got to go back.

MERAJI: We always do.

DEMBY: Zoom out sounds, zoom out sounds - we got to go to the other side of the country as well, to sometime in the mid-'90s.

JAMES FORMAN JR: It was '94, '95, right in there.

DEMBY: A man named James Forman Jr. is just starting his career as a public defender here in Washington, D.C. And at that time, D.C. was one of the bloodiest cities in the United States. And at one point, James, as a public defender, found himself defending a young client named Brandon (ph).

FORMAN: Brandon was a teenage client of mine, and he was faced with possession of marijuana and possession of a gun charges. And we were at sentencing, so the judge had to decide, you know, what he was going to do because Brandon had pled guilty.

DEMBY: James said, yeah, Brandon had weed, but it wasn't enough to sell. And, yeah, Brandon had a gun, but he also lived in a tough neighborhood. That gun, it was for his protection.

FORMAN: You know, I had a letter from a teacher and a counselor at his school. It was his first arrest. Brandon's parent - mom and grandmother were there in court. They wanted him to come home.

DEMBY: Brandon pled guilty to those charges, but he had never been in trouble before. He was involved in school sports. He had potential. James was arguing that Brandon should just get probation.

FORMAN: And the prosecutor in the case, she wanted him to be locked up. She wanted him to go to Oak Hill.

MERAJI: Oak Hill.

FORMAN: Like a lot of juvenile prisons, you know, it had a really nice-sounding name, you know, Oak Hill, oak tree on a hill. But it was a really violent and ugly reality. It was a place where young people always left out worse off than when they entered.

DEMBY: James told the story in a book called "Locking Up Our Own: Crime And Punishment In Black America." The judge presiding over Brandon's case is a man that James called Curtis Walker (ph), and, no, that's not his real name. It's not Brandon's real name either. But anyway, Judge Walker is going to decide Brandon's fate.

FORMAN: And he looks at Brandon and he says, son, Mr. Forman's been telling me that you've had a tough life, that you deserve a second chance. Well, let me tell you about tough. Let me tell you about Jim Crow segregation. And the judge, who had been a child in those years, he proceeded to lecture Brandon on, you know, what it meant to be under Jim Crow. And he kind of wrapped up, and he said, so here's the thing, son - people fought, people marched, people died for your freedom.

DEMBY: And James, he had heard Judge Walker do the same spiel before with other defendants; so had all the other public defenders. They had taken to calling the speech the Dr. King speech.

MERAJI: I can imagine where this is going.

FORMAN: Dr. King died for you. And I tell you this - he didn't die for you to be running and gunning and thugging and carrying on, embarrassing your family, embarrassing your community and carrying that gun. And so I hope Mr. Forman is right. I hope one day you turn it around. But today in this courtroom, actions have consequences.

DEMBY: And so that day, Judge Walker...

FORMAN: He locked him up.

DEMBY: Remember, this was the mid-'90s, the end of the crack era, violent crime, property crime. It was a really rough time. All those things were just popping off all the time. But the country was already, even then, at the beginning of a dramatic decline in crime and in violence, and that decline is still going on to this day.

FORMAN: But of course, at that time, nobody knew that. So it was really kind of just at the tail end of the most violent period in the city's history and in much of the nation's history.

DEMBY: A few years before that day in court with James and Brandon, in 1991, nearly 500 people were killed in Washington, D.C. That made '91 the bloodiest year on record in D.C.

MERAJI: Yeah, and the same was true in bigger cities. In Los Angeles County, there were nearly 2,600 homicides in '92.

DEMBY: In New York City, more than 2,200 people were killed by other people in 1991. And the people who were being killed in these cities, I mean, you know, they were most likely to be Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's the backdrop as Brandon sits in the D.C. courtroom awaiting his fate because every part of this country, it seemed, had decided to get tough on crime. It was just after Bill Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill. It made sure people who were convicted of drug crimes stayed behind bars for longer. It set aside nearly $10 billion for new prisons and money for 100,000 new police officers - and added to all that, a moral panic around so-called super predators.

DEMBY: James said if you went to a community meeting in a Black neighborhood back then, you would find plenty of folks saying, well, yeah, we want more police officers. He said all these surveys showed that Black people had higher rates of fear of crime and higher rates of fear of violence than did other citizens. And of course, there were always lots of other Black people at those very same meetings saying, look, what we're going to get from these tough-on-crime policies is a lot of Black people indiscriminately thrown in jail. But as that tough-on-crime posture won out and gained traction, those voices got drowned out.

So right after Judge Walker sentenced Brandon to juvie at Oak Hill, James walked out of the side of that courtroom just to check on him, to see how he was doing. Brandon was in a cellblock with everyone else awaiting their fates. James wasn't surprised at who was in that cellblock with Brandon - mostly men and boys, a few women and girls, but they were all Black. But what struck him at that moment was that nearly every other person in this process was Black, too. Judge Walker, he was Black. The prosecutor arguing that Brandon should be locked up, that person was Black. The bailiffs, Black - even the courthouse building in D.C. where Brandon was sentenced was named after a Black man.

FORMAN: We had a majority-Black police force. We have a Black mayor. The chief prosecutor in the city at that time was Eric Holder. We had a majority-Black city council. And we were doing, in our majority-Black community, what much of the country was doing in these years. I'm by no means saying that Black people were the only or even the main drivers of this, right? But I really wanted to explore the role that Black people played.

DEMBY: And the idea that a judge would name-check Martin Luther King Jr. before locking up a Black boy like Brandon - that pissed James off.

FORMAN: I had taken the job of being a public defender because I thought I was living out the generational struggle for civil rights that those heroes like Dr. King had fought for, right? I viewed and still view to this day mass incarceration as the civil rights struggle of my generation, and my parents had fought in the 1960s, along with Dr. King and John Lewis and others, for freedom.

MERAJI: At the same time Brandon was being sentenced to juvie, a young lawyer's fledgling career was picking up steam in California.

DEMBY: Like James Forman Jr. and so many idealistic Black lawyers at that time, she, too, thought of her vocation as part of the larger post-civil rights project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I knew quite well that equal justice was an aspiration, not yet an achievement. I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design, and I wanted to be a part of changing that.

MERAJI: But she was carrying out her mission from the other side of the courtroom, not as a defense attorney but as a prosecutor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: If you don't go to school, Kamala's going to put you and me in jail.

MERAJI: That's after the break.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE TRUTHS WE HOLD")

HARRIS: My parents often brought me in a stroller with them to civil rights marches. I have young memories of a sea of legs moving about, of the energy, and the shouts and the chants. Social justice was a central part of family discussions. My mother would laugh telling a story she loved about the time when I was fussing as a toddler. What do you want, she asked, trying to soothe me. Freedom, I yelled back.

MERAJI: That is an excerpt from the audiobook "The Truths We Hold" by Kamala Harris. And I think most of you are familiar with her voice. That was her reading the book.

DEMBY: That book came out last year and it's one of those campaign autobiographies that, you know, come out every time somebody's running for a race. You get those little folksy stories that are supposed to tell us something about the candidate's values, you know, the truths they hold or whatever.

MERAJI: Yeah. You know, and they rarely tell us anything too juicy or too chewy.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: You know, I personally wanted more drama, less aw-shucks, isn't that sweet? But you can probably learn a lot from how they choose to tell their origin stories.

DEMBY: And as we just heard, Kamala Harris casts her childhood as directly downstream from the civil rights movement. Her parents were both professors who moved to the Bay in the 1960s. And she said they fell in with the Black community there, and, in particular, some community-minded, politically engaged people - protesters and organizers. And as we heard, tiny Kamala was right along with them.

MERAJI: And as we know, tiny Kamala eventually grows up, goes to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.

DEMBY: Well, she doesn't talk about it in the book, but that was during the height of the crack era, we should just note.

MERAJI: And then in 1986, she comes back to the Bay for law school and she decides she wants to be a prosecutor.

DEMBY: Right. And in her book, she says that when she told her people back home that she wanted to be a prosecutor, they were not thrilled.

MERAJI: There's the drama.

DEMBY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE TRUTHS WE HOLD")

HARRIS: I knew quite well that equal justice was an aspiration, not yet an achievement. I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design, and I wanted to be a part of changing that.

DEMBY: But Kamala Harris says, she very much saw being a prosecutor as an extension of all that marching that her mother, and her play aunts and her neighbors - that they were doing in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE TRUTHS WE HOLD")

HARRIS: I knew part of making change was what I'd seen all my life, surrounded by adults shouting and marching and demanding justice from the outside. But I also knew there was an important role on the inside - sitting at the table where the decisions are being made. When activists came marching and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in.

DEMBY: You are hearing Kamala Harris' voice, but we didn't get a chance to talk to Kamala Harris because her people did not respond to our requests to talk to us for this episode. Anyway, in her book, she wrote, the people who wanted to be protected from discrimination and injustice also wanted to be protected from crime. And so in the first stop of her career, she was a local prosecutor in Oakland - Shereen's old stomping grounds. After a few years, she gets recruited to take a job across the Bay dealing with serial-offender cases in the San Francisco DA's office. And so she takes that job and she said the DA's office was a mess, everything was disorganized, which is why she said the office was not securing enough convictions.

MERAJI: Shade. I heard that shade.

DEMBY: So she says, I should run for this office myself against my boss. So she campaigned for San Francisco DA and she won that race in a runoff. So it was 2003, just 13 years into her legal career, and Kamala Harris had already become the first Black DA in the history of one of the nation's most economically important and politically specific cities. Yes.

MERAJI: Especially then. Yeah. The Bay is complicated - it's a very complicated place. It's not the kind of place where people love prosecutors.

JAMILAH KING: This is San Francisco, so, like, everybody is somewhere on the progressive spectrum.

MERAJI: Exactly. Who is that?

DEMBY: That is Jamilah King.

KING: I am the race and justice reporter at Mother Jones, and also host of "Mother Jones" podcast.

DEMBY: Jamilah is from the Bay - like Kamala and like you, spiritually, Shereen. She wrote a piece for Mother Jones last year called "The Secret To Understanding Kamala Harris," which is good for us because that's what we're trying to do. And she took a long look at Kamala Harris' career, from her beginnings as a prosecutor to holding statewide office as a senator. And she said, Harris' politics were pretty much in line with a lot of the progressive orthodoxies of San Francisco.

KING: But she's definitely more on the moderate end of the progressive spectrum. And what that means is she talks a lot about bringing law and order to the streets. She talks a lot about sort of this old school sort of - I consider it like the, you know, the Black folks in the neighborhood who are like, well, if they would just go to school and pull up their pants - I mean, she never said pull up their pants. But, you know, we know that rhetoric, right? Like, if we can just give people the resources that they need to engage meaningfully in society, they'll do it. But there was definitely this strain of personal responsibility that ran throughout what she was proposing. So she was running as a progressive but she was a moderate progressive.

DEMBY: She ran as someone who is opposed to the death penalty.

MERAJI: Which makes sense because it's San Francisco.

DEMBY: Yup. But she also ran as kind of like a law-and-order, tough-on-crime prosecutor who is going to lock up more people and secure more convictions.

MERAJI: And that is a little unusual.

DEMBY: And that stance actually won over the police union. They really dug that, so they endorsed her in that runoff for DA. One of her signature programs after she became DA was this initiative - she called it a personal responsibility program called Back on Track. She thought of it as an alternative to incarceration. And to participate in the Back on Track program, people had to plead guilty to their charges.

MERAJI: So that conviction went on their records.

DEMBY: But it would come off their records with the stipulation that they complete this, you know, personal responsibility, reentry and training program.

KING: And the program consisted of everything under the sun. So it was an internship program, which is how I sort of first heard of it, and it was, you know, if you needed counseling, if you needed job preparation, if you needed resume help.

MERAJI: How many people took part in this Back on Track program?

DEMBY: So the numbers that I found showed that they were only a few hundred people who completed the program. Like 241 or so completed the program between 2007 and 2011, so it was a pretty small program. But even though it was small, Kamala Harris and other people in San Francisco touted that it was really effective in reducing recidivism, and they talked about it as a model for how other cities across the country could do this. Not long after she took office, though, something else happened, and it led her to take a really politically risky stance.

KING: So in 2004, a few months after Kamala Harris takes office, there's a shooting in Bayview-Hunter's Point, which is a predominately Black, working-class neighborhood in San Francisco, in which a young police officer named Isaac Espinoza is shot and killed.

DEMBY: At the time of that shooting, there had not been a police officer killed in San Francisco in decades, and Harris said early on that she was not going to go for the death penalty in the case of the person who killed Officer Espinoza. And her decision to not seek the death penalty made a lot of noise. It got a lot of attention. The San Francisco Chronicle combed through the records and said that it was basically unprecedented for a prosecutor in California or anywhere else in the country, for that matter, to not seek the death penalty in a case in which a cop was killed.

MERAJI: I can imagine that law enforcement was not pleased about that.

DEMBY: Not at all. They were not. Rank-and-file officers, the police union that had endorsed her, they were all livid. But Kamala Harris stuck to her guns. Here's Jamilah again.

KING: She published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle where she laid out a very compelling case and said very explicitly that she didn't want to support the death penalty or she didn't support the death penalty because it was racist. And she laid out all the evidence for it.

DEMBY: Harris' position was capital punishment is unjustly applied along racial lines. And the idea that it's a deterrent to crime is basically not backed up by any facts. But these are arguments that are not beyond the pale in San Francisco, right? But to people in law enforcement and all the people who support people in law enforcement, Harris' decision to not go after this cop's killer, that was an affront to justice.

MERAJI: The fallout from that decision seems to have stayed with Kamala Harris even as she kept rising in profile and rising in power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gentlemen, please welcome to the podium the honorable California Attorney General Kamala Devi Harris.

HARRIS: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

DEMBY: In 2010, Kamala Harris ran for attorney general of California, and as you just heard, she won.

MERAJI: 2010 was around the time a lot of people outside of California started hearing Kamala Harris' name. She found herself in charge of the largest attorney general's office anywhere in the United States. The only one that's bigger is the U.S. attorney general. And everyone started speculating about what her next move might be.

DEMBY: Yeah. She won that race, but it was really close. She was actually an underdog in it and that was because of her opposition to the death penalty. So some of her San Francisco politics, they were not going to fly statewide. So Jamilah says as attorney general of California, she started to put some daylight between some of her old stances as district attorney of San Francisco.

MERAJI: Which stances?

KING: So as district attorney of San Francisco, she declined to pursue the death penalty. As attorney general of California, she defended the state's use of the death penalty. So essentially she was just like, look, I'm doing my job.

MERAJI: OK. So what I'm hearing is basically I'm opposed to the death penalty but it's the state's prerogative.

DEMBY: Right. A few years ago, when it looked like Kamala Harris might enter the presidential race, I interviewed an organizer - a Black woman involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in California. She had had confrontations and meetings with Harris before. She had pushed Harris, who was the attorney general obviously, to look into the police shooting of an unarmed Black man. And Kamala Harris' office declined to do that. And this organizer told me like, look, point blank, Kamala Harris is not interested in big systemic changes. Harris, she often, you know, stayed away from controversial issues, and her policies were smaller and more specific than they were sweeping.

MERAJI: Hence, Back on Track.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. And that criticism - that's a criticism a lot of people have had of her over career. When the LA Times - who endorsed her for Senate - did so, they said, you know, she was thoughtful, and pragmatic and they were kind of worried that she played things too safe - that she avoided commenting on messy issues, specifically when those issues involved police reform.

MERAJI: Well, yeah because she had personal experience...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Having law enforcement be very, very upset with her. It's hard not to think that she might have, you know, not been trying to piss off the cops once again.

DEMBY: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, part of the story she tells about herself is that she cares about these issues specifically. Something else that organizers told me, though, was that she felt like she could work with Kamala Harris, which is what Jamilah King found, too.

KING: I'm from San Francisco. I know folks who've, you know, been in the system and they'll just say flat out look, like, she's a cop. I'm not trying to mess with that. On the other hand, what's always been really telling for me is that there are a lot of folks within San Francisco's criminal justice reform system, a lot of organizers, a lot of community groups that are pretty ride or die for her. Like, they don't agree necessarily with all of the decisions she's made, but they recognize that she was one of the few people to even give them a seat at the table.

MERAJI: And that right there is a callback to what we heard earlier in Kamala's book where she says she wanted to be the one to open the door to let activists in.

DEMBY: Right. The person making change from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: There's one initiative of Kamala Harris' that people zoom in on a lot to try to understand and make sense of her prosecutorial career, and it really gets at the paradoxes of trying to make change from the inside. It's her truancy program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: I would not be standing here were it not for the education I received, and I know many of us will say the same thing. And I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime, so I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy. Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco (laughter).

MERAJI: Ha-ha. Controversial indeed. But right now it's time for an explanatory comma-la.

DEMBY: You just couldn't help yourself, just couldn't.

MERAJI: I could not. Truancy - truancy is chronic, unjustified absence from school. Because truancy is treated like a crime in some places, the word does have a stigma. So people in education circles - some people call it absenteeism instead. But while many people don't like the term, people, even in San Francisco, did appreciate that Harris was bringing attention to the problem.

DEMBY: Harris' argument was like, OK, if you don't graduate high school, you're way more likely to be a victim of crime, to be a perpetrator of crime. So let's compel the parents of these kids who aren't showing up at school to go to school and graduate. She said the schools and social services, they can be a carrot and if it comes to it, the prosecutors and police, they can be the stick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: A friend of mine actually called me and he said Kamala, my wife got the letter. She freaked out, she brought all the kids into the living room, held up the letter, said, if you don't go to school, Kamala's going to put you and me in jail. Yes, we achieved the intended effect.

DEMBY: To really know what this program looked like in practice, I talked to a reporter who dove deep into this much touted anti-truancy initiative.

MOLLY REDDEN: I'm Molly Redden, and I'm a senior reporter for HuffPost.

DEMBY: Molly wrote a piece for HuffPost last year, not long after Kamala Harris announced that she was running for the White House. The headline was "The Human Cost Of Kamala Harris' War On Truancy."

REDDEN: What she intended to do was build a system where the school and school district officials and teachers and parents could all sit down and talk through what's the problem? Why isn't your kid coming to school? What are the resources that we could give you to help make sure that your child goes to school every day? And what she sort of layered on top of that was, and also you will get a series of increasingly scary warnings from the district attorney if this problem doesn't get solved.

MERAJI: For the record, Kamala Harris did not make truancy a criminal offense here in California. There's been a truancy law on the books since the 1970s.

DEMBY: Right. Molly said that Kamala Harris' big innovation to the state's approach to truancy was the push for district attorneys across California to standardize the way they pressured parents. She stumped for this law that raised the penalties for truancy so parents would pay more in fines. And if a kid missed too much school, like 10% of the school year, that truancy would become a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: We are putting parents on notice. If you fail to take responsibility for your kids, we are going to make sure that you face the full force and consequences of the law.

DEMBY: Since then, Kamala Harris has said that she never intended for this new anti-truancy policy to end up with people being arrested. But in one high-profile case that Molly wrote about, that's exactly what happened.

MERAJI: Molly wrote about Cheree Peoples. She was a mother who lived in Orange County, Calif., and her daughter, Shayla, had sickle cell anemia, which meant she missed a lot of school because she was in a lot of pain or in the hospital. Now, Cheree had a bunch of arguments over these absences with Shayla's school, you know, over whether they were legit. But the district attorney in Cheree's district was up for reelection. So he decided he was going to do this big truancy sweep under Kamala Harris' anti-truancy law to show that he was tough on lawbreakers. And so on a spring morning in 2013, Cheree Peoples was arrested.

REDDEN: The police showed up, and they handcuffed her and she had time to put on a jacket over her pajamas. And when she was walked out of her apartment where she lived with her daughter, there was, you know, there were news cameras waiting and she was booked by the police.

DEMBY: Cheree got out of jail later that day. But by then, the image of her being perp walked out of her house in her pajamas was all over the news.

REDDEN: She was shocked and she said to me, you'd swear I'd killed somebody. Like, it really - it felt to her like a really - and it was - a really excessive show of force for what is essentially a misunderstanding between her and her child's school.

MERAJI: There weren't a lot of parents like Cheree who were arrested under this anti-truancy initiative. And Molly told you, Gene, that Cheree's situation wasn't that common. Kamala Harris has since apologized, by the way, saying it was not her intent...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...For anyone to be arrested.

DEMBY: Yeah. But critics of the program said, all right, well, if you don't want people arrested, why involve the police and prosecutors? Like, that's what they do. For Cheree, that arrest reverberated in her life for a long time, as arrests do. Eventually, the prosecution said they would drop the charges against her if Cheree agreed to take parenting classes. But Cheree said to Molly, what kind of parenting classes cure sickle cell anemia? But even still, Molly said this program - this anti-truancy initiative was generally really popular. It enjoyed broad support.

MERAJI: And a big part of the reason for that broad support had to do with what we talked about at the beginning of this episode, the crime and gun violence of the 1980s and '90s. It was still fresh in people's minds, and many people still really supported tough-on-crime punitive measures.

DEMBY: Right. By the time this truancy law went on the books in 2011, the U.S. was already so much safer than it was in the 1990s - like, unimaginably safer. In fact, today, cities in the U.S. are as safe as any time on record. So the ground has shifted over the last decade and that tough-on-crime rhetoric is just not hitting like it used to.

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: There's more space to talk about the harms of policing, and prisons and prosecutors. So a whole bunch of things that might have been Kamala Harris' strengths before, they've become liabilities.

REDDEN: Why I wound up writing 5,000 words on this was, you know, like, I could have just been like, look at this parent who got arrested and it's Kamala Harris' fault. And I don't think that's the main lesson to take away from this. I think the main lesson to take away from this is there are just limits to how you can make social change using systems that have been historically built to over-criminalize an entire population of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Looking back at her record, it's really hard to figure out Senator Harris. She's navigating tricky territory. You know, the tools you have as a prosecutor involve locking people up or at least wielding the threat of putting people behind bars.

DEMBY: Right. Exactly. So there are all these things about her record as a prosecutor, as a politician, regardless of whether you're a fan of hers that require so many caveats.

MERAJI: Which brings us to Kamala Harris' identity. She's a Black woman who grew up in a progressive Black city - Oakland, Calif. That has to play a role in her politics, right? How can't it?

DEMBY: Right. We want her identity to tell us something about the way she feels about the world. And it's then, when I was talking to Jamilah King of Mother Jones, she said something that really stuck with me that I found really illuminating.

KING: And I don't want to speculate about how Kamala Harris has come into her racial identity, but I'm going to do it anyway (laughter). So, you know, like she talks a lot about being the daughter of immigrants, she talks a lot about, you know, growing up sort of in the shadow of the civil rights movement. She doesn't necessarily talk about, you know, growing up sort of in the backyard of the Black Panthers. Like, I - for instance, I'm in Oakland right now. The former headquarters of the Black Panther Party is literally, like, around the corner, right? So she - I think these were really palpable, visible signs when she was growing up. But, you know, she's the daughter of two professors. And, you know, she also went to Howard and no shade, but she's an AKA.

DEMBY: Shereen, I've never wanted to do an explanatory comma less than this. But the AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alpha Incorporated, are the oldest - the first Black sorority in the U.S. And they have a reputation of being bougie (ph) and respectable.

MERAJI: Pink and green...

DEMBY: RIP to my mentions.

DEMBY: ...For life.

KING: You know, and love them - I have many AKAs in my life who I love and adore dearly. However, they are not the folks showing up in, like, naturals with fists raised, you know, like, trying to beat down the system. I think it's very much a political ideology built on being twice as good. It's built on showing up in the crispest suit. And, you know, one of the quotes that her mother said that I find so interesting was during her first run when she was sort of this out-of-the-box candidate. Her mother gave an interview to a Bay Area reporter and was basically like, you know, oh, she can definitely hang with all these people. She knows which forks to use at the dinner party.

DEMBY: So she grew up in the shadow of Black radicalism but does not claim that. She's not a radical. She became part of a burgeoning post-civil rights Black elite. In fact, that's a big part of the story here because her life and her career track with two enormously consequential phenomena over the last four decades - the rise of a large Black professional class - a Black political elected class on one hand and the rise of mass incarceration on the other.

MERAJI: And I'm just going to be Captain Obvious here and say those two realities have shaped Black people's lives in this country in completely different ways.

DEMBY: Yes. Like, just take the police, for example. We know that Black people have all kinds of unnecessary contact with the police, just as a matter of course, right?

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Well, James Forman Jr. - who we heard from before the break - said we've heard a lot specifically about racial profiling over the last several decades and he said that's not an accident. That's because that issue, it directly affects Black professionals and the Black affluent.

MERAJI: So I'm thinking about those racial profiling stories. You're driving in a nice car in a nice neighborhood, a cop pulls you over for absolutely no reason or you get followed around a fancy department store when you're just, you know, looking for a suit or something.

DEMBY: Exactly. But he said we haven't paid nearly as much attention to mass incarceration, which hasn't touched that group as directly because the realities of mass incarceration have fallen mostly on the poorest Black people.

FORMAN: That is to say, for African Americans who have gone to college, the risk of going to prison in your lifetime has not increased. Where the real increase has been - has hyper-concentrated on African Americans who have not graduated from high school. That's the group that's, by far, at greatest risk of going to prison now.

DEMBY: James pointed to research by a sociologist named Bruce Western. Western found that during the rise of mass incarceration, Black men who did not finish high school were 10 times more likely to end up behind bars at some point in their lives than Black men who attended college.

MERAJI: Which harkens back to what Kamala Harris said in a argument for her truancy initiative. You know, keep kids in school and you keep them out of jail or prison.

DEMBY: Yes, that's right. But what James is trying to point out here is this really fraught relationship between the Black people sending people to jail or prison and the Black people headed there.

FORMAN: And the reason that ends up being so important is that who are the people that are actually making decisions, right? Who are the prosecutors? Who are the judges? Who's voting at the city council?

MERAJI: So who's Judge Walker? And then on the flip side, who's Brandon? And to refresh our memories, I'm talking about the story we heard James tell earlier about his client, Brandon, who had been sentenced to juvie while being lectured about Martin Luther King's sacrifices.

DEMBY: Yes. So James said people get tripped up when they hear the story of Brandon and the story of Judge Curtis Walker. Like, shouldn't Judge Walker have understood what Brandon was going through - what he was trying to navigate?

FORMAN: But if you think about it from Brandon's perspective, he may have looked at himself as alone in the courtroom because, yes, we were all Black, but all the rest of us were professionals - right? - even me, his lawyer. I was a lawyer. The prosecutor was a lawyer. The judge was a lawyer. So Brandon may have been acutely aware of these class differences that get somewhat lost in our conversation because it's easy to miss because skin color is so salient in the way we all understand the world.

DEMBY: We've talked before on this podcast about big divides among Black people - ethnic divides, generational divides, the divide between Black Democrats and Black Republicans.

MERAJI: Between Black Republicans and Black Republicans.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yes. But Kamala Harris' career sits at the nexus of these other divides around class and status that maybe we don't talk about enough. So maybe whether you're willing to extend Kamala Harris the benefit of the doubt or whether you're skeptical of her record is about how you feel about all of these things - Black aspiration, of course. But also whether you feel like institutions, like schools and the courts provided you with a pathway to a career or a pathway to incarceration, or whether you feel like an insider or an outsider. Insiders, like Kamala Harris, they get a seat at the table, and like her mom said, they know which forks to use. But that also means that they're rarely the ones interested in flipping that table over.

KING: And she's a reformer. Like, she makes no bones about that.

MERAJI: Here's Jamilah King one last time.

KING: She is here to make our punitive systems more just. But she's not trying to, you know, disrupt them entirely. That's never, like, been her forte. I think that's an important quality to have when everything is shifting so quickly, right? And especially when, you know, you have a Democratic Party that is sort of all on the same page around getting rid of Donald Trump but that's kind of the only thing that everyone agrees on. So I think it's important that, you know, she have certain people at the table.

I think it's important to note that the political moment will change her, you know, and it also kind of goes the other way, right? Like, say, you know, three years from now, we enter an era in which really punitive policies come back - right? - and it's deeply conservative. Will she be swayed the other way, right? So, you know, it's worrying definitely for a lot of activists that I've talked to. But I also hear from them that, you know, if this is the ticket, they want to have as much influence as they can and she at least gives them an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter and on the gram. We're @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Shereen at @radiomirage and me @geedee215 - that's G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. We want to hear from y'all. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. And go subscribe to our newsletter, which is at npr.org/newsletters.

MERAJI: Yes, please do. It's good. It comes out every week. This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Leah Donnella, with help from our intern, Alyssa Baheza. It was edited by Leah and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And of course, we've got to shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung and Alyssa Jeong Perry. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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