Kamala Harris’ abrupt departure from the 2020 presidential field means she appears less in the public space. She isn’t out on the campaign trail. Her name appears in fewer stories.
But what has yet to dissipate is the legacy Harris leaves behind in her quest to become the first black woman president of the United States. Harris, a woman of black and South Asian descent, rose through the political ranks and made space in her platform to tell black and brown girls across the nation, “I hear you. I see you.”
In June, Harris descended the steps of a makeshift stage, set against the backdrop of an oversized American flag, in a gymnasium in Las Vegas. She worked her way clockwise after a town hall to greet throngs of supporters. Eventually, the California senator landed in front of two small black girls named Jasmine and Maya.
Harris bent down in one of her signature two-piece suits and the smallest of the two, Maya, immediately dropped her head down, succumbing to shyness. Harris lifted her chin and said, “You always keep that chin up, you hear me? You always hold that chin up, okay?”
Jasmine then boldly told Harris, “if you don’t make it, I’ll take your place!”
Harris dutifully agreed: “That’s our plan B!”
That moment would be viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter and cemented Harris’ role as the woman black girls have always been promised. She embodied the person black mothers told their daughters they could be: if you got good grades in school, went to college, studied hard, did the work, persevered through all obstacles of racism, sexism and otherness, you could one day be president of the United States, pressed-out coils at the nape of your neck and all.
But Harris fell short. As black mothers often tell their daughters from childhood, you have to be twice as good at whatever you do to get half of what everybody else has. And in this election, some would say Harris was not.
Her exit last week pulled out the rug from underneath thousands of black girls and women who saw themselves in her, because her campaign went to great lengths to show what it could look like for a black woman to belong in the highest office in the land, creating space for Harris to give young black and brown girls and women quick mentorship lessons on how to succeed and bring others who looked like them along, too.
Over 11 months, reporters flooded the internet with stories on the inconsistencies with Harris’ message, campaign strategy mishaps and the failures of Harris and her team to define both herself and her past prosecutorial career in a new age of criminal justice reform. Attacks initially took form in the “Kamala’s a cop” meme from black and brown folks that careened out of control when she failed to sufficiently defend herself during attacks on her record from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
But despite that turbulence, she still showed girls like Jasmine and Maya there was space for them to realize their dreams, too.
In the field
Inside a massive convention center in North Charleston, South Carolina, in March, a pair of black teenagers needled through a firewall of reporters circling Harris to ask for a picture. Harris obliged and then kept them standing there in front of the cameras for almost 5 minutes, leaving them with warnings of financial literacy and career advice because she wanted them to be prepared for the future: they needed to learn how to code.
“When you come out, you’re going to be in a whole new world than any of us were in,” Harris told the two girls, likening it to needing to know how to drive to get from place to place. “I want you to know how technology works.”
“Yes ma’am,” they replied.
“It was intentional,” but not manufactured, said Jalisa Washington-Price, Harris’ deputy national political director and South Carolina state director, in an interview. “She knew what running for president meant to young black girls and young black women, how it gave them something to believe in, and to see themselves in a presidential candidate.”
Miles and months away, Harris would find herself in a small conference room of supporters in November, where one of her Iowan precinct captains, a black woman named Athena Gilbraith, introduced her daughters to the senator. The youngest of the two had won class president the same day Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016 and became the first girl at her school to do so.
The senator made direct eye contact with the Paris, a 13-year-old girl, and offered one of her repeated refrains, a lesson from Harris’ mother: “You may be the first to do something, but don’t be the last.”
“Create a path,” Harris told Paris. “You’re a role model because of what you’ve done, which means people are watching you to see how. You’re inspiring people.”
But the one who left feeling inspired was Paris. She felt seen.
“[Paris] told me right in the car while leaving how it just felt so good to have somebody with that much power, look her in the eye, talk to her, listen to her and treat her as an equal,” Gilbraith said in an interview.
That conversation inspired Paris to start a “Kamala Club” at her middle school in Davenport, a step in her plan to convert her fellow students and their parents into Harris’ supporters.
But it wasn’t just young black and brown children on whom Harris impressed a sense of self.
Women of all ages would swarm Harris, including one elderly black woman in Las Vegas who thanked her for being “obedient” to her mother for making something of herself and pledging to do what she could to get her elected.
At a “Black Women’s Weekend of Action,” in South Carolina, Harris made a woman stand up and plug her own small business when she asked the senator a question, introducing the woman’s work to a massive audience of women that looked like her, including members of black sororities like Harris’ own Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta. Those groups constantly provided the candidate an invaluable network of donations, volunteers and support.
“Girl, this is a commercial, c’mon,” Harris joked.
L. Joy Williams, a political strategist and resident of Brooklyn’s NAACP chapter, later found out Harris frequently did that on the trail and appreciated her strength as a retail politician to empower her.
“Just being able to receive that kind of feedback and engagement from a candidate on presidential stage … people remember how you made them feel.”
Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge said people would be hard pressed to find moments like these at male candidate events.
“If women ran the world, we wouldn’t have wars, because we have a certain kind of a sensitivity that makes people feel comfortable, and we can talk to each other,” Fudge,the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said. She endorsed Harris’ bid in August and took on a mentor-like role. “The thing is, the country didn’t see those sensitive moments, because those are never the things that were portrayed when they put [Harris] on TV.”
Harris waged the largest campaign for president a black woman has in modern history. Decades after Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972, Harris amassed more than $35 million dollars over 11 months, despite the challenges research shows black women face raising money. (Harris’ totals for each quarter typically fell behind a handful of her opponents, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.)
She announced her candidacy in front of 22,000 people, creating expectations of a top-tier candidacy. But she only fleetingly met those expectations, once reaching 17% in a poll released in July by CNN after a debate scuffle on race with former Vice President Joe Biden. Despite the excitement and inspiration generated by her campaign, she was unable to chip away at the strong support of African Americans enjoyed by Biden, who has enjoyed strong ties with the community for decades and has the distinction of serving alongside the nation’s first black president. Harris entered the race looking to build off Obama’s trailblazing legacy, but ultimately couldn’t replicate the Obama coalition.
She dropped out in early December, two months out from the first primary contests, citing a lack of funds and an inability to gain traction in a race that had once viewed her favorably.
“There is a tremendous void, and tremendous disappointment,” Fudge told CNN.
Fudge said it felt so disheartening in part because Harris had hit a stride in campaigning, showing confidence and authenticity that primed her for a comeback. “When you have finally started to make the impact that you thought you could make,” but then she ran out of resources.
(For her part, Chisholm made it to the primary contests, won the state of New Jersey and entered the Democratic convention with 152 delegates.)
The blame for Harris’ decline is shared among a host of issues, but to Devorah Badee, a 64-year-old from Pontiac, Michigan, it just wasn’t Harris’ time.
“I love the idea, but she never really had me convinced that she could be president,” Badee said in an interview with CNN. Badee first saw Harris at a speech she gave in Detroit in May for that NAACP chapter’s Freedom Fund Dinner. She contends that America isn’t ready for any woman to be president.
Fudge in part blamed the Democratic Party’s infrastructure for making it impossible for somecandidates who to raise money or get media attention. Coming from the rugged world of California politics, Harris was known to raise high dollar amounts in the state to cover her runs for San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and most recently US senator, but she failed to replicate that success on a national scale.
“What it says to [black women] is that we continue to get the kind of lip service that we’ve always got, not just from the party but from the media who talk about diversity all the time, but they fall in love with candidates and they forget the others,” she said. Fudge recalled watching the news the day Harris’ dropped out and realized her former candidate was on TV more that day than she had been in the last two months.
Carol Moseley-Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate and ambassador to New Zealand, said she was proud of Harris, even though Braun endorsed Biden. Braun says Harris ran into the “hard reality” of raising money.
“I think she’s still an aspirational figure,” Braun said, saying she’s had a positive impact on how black women in politics see themselves and how others see them too.
“White males will not look at black women and assume that we can’t be competitive.”