The Civil Rights Movement and Stolen Valor
Kamala Harris leverages her (half-)black victimhood for political advantage.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
After the recent Democrats’ presidential primary debate, California Senator Kamala Harris was the media’s consensus winner. It’s early days yet, but Harris is shaping up to be the Democrats’ favorite for defeating the hated Donald Trump and returning to the glory days of Barack Obama’s presidency. This makes sense, as Harris most closely duplicates the persona, tactics, and policies of the progressive messiah.
Harris’s moment came when she chastised and befuddled the now-fading frontrunner, Joe Biden. Biden’s mortal sin in this age of the “woke” Inquisition was his opposition in the Seventies to forced busing of schoolchildren, usually black, to achieve the integration of schools. Her clever use of her own personal experience in Berkeley, with a maudlin evocation of herself as a “little girl,” was pure demagoguery against which the slow-witted Biden had no response.
It didn’t matter to the media that Harris’s claim that she participated in the desegregation of Berkeley’s “public schools” was misleading. Berkeley’s one high school was already de facto integrated, and its three junior highs were desegregated in 1964, when Harris was three. Harris participated in the desegregation of the elementary schools. Also left unsaid was the fact that affluent, progressive Berkeley had little of the violence that marked other cities.
But Harris brought up her personal experience in order to exploit the connection of busing with racist violence of the sort that took place in Boston in 1976, as represented by the iconic, Pulitzer-Prize-winning photograph of a white teenager using a flag-pole flying Old Glory to seemingly spear a black attorney. Though the assailant missed the attorney, and whites were injured and killed in retaliation, the striking photograph and busing in general became another historic example of endemic white racism. This was the point of Harris’s reference to her own experience, to give these connotations of “busing” some pathos by referring to herself as “a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” and whom Joe Biden wanted to deny pedagogical equal opportunity.
That image of “busing,” of course, simplifies the controversy of the top-down, state- and federal-imposed relocation of students. As John Steele Gordon pointed out after the debate,
Busing students to achieve integration began in 1972 and was a total failure. Indeed, between 1972 and 1980, the percentage of black students attending mostly black schools dropped only from 63.6 percent to 63.3 percent. And the parents hated it. In 1973, most Americans favored integration but only 5 percent approved of busing, 4 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks. With their kids being bused as much as an hour away, the parents could not participate in the education of their children.
But during the debate Harris wasn’t interested in the facts about busing as a policy and its role in integration. She was employing the tactic of Civil Rights “stolen valor,” the way affluent, privileged, usually light-skinned blacks evoke the violent history of racism to leverage white guilt and black victimhood for political advantage. To nail the point, Harris followed up after the debate by publicizing on Twitter and Instagram a photograph of her as a winsome schoolgirl, with the bathetic caption, “There was a little girl in California who was bussed to school. That little girl was me.”
As Barack Obama showed, this tactic is necessary for a black candidate like Obama or Harris, who are only part black, and who did not personally experience the worst manifestations of American racism evident before the Civil Rights Act outlawed Jim Crow laws, and changing mores made racism socially toxic. It’s the Civil Rights version of “stolen valor,” the rhetorical equivalent of the medals bought in pawn shops, and the lurid anecdotes about harvesting ears and burning hootches used by those posing as Vietnam vets.
If fact, most black elites rely on this tactic in order to camouflage their power and privilege, as actor Jessie Smollett showed with his ludicrous hate-crime hoax. It’s how they maintain the glamour of the victim, a privileged status in our therapeutic age. More important, it is central to identity politics, which is more correctly grievance politics. Selected minorities are cast as victims of white, colonial, imperial, racist, and sexist historical crimes, and thus are deserving of some form of reparations. As changes in law and social mores improved, the effects of these crimes became less overt, now being redefined as “implicit bias,” “disparate impact,” “institutionalized,” or otherwise manifested through manipulated statistics, dubious psychology, and subjective interpretations of behavior unapparent to others.
For candidates like Barack Obama or Kamala Harris, who are “black” only by dint of the old racist “one-drop” rule, this symbolic connection to the victims of history and the sufferings of the black underclass today is vital for harvesting black voters and white Democrats who virtue-signal their enlightened tolerance by deferring to these dubious claims of indelible white racism as the all-purpose explanation for the dysfunctions afflicting the black underclass. The black candidate of the Obama ilk is also the chosen tribune for those unfortunates, a modern version of the old HNC, “Head Negro in Charge,” who is the black community’s representative to the white community. And typically, light-skinned, educated mulattos have served in that role, being less threatening to whites, most of whom have little day-to-day life experiences with individual black people. Thus they tend to rely on collective stereotypes, whether positive or negative, to dissolve individual blacks into a simplistic abstraction.
This phenomenon of Civil Rights “stolen valor,” of course, is dishonest and incoherent. Predicating identity on a quantum of melanin no matter how small perpetuates one of “scientific” racism’s most pernicious canards: that a child born to a mixed-race couple will invariably be a member of the “inferior” race. That’s why today a white woman can have a black baby, but a black woman can’t have a white baby. Nor is tying identity to a history of oppression any more legitimate. It ignores the role that culture and privilege play in shaping who one becomes––just as under Jim Crow no amount of education and success could elevate a black person to the level of an illiterate cracker. And it is morally and intellectually unseemly to use the suffering of your ancestors, suffering you have not experienced yourself, as social and political capital one can draw on for one’s own advancement.
In the case of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, this vicarious victimhood is even more dishonest. Black American identity has been shaped by the black historical experiences and the cultures and mores that arose from them. Racial characteristics obviously played a big role in those experiences, but did not alone determine them, especially after the abolition of slavery and the dismantling of legal segregation. But both Obama and Harris have no such experiences in their personal histories. Obama’s father was a Kenyan, and Harris’s is a Jamaican. None of their ancestors experienced American slavery or Jim Crow. So how can they claim that heritage as a validation for their status as victims of American racism? Their beef is with the British.
Barack Obama exploited grievance politics shrewdly enough to twice get elected president. Despite his failures both at home and abroad, the Democrats still view him as the model for taking the presidency back from the hated Donald Trump. In their view, Obama’s mistake was his attempt to tailor the progressive agenda in order to appeal to a broader electorate. Thus rather than using the Democrats’ control of the government to institute single-payer government-run health care, he created an unworkable hybrid. Despite those failures, still deluded by the “coming Democrat majority” narrative, Democrats for now are doubling down on the bet that given the new majority of college educated white women, blacks, “Hispanics,” millennials, and LGBTQs they can win by committing themselves more vocally to the progressive, left-wing policy agenda and thus achieve Obama’s ambition to “fundamentally transform America.”
After Kamala Harris seemingly mortally wounded the old, center-left pol of pallor Joe Biden, she looks more and more like the Dems’ best chance to dislodge Trump. Like Obama she’s just black enough to count as a victim of America’s sin, but not too black to scare white people. Like Obama, she’s a first-term Senator and college educated. Despite her privileged background, she’s as adept as Obama was at manipulating grievance politics and, as her busing comments show, exploiting white Americans’ guilt for their historical sins. And she’s a woman, appealing to those Dems who think it’s now a woman’s turn to be president, especially a “black” woman. No other Democrat primary candidate comes as close to the Obama template as she.
But these similarities are outweighed by important differences. Obama was a one-off, and many voters won’t be fooled a second time. “First female president” isn’t as compelling as “first black president.” He smartly campaigned on a “no red state, no blue state” theme, while Harris supports open borders, Medicare for all, punitive taxation, the Green New Deal, unaffordable entitlement expansion, and other radical leftist ideas that a majority of Americans reject. Her behavior during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings was shrill and preposterous, especially coming from a woman who exploited her sexuality via an affair with San Francisco mayor and Democrat honcho Willie Brown in order to jump-start her career. It’s hard to see how, if she gets the nomination, she can move to the center and attract seniors and moderates.
Most important, however, is the simple fact that Barack Obama was a failure both at home and abroad, while Donald Trump has so far has been a great success. The economy is booming, and the U.S. has recovered its geopolitical mojo. The Democrats may have fooled the leftist media, popular culture, and universities into thinking Trump is a wicked failure and what the country needs is an Obama third term, but most voters have too much common sense and practicality to buy into that obvious delusion.
For now, 16 months from election day, making Kamala Harris the second coming of Barack Obama isn’t going to work. But don’t go all in on the Republicans just yet. To paraphrase old maps, “there be monsters” beyond the horizon of the present.