By Zackary Woods
We were at a coffeehouse in Tenleytown, and I had a triple espresso in an ornate demitasse that may have appealed more to a coffee snob. But I was only in it for the effect (and to sustain a good impression on Stephanie, the young woman with whom I was delighted to be on a date that afternoon). Stephanie had ordered some elaborate concoction with caramel, vanilla, and I want to say chocolate shavings. This was our second “official date,” and I enjoyed her company, in part, because I could have deeper conversations with her without having to worry about seeming too intense.
This time we were talking about women of color in American politics and the legion of impediments they face. I don’t recall specifically what prompted the comment. But Stephanie mentioned then California Attorney General Kamala Harris and how she marveled at her path-breaking achievement in a fiercely competitive field of endeavor long dominated by White men. I recollect feeling excited and impressed, because I had been an enthusiastic admirer of Senator Harris since the first time I heard my mother sing her praises when I was in seventh grade.
While we discussed many obvious and hard-to-pinpoint obstacles, our conversation focused most intently on the persistent uphill struggle of gaining and maintaining the support and thereby assuaging the fears and anxieties of White men who (sometimes unwittingly) perceive a Black woman political dynamo like Sen. Harris as a threat to the social order upon which their privilege hinges.
Today, as I recall this conversation from several years ago, I feel especially keen frustration. It has been said, but not nearly enough: Kamala Harris is a fine person, a tremendous leader, and an exceptionally gifted politician with a buoyant personality and a bold moral vision for America. If any of this were disputable, she would not be a top-tier candidate in this election.
Bluntly, my frustration stems from knowing that if Sen. Harris was an old White male, like Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, her path to the White House would indubitably be easier. With this painful understanding at the forefront of my thinking, I want to flesh out and show my fuller appreciation for a few concrete examples of how Sen. Harris is tactically leveraging her compassion, intellect and political skill to win this race.
In Iowa, an early perennial swing state, Harris has committed herself to evolving a more intimately tailored, thoroughgoing strategy for reaching and connecting with voters. In particular, Sen. Harris is going into people’s homes to help them cook Sunday supper and have dinner with individual families. At the dinner table, her goal is to earn their support by giving their personal concerns and pocketbook worries her genuine, undivided attention. Last Sunday, over dinner with the Grimm family, the youngest child, 7-year-old Atticus, asked Harris why they were talking about guns, to which she soberly replied, “so that you don’t have to worry about them.”
In moments like this — cooking with families and playing with kids — we see Harris at her best: Thoughtful, perceptive, fun and remarkably in touch with the barest essence of the issues that keep people up at night.
In addition to joining families at their kitchen tables, Sen. Harris has thoroughly immersed herself in the The Hawkeye State — visiting classrooms, huddling with small business owners, and arranging one-on-one meetings with voters, campaign organizers, and volunteers to invest more of her impressive energy in exercising the empathy, warmth and curiosity that have led even some of her skeptics to describe her as the most natural politician in the field.
Going into next Tuesday’s primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, let us remember that beyond the polls and predictive analytics are the stories, feelings, and aspirations that animate the everyday lives of American citizens.
I believe Kamala Harris never loses sight of that.
Zachary R. Wood is a Board Director at Heterodox Academy and the author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.