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Talking Politics and Black America: EBONY Exclusive with Sen. Kamala Harris

On the eve of the second 2020 Democratic debate, we are revisiting this cover story interview with Sen. Kamala Harris. Sen. Kamala Harris may increasingly look like a presidential hopeful, but it’s the preparation of Sunday family dinners that helps the popular politician find her true center

Photographer:@shayanhathaway Creative Direction: @thecourts Production: @biancagreyy Styling:@yashuasimmons Grooming: @lisapope1word

For many Democrats and African-Americans alike, 2020 just can’t come soon enough. It’s not merely about a “Dump Trump” sentiment, but also about the deep hope for new and improved policies that impact Black lives. The reason some African-Americans are fervently looking to the future is because of the promise of progressive politicians such as Sen. Kamala Harris, 52, of California.

Elected in 2017 after serving as California attorney general since 2011, the junior senator is only the third woman to represent her state, but as a multiethnic Black woman—Jamaican and Indian—she is a first. Today, the political rumor mill is mumbling—loudly—about Harris as a potential Democratic presidential candidate (something the senator hasn’t directly confirmed but hasn’t exactly shut down, either). It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Harris as the first woman president; she’s built for a fight and she’s been winning tough elections since her Howard University days. Yet, in addition to her deep commitment to criminal justice reform and her undeniable political chops, there’s also the matter of her, well, pork chops. Harris may be a servant of the people but she is as much a family woman—one whose happy place is simply in the kitchen. She won’t say precisely what the future holds for her politically, but the boastful cook will definitely let you know her collard greens are better than yours.

EBONY: Let’s start at the beginning. Why politics?
Sen. Kamala Harris: Well, it’s kind of a long road to getting here. My parents were very active in the Civil Rights Movement, in Berkeley, in Oakland, California, in the ’60s. So I grew up around a lot of activism—people marching and shouting for justice—so I think, certainly, the spirit was always in me at a young age to want to be involved and to participate in fighting for the best of what we can be. The first office I ever ran for was when I was a freshman at Howard University. [pull quote] I ran for liberal arts student council to represent my class. It was a very difficult race, but I won! During [those] college years, we were out marching on the Capitol mall against apartheid, and fighting for equality and fairness. I [eventually] went to law school, inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, and then decided to go into the D.A.’s office because I thought [maybe] there’s a way to impact these systems from the inside as well as from the outside—and I knew what was broken about the criminal justice system.

EBONY: So this leads to district attorney…
Harris: Eventually, I ran for district attorney . . . and during that time I spearheaded one of the first re-entry initiatives of a major DA’s office in the country that I named “Back on Track.” It got an award from the United States Department of Justice for being an example of innovation and creativity in law enforcement, and that was a program that was all about focusing on getting jobs and support to former offenders so that they could reunify with their families and re-enter the community in a way they could be productive. That led to wanting to do it statewide, so I ran for attorney general of California, and I became the first Black woman attorney general of the state—of any state, as an elected—and then I went on to run for senate.

EBONY: Wow. You make it sound easy, but there must be many hurdles. What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far in just trying to stick to your agenda?
Harris: Well you know, in the Senate, every day, every night I go to sleep figuring out what my schedule will be for the following day, and by the morning when I rise very early, usually there has been some tweet or something that has happened that presents a new focus for that day that I might not have planned for, so it can be challenging to stick to the agenda. But I’ll tell you, we have to stay focused—and I do stay focused. A couple of the things that I’ve worked on that I’m most proud of, or one, is a bill. I’m trying to do what we can to reform the cash bail system in the United States, so I’m working across party lines, actually with [Republican] Rand Paul from Kentucky to say that we should basically remove cash bail, so people can get out while they’re pending trial, and it won’t be a function of how much money they have in their back pocket. Instead, we should have risk assessment systems. And I’ll tell you, the facts are that Black defendants are more likely than white defendants to be detained before trial, and they are less likely to be able to post bail. The data shows us that Black men pay 35 percent more bail than white men when they do post bail, so it’s a real issue about, not only reform of the criminal justice system, but economic justice—it’s a racial justice issue. Another one of my most recent bills that I’m most proud of—that in the midst of all that’s been going on we were able to get out—is a bill dealing with rent and paying the rent. There’s some really, not surprising, but startling statistics about it. Basically, the bill is this: If a renter is paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent plus utility, then they’ll get a tax credit [PULL QUOTE], which will help supplement their income.

And here’s the data: In 2017, Black renters could afford less than one-third of the rentals that White or Asian renters could afford, according to Zillow.

EBONY: Yes, that is startling.
Harris: Right, so my focus has been on a number of things, including economic issues, and obviously these issues affect all working people in the United States, regardless of their race. But as we know, when we look at the huge disparities based on race in terms of income and wealth in this country, it has a very major impact on Black families.

EBONY: So how do you get your message to people of all incomes in the Black community?
Harris: In a variety of [ways]. I mean, I speak at churches, I’m speaking to you. Our whole social media thing, I give a lot of speeches, and I do a lot of town halls, and frankly, I’ve been traveling around the country to support my colleagues in the Senate for the 2018 election cycle. I speak about all these issues wherever I go, be it in Detroit or Milwaukee or Atlanta.

EBONY: And how do you want people to reach out to you? Are you hoping that people will reach out to you via social media?
Harris: I do, I do want that. I find that it’s one of the most available mediums for people to communicate and to do it in real time. I really enjoy receiving emails also.

EBONY: And you regularly read those?
Harris: I read them quite regularly. I don’t read all of them, so I don’t want to misrepresent that because in between reading them, [I’m reading] my briefing books on the Supreme Court nominee and everything else. But I do ask that my team give me good coverage of what is coming in so that I have a sense of how folks are thinking and what they’re thinking about.

EBONY: I read this quote that you have on your Facebook page; it’s from your mother. Forgive me if I mispronounce her name, Dr. Shamayla Harris?

Harris: The ‘y’ is silent.

EBONY: OK, excuse me. “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.” Why is that your favorite quote?

Harris: Well, it’s one of the sayings by which I live. You know, I’ve been many firsts, and I will tell you that I have not been able to accomplish anything without the help and support of other people, who have lifted me up, who have mentored me, who have supported me every step of my career. And so there’s that, which is the point that none of us would be where we are if it weren’t for other people who believed in us and invested in us, you know? None of us got here on our own. There’s a responsibility that comes with that to make sure that when we break down a door or break a barrier that we leave it open for others to walk through. There’s another thing that I say to a lot of people, particularly to those that I mentor, which is, you’re gonna be the only one like you in many rooms, but you have to remember there are a whole lot of us who are in that room with you, supporting you and encouraging you and wanting you to stand up in that room and speak out in that room. And so it’s also about understanding that we come with people, and we have a responsibility to lift up others as we have been lifted. [PULL QUOTE]

EBONY: What is your definition of “woke?” That’s a colloquialism that you hear thrown around a lot, especially among younger people.
Harris: It’s about being alert, it’s about being informed and it’s about being active.

EBONY: Black people have emerged as the highest-voting demographic in the country, but why do you think that our influence, and that power that we possess is so often overlooked?
Harris: I thought you were gonna say why is it so powerful?

EBONY: If you want to talk about that…

Harris: I do. You know it actually gets back to the definition of being woke. I think that part of being woke is also [about] speaking truth. There’s a whole speech that I’ve been giving for almost the last year about the importance of speaking truth—and you know, Black people speak truth. We really don’t have the luxury of not speaking truth, or engaging in fiction, because the world will not allow us to engage in fiction. And so I see that as being part of our strength, and knowing then that we don’t have the luxury of time to be able to engage in things that are frivolous or not important. It’s that kind of perspective on life and on time and the use of time and resources that I think makes us really powerful.

But there are still huge disparities in terms of our access to opportunity, our access to power, our access to wealth, and there’s no question that has to be addressed and confronted. The beautiful thing about it is that when Black women are in the room—speaking not only our own truth, but the truth about who we are as a country and the things that are universal in terms of priorities—the world is a better place.

EBONY: Who are you outside of politics?
Harris: I am a wife and a mother and an auntie and an incredible cook. Where am I outside of politics? I would say in my kitchen.

EBONY: What’s your most requested dish?
Harris: Oh, I have so many, honestly, I really do. I mean, my family loves it when I make—I’ll tell you because I actually have a bet with [North Carolina political leader] Rev. Bishop Barber about who makes the best collard greens. And we have yet to have our cookoff, but I know I’m gonna win! I make all kinds of things. There’s a bolognese that I make that I cook for four, five hours. The other night I did some really wonderful pork chops. It depends. I recently did this really lovely mushroom lasagna, I mean I could go on and on.

EBONY: That’s wonderful. How did you get into cooking?
Harris: My mother was a great cook, all the women in my family have been really good cooks, so I just grew up at their apron.

EBONY: Would you say cooking is your escape, or is there something that you do when you’re like, “I need a minute”?
Harris: Cooking is my escape; there’s no question. I am a complete human being no matter what I have going on; I have cooked Sunday family dinner. When I don’t, that’s when I feel like I have no control over my life, and that’s not a good feeling.

EBONY: How does your family see you when it comes to your political life?
Harris: Well, they see me first as family. I mean, sometimes I wonder if they actually know exactly what it is I do every day. As soon as I get home, I take off my suit—like, literally as soon as I walk through the door—I change into sweats . . . put on my house shoes, and I usually go straight from my bedroom to the kitchen.

EBONY: That is awesome. Talking to Sen. Cory Booker, he was talking about being a vegan—I’m sure there’s some wonderful vegan dishes—but when you mentioned pork chops, you had me. This conversation has gone completely in a different direction, but I love this! We’re getting to know you.
Harris: I feel like I’ve gotten to know you here, too. I mean, I watch you on TV all the time. So when are you due?

EBONY: It is right around the corner! My husband and I actually had a surprise wedding, in November, to surprise to our family. They thought it was just an engagement party. It was wonderful. And my husband and I come from very different backgrounds, but our moral compasses align just perfectly. He is Jewish boy from New Jersey; I’m a Catholic Black girl from Houston.
Harris: Well, my husband is a Jewish boy from New Jersey as well. [Laughter]

EBONY: [Laughter] Yes, My name is Melissa Knowles on TV but my real name is Melissa Bernstein.

Harris: [More laughter.]

EBONY: I have one more serious question; I know time is limited. Here’s something I’ve asked each of the elected officials in this in this article. What do you want your legacy to be, especially with Black people?
Harris: That I will have made a difference and impacted people’s lives in a positive way. That I will have hopefully inspired people to know they can be and do anything they want regardless of who has done what before.

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