The nomination of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice president has sent Republicans into a collective Karen moment. Does this brown daughter of immigrants really belong a heartbeat away from the presidency? Where is the manager?
As both a meme and an embodiment of real life racism, “Karen” is a symbol of White supremacy, privilege, and weaponizing racial hierarchy against those who are not “supposed” to be in certain places. Karens are regularly captured on video questioning the rights of minorities to exist in public parks, private gyms, or in their own homes.
In contrast, Kamala represents the aspiration of so many women, children of immigrants, and people of color to break through boundaries and surpass what is expected of them.
In Karen’s world, Kamala Harris is a Black woman in the “wrong” place.
Racist birther arguments concerning the California-born Harris are the latest example of certain Americans using their authority to ensure that people of color remain second class citizens. From lynching and brutalizing newly freed Black citizens, restricting Asians from immigrating to the United States and prohibiting them from naturalizing as citizens, interning innocent Japanese families, to violently upholding segregation laws, those in power have consistently deployed a shameful arsenal of racist policies and practices under the guise of upholding morality, the rule of law, and public safety.
In reality, Harris threatens only the status quo. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Harris’ cold pursuit of the truth contrasted with Judge Kavanaugh’s angry outbursts and tears. She campaigns relentlessly, and does not shy away from her ambition. She prioritized police accountability and implicit bias training in California, sponsored a bill in Congress to criminalize lynching, and makes notable and powerful career racists like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions nervous.
Racism is not a bug of the current administration; it is a feature of the modern GOP at every level. In 2016, conservatives embraced a presidential candidate focused on two issues: building a wall to keep “criminal” and “rapist” Mexicans out and banning Muslims from entering the country. The Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to denaturalize foreign-born citizens reinforces a presumption that White Americans are the “real” citizens. In anticipation of major losses in the 2020 elections, Republican officials continue to devise new methods of voter suppression targeting communities of color.
Republicans do not object to Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and do not oppose his discriminatory policies.
Racism has infected the party at the local level, as well. In 2014, Collin County Commissioner Mark Reid warned that an “illegal immigrant tsunami” was headed for the state of Texas. Five years later, a young man from Collin County drove to El Paso to murder 23 people, declaring online, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Police in Ohio pulled over and harassed congressional candidate Desiree Tims immediately after a political debate last fall. A Muslim candidate in Virginia, Qasim Rashid, responded to racist tweets by fundraising to pay off his harasser’s medical debt. In 2017, a group of Karens in New Jersey published racist fliers that accused Ravi Bhalla, the turbaned Sikh Mayor of Hoboken of supporting terrorism and advocated for the deportation of an Indian American candidate and Chinese American candidate for school board.
In my unsuccessful run for a State House seat in Texas, conservatives accused me of being part of a secret Muslim takeover of local government. Never mind that I am an attorney sworn to uphold the laws of Texas and the Constitution of the United States. Their evidence? My name–I must have anglicized it to hide my ‘foreign” roots.
Across the country, candidates of color face attacks on their personal safety for daring to pursue political power on behalf of underrepresented minorities. They are harassed, online and off. Their professional and personal accomplishments are called into question at every turn.
In contrast to how conservatives are interrogating Harris’ eligibility, Republicans quickly resolved any constitutional concerns when George Romney—born in Mexico—ran for president in 1968. In 2008, they embraced their presidential nominee John McCain, who was born on a military base in Panama. Birtherism began with President Obama—born in America to an American mother, but born black.
The striking figure of a Black and Asian woman ascending in power does not comport with the images of helpless brown women and children in cages that dominated the news cycle in 2018. For Americans invested in politics based on White identity, Kamala Harris upsets the social order.
For the rest of us, candidates of color represent an inclusive and equitable sharing of political power that holds the key to our children and grandchildren’s future in this country.
Sameena Karmally is an attorney and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She was the Democratic nominee for Texas House District 89 in 2014.