By Oggy Nweke

The representative nature of politicians can be judged by two measures: 1) descriptive representation, which refers to their closeness in characteristics to their constituents and the community at large[1] and 2) substantive representation – legislators’ actions towards improving the lives of the community these politicians represent.[2] Examining these two metrics can elucidate how Kamala Harris’s characteristics shape her role within the political landscape.

Descriptive representation

As a Black woman, Senator Harris’s presence within the United States Senate helps address the gulf between the 15% percent African-American demographic within society and the four single African-American senators in the current 116th United States Congress[3]. There is a long-standing relationship of loyalty between the African-American community (especially female) and the Democratic Party, and Harris is part of this history, represented by the fact that the majority of Black political representation has come from the Democratic Party.

Substantive representation

This is the element of representation where Harris’s legacy and record falters. Known colloquially as “copmala”  on social media sites such as Twitter due to the policies and actions she undertook as a prosecutor and attorney[4] senator  Harris supported and fostered a legacy of punitive measures that included criminalising truancy[5] and has a checkered record on criminal justice including refusing to hold police and prosecutors accountable for misconduct, supporting cash bail, and resisting the use of body cameras[6]. These substantive representation failures are important because criminal justice reform is central to improving the lives of African-Americans, as the George Floyd uprising has shown, and any failure to improve these issues may limit the gains of the Black community through increased descriptive representation if substantive policies and measures to improve the lives of African-Americans cannot be undertaken.

Ultimately, this tension between her positive descriptive representation in filling demographic gaps federally and negative substantive representation is unsettled. In her current position Senator Harris has been rated as one of the most liberal senators[7][8]. These classifications have been spurred in part by her spearheading progressive legislative policies that champion the concerns of the Black community such as bills to address the Black maternal health crisis[9], Black transgender deaths[10] and, and establishing lynching as a federal crime[11]. These actions provide credence to the perspective that as Vice President she may deliver substantive representative benefits for the Black community[12].

Jezebel and Kamala

Even at this early stage of her candidacy for Vice President, we can see what racial scholar Patricia Hill Collins describes as a controlling image of Black women through their being positioned as Jezebels[13]. The image of Jezebel as connected to Black women originated under slavery when Black women were portrayed as sexually aggressive, and needing to be sexually and physically exploited due to their inherent nature[14].

The cartoon of Harris published in the Australian[15] and the discourse that has painted her as a whore, being echoed and amplified by Eric Trump,[16] are reminders of its continuance within this modern era and show the power and strength of racial stereotypes to shape the media images of Black female politicians.

The impact of the Jezebel narrative for Black women is that if fuels dehumanisation. The impact of this dehumanisation is that it associates Black women with negative attributes and fuels the societal indifference that enforces and reifies racism that Black women face in areas such as intimate partner violence or employment prospects, as Sonja Givens showed in her research on the impact between Jezebel stereotypes and attitudes to African-American women[17] emphasising why these messages and stereotypes need to be highlighted and condemned.

In discussing Senator Harris, the potential for the use of the Jezebel stereotype underscores why the media should commit to racially sensitive reporting and reject the use of racially-tinged imagery to describe and depict Harris.

Footnotes: 

[1] Pitkin, Hanna, 1967. The Concept of Representation, Los Angeles: University of Press

[2] Pitkin, Hanna, 1967. The Concept of Representation, Los Angeles: University of Press

[3] https://www.senate.gov/senators/EthnicDiversityintheSenate.htm

[4] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/black-culture-wont-save-kamala-harris/

[5]https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/2/7/18202084/kamala-harris-truancy-prosecutor-president-2020

[6] https://theappeal.org/kamala-harris-criminal-justice-record-killed-her-presidential-run/

[7] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/report-cards/2019/senate/ideology

[8] https://progressivepunch.org/scores.htm?house=senate

[9] https://www.harris.senate.gov/news/press-releases/harris-reintroduces-legislation-addressing-black-maternal-mortality-crisis

[10] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/kamala-harris-brings-pro-lgbtq-record-biden-ticket-n1236523

[11] https://www.harris.senate.gov/news/press-releases/senators-harris-booker-scott-lead-unanimous-passage-of-federal-anti-lynching-legislation

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/12/kamala-harris-joe-biden-vp-black-progressive-women

[13] Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.” (1990) at 271

[14] Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.” (1990) at 271

[15] https://theconversation.com/the-australians-racist-kamala-harris-cartoon-shows-why-diversity-in-newsrooms-matters-144503

[16] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/eric-trump-donald-trump-kamala-harris-sexist-tweet-a9669771.html

[17] Brown Givens, S. M., & Monahan, J. L. (2005). Priming mammies, jezebels, and other controlling images: An examination of the influence of mediated stereotypes on perceptions of an African American woman. Media Psychology, 7(1), 87-106


Ogonna Nweke is a law and politics student at the University of Auckland.

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