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Kamala Harris vs Nikki Haley: Black or white, their politics are the same

The position of American politicians on Palestine is the measure of their moral rectitude, and on that score, Harris and Haley are identical
Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Nikki Haley are pictured separately (AFP)

The sustained history of structural racism in the US has rightly made race, gender and class three crucial and interrelated factors in the country’s politics.

The recent appointment of California Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential candidate has once again placed these issues at the forefront of electoral politics.  

Plagued by President Donald Trump and his unleashing of deeply rooted white nationalism in US politics long before he surfaced on the political scene, liberal Americans are desperate to get rid of him in the next election, to the point of canonising his Democratic rival - the pro-segregation, corporate hack Joe Biden - as God’s gift to humanity, and celebrating his choice for vice president as a historic event, as she is “the first Black American woman” to reach that stage.    

Race as a social construct

With the long and still-unfolding history of racism and misogyny in the US, there is no doubt that if there comes a day when a progressive Black woman occupies one of the highest elected offices in this country, it is a day for global celebration. Imagine if Angela Davis, Alice Walker or Bell Hooks ran for office, or a generation earlier, if (before their passing) Audre Lorde or Toni Morrison were to reach that stage.

Imagine anyone in the new generation of leading African American critical thinkers and activists landing at the centre of global attention as a presidential candidate: BLM co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi; MeToo founder Tarana Burke; or Women's March organiser Tamika Mallory. That would be a day when we would have much to celebrate.  

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But Kamala Harris? Really?  

Though of Indian and Jamaican background, Harris self-identifies as Black. Black and white in the US are social constructs, and she has every legitimate reason to consider herself Black.  

The question, however, becomes a bit intriguing when a politician such as Harris on the Democratic ticket calling herself Black is contrasted with Nikki Haley, her counterpart at the forefront of the Republican Party, who has declared herself white.  

Like Harris, Haley comes from an Indian background, and yet she has strategically identified herself as white, married a white man, converted from Sikhism to Christianity, and found it lucratively to her advantage to position herself as a born-again Zionist. American and Israeli Zionists absolutely adore her, ever since her debut as the US envoy at the UN, when she appeared on an AIPAC stage and declared how with her high heels she would kick and chase Palestinians out of the UN. The Zionists were, and remain, ecstatic.  

Chameleon careerism

“Indian Nikki Haley Says She Is White”: this, according to a piece by Siddhartha Mahanta in Mother Jones, published almost a decade ago, in July 2011, when Haley had become the South Carolina Republican governor. 

From this piece, we learn that as early as 2001, “Haley listed her race as ‘white’ on her voter registration form”. We read further and discover that “state Democrats accuse her of being a fake-race opportunist in a state that is, according to the US Census poll, about 66% white (and just a tick over 1% Asian)”.  

Could the world really care less which would send even more arms to the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis to slaughter more Palestinians and Yemeni children?

Cut to the Republican National Convention last month, and it was now time for Nikki Haley to pull out her “minority” card to defend Trump by way of discrediting the Black Lives Matter uprising against the structural racism that is deeply dyed-in-the-American-wool.   

Again, liberal Americans were quick to scandalise her and the other habitual opportunist politicians of her ilk for their chameleon careerism: “Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal and on-and-off relationships with Indian American identity” reads the headline of an NBC News piece by Sakshi Venkatraman. 

“Jindal and Haley have done a great job highlighting their South Asian roots when it is convenient to appeal to an immigrant narrative and simultaneously gaslight the very existence of racism,” Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of the racial justice nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together, notes in the piece. It is quite a circus, this American politics.  

Same substance, different bucket

So we have two American politicians, one of Indian and the other of Indian-Jamaican origin, but one has sold herself as white and the other believes herself to be Black. So far, so good. It is a proverbially “free country”, as they say, and you can be anything you want. Except we have an acid test in this country that, whether they call themselves Black or white, exposes their identical careerism. The acid test is the question of Palestine.     

The position of American politicians on Palestine is the measure of their moral rectitude, and on that score, Harris and Haley are identical: staunch supporters of a racist, apartheid settler-colony. Could anyone care less if one is passing herself off as white and the other Black?      

Then-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks at an AIPAC conference in 2018 (AFP)
Then-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley speaks at an AIPAC conference in 2018 (AFP)

That acid test exposes Haley as a fanatical Zionist: “Nikki Haley: Personable, serious, and the undisputed star of AIPAC’s conference.” You just have to read the adulation of Zionists, who would love to see her as the next US president.

Then, you turn to Harris: same substance, different bucket. “In Harris, Biden chooses a traditionally pro-Israel Dem as his veep candidate,” Zionists gleefully assure themselves. “Senator has good relations with AIPAC, is closely aligned with running mate on Mideast policy and aid to Jewish state.” Splendid! Zionists have cornered the market: Black Harris and white Haley are both in their corner.    

Compromised history

Two reactionary politicians, one who has called herself white and the other Black; could the world really care less which would send even more arms to the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis to slaughter more Palestinians and Yemeni children - as both the Black Obama and white Trump presidencies have done before them?    

You may say, well, Palestinians and Yemenis don’t matter in American politics. What about domestic issues? 

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On domestic issues, Haley is a reactionary Republican neanderthal, so there is no point documenting her off-the-chart records. It is Harris whose liberal advocates are projecting as a Mother Theresa of kindness and salvation.  

That sends us back to Harris’ record on racial justice inside the US. Critical thinkers and progressive activists such as Angela Davis are not jumping on the bandwagon, and are quite open in reminding the world of Harris’ compromised history in actually advocating for racial justice. 

“The senator was often on the wrong side of history when she served as California’s attorney general,” notes an article by Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles. 

Bazelon adds: “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms Harris opposed them or stayed silent. Most troubling, Ms Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”  

Choosing between two evils

As a Vice article puts it, the Black Lives Matter movement “isn’t going to just ‘shut up and vote’ for Kamala Harris”. 

“Refusing to account for her ‘top cop’ record risks squandering the energy and enthusiasm of the BLM criminal justice reform movement,” notes the article, which quotes Cat Brooks, the California-based organiser and former Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed candidate for mayor, as saying: “I’m not a fan of how she treated the families of victims of police violence, I’m not a fan of how she failed to keep police accountable for violence. I’m frustrated that once again, as a Black woman, I don’t get to walk into the voting booth excited, and I have to choose the lesser of two evils.”  

Biden has, in fact, selected a kindred soul to suppress the progressive uprising within his own party

So much for Harris being on the right side of social justice inside the US. Biden has, in fact, selected a kindred soul to suppress the progressive uprising within his own party - a reactionary liberal to squash the racial justice momentum and assure Americans that he, too, is “tough on crime”.  

No human being should be put in a position to choose between two evils. We must continue to demand and exact a better choice, for Palestine and for the rest of the world.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.