Kamala Harris takes on questions about her 'blackness'

'They don't understand who black people are'

By Maeve Reston, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

(CNN) - Sen. Kamala Harris directly confronted critics Monday who have questioned her black heritage, her record incarcerating minorities as a prosecutor and her decision to marry a white man.

In an interview with The Breakfast Club hosts DJ Envy and Charlamagne Tha God that aired Monday, the show's hosts asked the California Democrat to address a series of derogatory memes that have circulated on social media. One of the hosts cited a meme that said Harris is "not African-American" because her parents were immigrants born in India and Jamaica and she spent her high school years in Canada.

"So I was born in Oakland, and raised in the United States except for the years that I was in high school in Montreal, Canada," Harris responded with a laugh. "And look, this is the same thing they did to Barack (Obama). This is not new to us and so I think that we know what they are trying to do."

"They are trying to do what has been happening over the last two years, which is powerful voices trying to sow hate and division, and so we need to recognize when we're being played," Harris said.

One of the hosts followed up by asking Harris how she responds to people who question "the legitimacy of your blackness."

"I think they don't understand who black people are," Harris replied. "I'm not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are. Because right now, frankly, I'm focused on, for example, an initiative that I have that is called the 'LIFT Act' that is about lifting folks out of poverty," she said, detailing her plan for a $6,000 tax credit for middle class Americans.

"I'm black, and I'm proud of being black," she said at a later point in the interview. "I was born black. I will die black, and I'm not going to make excuses for anybody because they don't understand."

Harris, a former California state attorney general, said she makes no apologies for pursuing violent criminals to keep communities safe, but added that she wished she could have done more to affect change "from the inside." Pressed by the hosts of the Breakfast Club to address some of the most searing criticism of her record as a prosecutor, she was asked what she had done as a prosecutor "to hurt black people" and whether there were decisions that she regretted.

"I regret not having done enough," said Harris, who was elected district attorney of San Francisco before becoming California's attorney general. "If I had been there longer, if I had had more in terms of bandwidth, I would have done more around creating initiatives, for example, in the juvenile justice system. That was something that was always on my agenda to focus on, and I didn't get around to that."

But she noted her work on recidivism and re-entry initiatives as a prosecutor, as well as her work with Senate colleagues to reform the nation's bail system. She acknowledged that some voters will reject her candidacy simply because she was a prosecutor.

"There are some people who are just going to say, 'we don't want prosecutors.' And I don't know that I'm going to be able to convince them," she said.

Harris said the criminal justice system is deeply flawed but makes no apologies for pursuing violent criminals.

"Let's not buy into the myth that black folks don't want law enforcement. We do," Harris said. "We don't want excessive force. We don't want racial profiling -- but certainly if somebody robs, burglarizes my house, I'm going to call the police."

The California senator added that she believed some of the glaring problems within the system could be tackled from within.

"There is no question that this system is deeply flawed, that there is systemic racism in the system. We have a problem with mass incarceration, in particular of black and brown men," she said. "No mother or father in America should have to sit down when their son turns 12 and start having the talk with that child about how he may be stopped, arrested or killed, because of the color of his skin, there is no question."

She also highlighted her support for legalizing marijuana. She said she has smoked -- a joint, to be specific, adding with a laugh, "I did inhale."

"I think it gives a lot of people joy," she said, "And we need more joy."

The junior senator from California was also asked about criticism she has faced on social media for marrying a white man.

"Look, I love my husband, and he happened to be the one that I chose to marry, because I love him—and that was that moment in time, and that's it," Harris said. "And he loves me," she added laughing.

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