Talking about race isn’t ‘identity politics,’ Kamala Harris tells crowd in Durham

Presidential candidate Kamala Harris visited two influential African American organizations in Durham on Saturday and Sunday.

Harris told a crowd of several hundred in Durham on Saturday night that it is time for the country to look itself in the mirror and ask, “Who are we?”

“I think we all know part of the answer to that question is, ‘We are better than this,’” said Harris, who was the keynote speaker at the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People’s 84th Founders’ Day banquet.

The Democrat said the U.S. is in a moment “that requires us to fight.”

“This fight is not new for us. We know how to fight. In fact there is nothing we have gained that came without a fight. ... So, let us not be overwhelmed, let us not despair. Let us not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves,” Harris said.

Harris is a U.S. senator from California and was the second African American woman to be elected to the Senate when she won in 2016. She was also the first African American and first woman to serve as attorney general for the state.

Harris visits AME church

On Sunday morning, Harris worshipped at St. Joseph AME Church in Durham. The church’s old building is further up Fayetteville Street in what is now the Hayti Heritage Center, named for the historic African American neighborhood just ouside downtown.

The newer building is adjacent to N.C. Central University, a historically black university. Harris also attended an HBCU — Howard University, and was in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Dozens of AKA members wore the sorority colors of pink and green during the church service.

Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris spoke at St. Joseph AME Church in Durham, N.C. on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

It was also the church’s “Social Justice Sunday” and a few days away from the anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Several state and local elected officials were in the pews, including N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., whose father, Floyd McKissick Sr., was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley preceded Harris in the St. Joseph AME pulpit on Sunday.

Harris spoke during the service about what Jesus said about “who is your neighbor.” She said the neighbor may be that man by the side of the road who has faced hardship, who may have opioid addiction, who may have fled “one of the murder capitals of the world and seek refuge here in our country,” is a minimum wage worker who can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment or a teacher working multiple jobs.

Harris told the congregation that they have the power to lift up their neighbors and their country. “The measure of our strength is not about who we beat down, it is about who we lift up,” she said.

Harris also said she knows the pastor can’t tell people who to vote for, but he can them who to pray for, which drew laughter and applause.

Race card and identity politics

On Saturday night, Harris told those gathered at the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People banquet that the term “identity politics” is a 21st century version of “the race card.” Harris said that identity politics is brought up when you talk about civil rights issues, and can mean “hush” or “shut up.”

She said talking about where the country is on civil rights issues is not about identity politics, but about America’s identity.

Harris also said the racial wealth gap is part of America’s identity, and wants to invest in down payments and closing costs for African American homebuyers who have been impacted by redlining.

She mentioned President Donald Trump, but not by name.

“We’ve got a man in the White House who got elected on the slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”

“Great for whom?” she asked.

She also touched on education issues, supporting historically black colleges and universities and increasing teacher pay.

Harris said future generations would ask where everyone was at this moment in the country. She said people who experienced it would tell them not just how they felt, but what they did.

“This is a fight that is not only for the soul of our country, this is a fight born out of love for this country,” Harris said.

The event drew Democratic state and local leaders, including N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, U.S. Rep. David Price, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, McKissick and N.C. Rep. Marcia Morey.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, a pastor, said grace before dinner. Former Mayor Bill Bell, who was honored at the event, noted that he and Harris are both alumni of Howard University.

Cooper spoke briefly, noting that Harris was attorney general of California at the same time he was attorney general of North Carolina.

Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, said Harris is “showing the world that African American women can excel and lead this nation.”

The Durham Committee’s political action committee makes endorsements and has been active in advocating for the African American community for decades. Previous speakers at its Founders’ Day banquet have included U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor and television host.

Tickets to the banquet were sold out.

Harris also campaigned this summer in South Carolina. Her campaign ad lays out her policy agenda, which she calls her “3 a.m. Agenda.”

Before the Saturday event, the Trump campaign sent a statement about Harris’ visit to Durham.

“Whether she was intentionally keeping bail rates high or refusing to release minor offenders from prison to use inmates for cheap labor, Kamala Harris has a controversial record on criminal justice issues. As California’s ‘top cop,’ Harris went as far as jailing parents for their children missing school. North Carolinians deserve to know Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial record does not match her campaign rhetoric,” said Samantha Cotten, regional communications director for the Trump campaign.

Harris has defended her attorney general record in debates.

She has backed away from an initiative that “penalized the parents of children missing school with fines and, potentially, jail time,” McClatchy has reported.

According to a fact check by the Mercury News of San Jose, California, as San Francisco district attorney Harris supported raising cash bail for gun-related charges, but she has since criticized the practice of cash bail.

As for the “cheap labor” claim, the Mercury News reported that lawyers working for Harris as attorney general tried unsuccessfully to “argue against the early release of prisoners, citing needed inmate firefighting labor — but Harris said they did so without her knowledge and publicly criticized the statement at the time.”

On Sunday afternoon, after her visit to St. Joseph AME in Durham, Harris left for a campaign event in Greensboro.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.