Making Sense of Kamala's Record: 'The Truths We Hold' Review
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
When I decided to read Kamala Harris’s 2019 Memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, I wanted to become more excited about her historic run for Vice President. I wanted to be able to defend the former prosecutor to my liberal friends, many of whom write her off as nothing more than a “cop” who, in her years as a prosecutor, worked to uphold policing and mass incarceration.
I was cautiously optimistic about her, mainly because like so many other women, I need a champion on the presidential ticket.
The Truths We Hold is a fairly conventional political memoir; a calculated amalgamation of biography, reflections, and policy positions. Throughout the book, Senator Harris explores her own personal experiences with broken systems in order to introduce her positions on how to fix them.
She establishes herself as a champion of womens’ issues, driven by the women she considers her champions. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was equally as devoted a mother to two daughters as she was a biomedical scientist specializing in breast cancer research. Her sister, Maya, is a successful lawyer and policy advocate.
One of Ms. Harris’s greatest tasks in the memoir is to reconcile her political past with the current call to dismantle and reimagine the criminal justice system. She crafts an unapologetic narrative of her career as a prosecutor; a history which has made it difficult for liberal voters, who condemn the failures of the criminal justice system (myself included), to warm to her as their vice presidential nominee. This history, she argues, has placed her at the forefront of criminal justice reform and compelled her to take a firm hand in defending the vulnerable. “I was going to be a prosecutor in my own image,” she writes (26).
When Ms. Harris began her career as an assistant District Attorney for Alameda County, 79 percent of elected prosecutors in the country were white men. Ms. Harris explains that at this time, criminal justice policy was trending towards a “tough on crime” stance, meaning harsher sentences and stronger police presence. Her colleagues around the country, including U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis at the time, were known to be actively ramping up sentences and conviction rates (2). Ms. Harris was a member of a generation of prosecutors that saw a shift in values regarding crimes and convictions - and held the key to reform.
Throughout her career as a prosecutor, Ms. Harris did indeed gain a reputation for being tough - largely on behalf of the female victims she defended. Fighting for women is a common thread throughout her time in the Alameda County DA’s office and tenure as San Francisco DA. She worked in a unit that focused on prosecuting sex crimes: she stood up for women and children who had been abused. She discusses working closely with mothers of homicide victims as District Attorney. These women empowered her to ensure that her office did not neglect homicide cases.
In my reading of the memoir, taking cases of rape and homicide seriously was Ms. Harris’s way of proving her toughness and gaining legitimacy as a woman in a male-dominated space; however, she did not let her attention waiver on the systematic inequalities that the criminal justice system so often reflects and perpetuates.
While Ms. Harris has been lauded for her reentry program, “Back on Track,” which helps formerly imprisoned people earn GEDs and complete community service so that their records may be expunged, she argues that her choice to focus on child truancy is what especially set her apart as a “progressive prosecutor.”
Ms. Harris admits that her choice to take on child truancy issues seemed unexpected to many, but she confidently defends it as an effort to tackle the root of the problem of mass incarceration. She explains how she learned that more than 80 percent of imprisoned people were high school dropouts and how she went against the advice of her advisers in order to develop a truancy initiative that would keep kids in schools.
“The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address their causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice,” she writes (49-50).
In the later chapters, Harris’s voice and votes as a Senator further distinguish her as a beacon to women and vulnerable communities in the midst of the Trump administration’s rhetoric of hate and oppression (she does not brush over the fact that she was elected to the U.S. Senate on the same night that Donald Trump was elected president). Ms. Harris spoke at the Women’s March on Washington just after being sworn in to the Senate, the day after Trump’s inauguration. “I talked about women’s issues,” she writes, “at least what I see as women’s issues: the economy, national security, health care, education, criminal justice reform, climate change.” Her political footing as an advocate for women would drive her to institute progressive legislation across the agenda.
Closing her memoir, she leaves us to think about the actions of another champion and the prevalence of truth in the absence of fairness. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms. Harris heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in what she calls one of the most extraordinary displays of courage she has seen in her lifetime.“We will face with conviction that change is possible - knowing that truth is like the sun. It always rises” (276).
An unspoken truth in Ms. Harris’s memoir is the uphill battle she faces to become likeable as a female candidate on the presidential ticket - one of the most scrutinizable positions one can hold. She takes this truth in stride, letting her story speak for itself regarding her ability to serve as Vice President.
As she narrates her life and career, Senator Harris gracefully fulfills qualities that are demanded of her: as a woman, she must come off warm, maternal, and relatable. As someone on the presidential ticket against Donald Trump, she must be tough, determined, and sharp. It is in this way that she becomes our champion. She insists upon what much of America still must learn: that these two sets of qualities are not mutually exclusive.
Harris, Kamala, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Penguin Press, 2019.