Kamala Harris’ backstory and who influenced her policy views

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U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People, hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU, at the Enclave in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

KCRW talks about Kamala Harris’ family history, influences, and rise in politics — with Melanie Mason, who’s covering the 2020 presidential campaign for the LA Times.

KCRW: It seems that Kamala Harris' political activism predates her birth. Her parents met at a protest, right? 

Melanie Mason: “Yes, her parents met at a civil rights protest. And she talks quite a bit about how that was an influence that she grew up around. I believe that she tells an anecdote about how at one point, she was fussing and her mother asked her what she wants, and Kamala responded, ‘Freedom.’”

Her mom came from India, her father from Jamaica. What did they do once they got to the U.S.? 

“They're both very intellectual academic backgrounds. Her father is an economist from Jamaica. And her mother was a breast cancer researcher who came to the United States to study from India, which is actually quite fascinating because it sort of shows how progressive her family back in India was at the time to send a single daughter to the United States in the 1960s to study. 

So yes, they were very focused on social justice, on civil rights activism, and that is where they met. 

And they were in Oakland, California. They were in a real hotbed of activism and conversations around social justice. So I think they were very much both a product of their own sort of academic and intellectual pursuits, but also of the atmosphere that they had settled once they got to the United States.”

Her parents separated when she was little, and she and her sister were raised primarily by her mom. Was there any estrangement between her and her father?

“Her father really isn't a particularly central figure in her biography. She does talk a little bit about visiting sometimes in Jamaica. But he's been a fairly absent figure. We don't hear from him very much during this time where she's so high profile. 

He spoke out a little bit last year when she did an interview … with The Breakfast Club. … She was asked if she had tried marijuana, and she made a joke about how half of her family is Jamaican. And he actually put out a statement saying that he didn't appreciate that comment. 

But if you hear her talk about her family, and her biography is incredibly focused on her mother for much of her life, it was her mother and her sister. They were a family unit. They lived together in the Bay Area. They moved for a time to Canada, to Montreal, which is where Senator Harris went to high school because her mother was working there.

And so I think that all of the anecdotes, a lot of the personal stories, we really see the influence of her mother as a guiding force in her life.”

Her mother died in 2009 of colon cancer. 

“Senator Harris has talked about how that experience also has maybe shaped her views on health care. ... And I think it also prepared her for expressing empathy and for sort of helping people deal with grief. 

I've heard from people who said that even if she was not a particularly close contact, that she really took the time to reach out to people when she had heard that somebody was going through a loss. And I think that's sort of a product of when you lose somebody very close to you you know how draining that can be, how devastating it can be. 

… I think that the pain of her mother's death also … informed some of those interpersonal skills that I think has served her very well.”

Barack Obama also talked about his grandmother influencing him and his views about health care in particular. Harris has been called the “female Obama,” which is a little dismissive but also accurate, right? They had similar upbringings. 

“There is a lot in terms of the immigrant background, in terms of … thinking a lot about identity. And I think that is something that you see as a throughline in both of their careers. 

But I think one key distinction is that ... President Obama was very public in thinking about identity. I mean, he wrote a whole memoir, ‘Dreams From my Father,’ and talked about sort of what it was like to grow up so much as an ‘other’ in all of these places that he was. 

Harris, for the most part, has kind of shown a real reticence publicly to get into this. She will certainly talk about her heritage, her background. And I think that something was very clear from her presidential campaign last year — is that her Indian heritage is very important to her and her Blackness is very important to her. Remember, she did go to Howard University, a historically Black college and university.”

Harris went to Howard University, got her law degree from Hastings in San Francisco, and became a prosecutor. She then became district attorney of San Francisco, then California attorney general. Did she always believe that she could make change from the inside, that it was better to be an inside player than to be an outside social activist?

“That's certainly how she has explained her career choices now as as a politician. A line that she often says is that she had to defend her decision to be a prosecutor as one would a thesis. … Because she grew up steeped in civil rights activism, I think that there are people in her life who felt very skeptical of maybe the systems that were put in place. 

But she often talks about how it was the civil rights attorneys that really sort of inspired her. So people like Thurgood Marshall, for example, where she saw that ... playing the inside game and using the law as a way to make progress could be the best way to to make advancements.”

She married Douglas Emhoff in 2014. He's being referred to as the “second man” if Biden and Harris win in November. He's an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. Do we know much about this family that she has married into? 

“Both yes and no. I mean, Doug was a very frequent presence on her presidential campaign trail. He's very active on social media, and in fact, I think he has quite a following on social media. Because he provides sort of behind-the-scenes glimpses into what it was like on the campaign trail. 

And even in the last few days, when we saw Harris being named to the ticket, he would be tweeting behind-the-scenes pictures. 

He has two children who are grown. And Kamala refers to herself as … a stepmother. It does really seem as though she has formed tight bonds with them. 

But in some ways, she has also really, I think, protected that part of herself. We did not, for example, see her stepchildren out on the campaign trail for her in the presidential campaign. 

And so I'll be interested to see if going forward, they may start making more of a presence because of course, it's going to be their lives too. They’re very much affected if she gets elected in November.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rebecca Mooney