What Kamala Harris Learned About Power at Howard

WASHINGTON — Lita Rosario remembers when she first noticed the girl named Kamala.

Ms. Rosario, a senior at Howard University in 1982, was the only woman on the school’s debate team. Kamala Harris, a freshman, was earning a reputation at the Punch Out, a gathering place where students would argue the topics of the time — civil rights, apartheid in South Africa and the school’s complicated relationship with President Ronald Reagan.

Ms. Harris had substance, but Ms. Rosario was impressed by her style. A confidence, an intensity, a level of preparation that was rare for new students.

“She was so spirited and cogent in her arguments,” Ms. Rosario said. “I remember her enthusiasm. And I mostly remember that she was never intimidated.”

As a student at Howard, called “The Mecca” by those who know its legacy, Ms. Harris settled into the pragmatic politics that have defined her career. She participated in protests, but was a step removed from the more extreme voices on campus. She sparred with the Black Republicans on the debate team but made no secret that she thought some tactics by activists on the left were going too far. She extolled the values of racial representation, joining a generation of Black students who decided to step into the institutions — in government and the corporate world — that were unavailable to their parents.

Ms. Harris, who declined to be interviewed about her college years, said through a campaign spokeswoman that she was proud to be back at Howard — occasionally working from an office on campus during the campaign — and that the college was “a place that shaped her.”

In interviews, more than a dozen classmates and friends who knew Ms. Harris and attended Howard themselves placed their experience in the larger context of Black politics in the 1980s and a changing Washington. They were the children of the civil rights movement, the early beneficiaries of federal school desegregation, with newfound access to institutions and careers. Words like mass incarceration and systemic racism were not yet widely used, though the effects of both were becoming visible around Howard’s campus.

Instead, there was an overarching belief among them that increased racial representation could bend any institution to their will, that participating in a system many viewed as unjust was an important form of harm reduction. Ms. Harris has personally cited this belief in years since, including when she discusses her decision to become a prosecutor.

More than 30 years later, the power and limitations of Ms. Harris’s instinct to couple insider politics with her lens as a Black woman and first-generation American are on display as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate. On the vice-presidential debate stage last week, Vice President Mike Pence criticized her record as prosecutor, arguing that it disproportionately affected people of color.

“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” Ms. Harris responded, a response that is also a callback to a worldview that she formed in college. That’s when she and her classmates weighed what to do in the world and decided a system that had historically oppressed Black Americans could be made to work in their favor.

In a 2017 commencement address to Howard students, she told stories about how her presence in a prosecutor’s office created more equitable outcomes.

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“There is no limit to what you can do when you detect and reject false choices,” Ms. Harris told the students. “You can march for Black lives on the street, and you can ensure law enforcement accountability by serving as a prosecutor or on a police commission.”

“The reality is on most matters, somebody is going to make the decision — so why not let it be you?” she added. “Because, if we’re going to make progress anywhere, we need you everywhere.”

Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, arrived at Howard in 1982 after attending a majority-white high school in Montreal. But the college choice was not a search for her for Black identity. Friends and classmates are adamant: She was comfortable in her skin.

Sonya Lockett met Ms. Harris during their sophomore year. By that time, Ms. Harris had established herself as a campus leader, whose reputation for academic intensity was matched by her professional sense of style — neatly pressed slacks, dress shoes on the Yard and the slick short haircut called the “Snatch Back” that was all the early 1980s rage. Besides joining debate, Ms. Harris was elected freshman class representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council.

“You couldn’t tell us anything,” Ms. Lockett said. “We were cute and free and independent in the big city.”

Friends said Ms. Harris was also popular. Unlike other members of the debate team, she was a mainstay of the campus social life, enjoying trips to the Ibex Lounge near campus and Sunday soul nights at bars in Georgetown.

Ms. Harris later sought to join Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., a highly competitive and secretive process particularly at a school like Howard, where the group was founded in 1908. Ms. Harris, however, was a shoo-in, some members of her sorority said, a reflection to how entrenched the Kamala fan club had become by her senior year in 1986, when she joined the chapter as one of 38 new members. According to the close knit group she joined the sorority with, called her “line sisters,” Ms. Harris organized service projects and was a leader of the group during the grueling pledging process.

“Everybody was at the top of their class. They were homecoming queen or king, they were student body president, valedictorian, and they all came together in this place called Howard University,” said Lorri Saddler-Rice, who joined the sorority at the same time. “You’re talking about some standout students, but then you had some who were standouts among the standouts and she was definitely one of them. She was very visible.”

Politically, Ms. Harris’s years at Howard were also defined by what she avoided. Throughout the 1980s, the student body was split on the tactics of Black activism, and how far institutions should be pushed on issues like apartheid. More vocal student leaders were arrested outside the South African Embassy and the U.S. Capitol, and some students hosted South African revolutionaries who promoted violence, according to news reports from the Howard newspaper “The Hilltop.” On domestic issues, the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson announced his first presidential run in 1984, bringing the progressive message of a cross-racial connection of poor Americans to the national stage.

During Ms. Harris’s freshman year, she was heavily involved in campus activism, according to her memoir. She attended apartheid demonstrations “almost every weekend” and was also involved in a campus sit-in after a student newspaper editor was expelled following a slate of stories about sex discrimination.

Later in her collegiate career, her political involvement shifted from campus activism to seeking an inside view of government. According to her memoir, Ms. Harris interned at the Federal Trade Commission and in the office of Senator Alan Cranston of California. She held jobs at the National Archives and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

This transition, from outsider to insider, was typical for Black activism in the 1980s, said Jennifer Thomas, a Howard professor who did not know Ms. Harris but attended the college in the same decade. During those years, a generation of students felt a burden to carry the mantle of the civil rights movement of their parents, but there was no consensus on how to do so.

“This sense of political awareness was very common on campus, regardless of your major,” Ms. Thomas said. “But it wasn’t like the activist radical, but a baseline of being politically astute.”

Ms. Rosario said a group of Howard students — she called them the “purist wing” — argued that the student body’s embrace of elite, white institutions was a failure, and that they were “not living up to the legacy of the ’60s.”

That was not how she and Ms. Harris saw it.

“There was a sense that there weren’t as compelling issues for us,” she said. “Formal segregation had ended. Should we have taken to the streets? Mass incarceration, I guess, was beginning to really happen around us. I don’t know that at that time, we realized what a problem mass incarceration would become.”

When an 18-year-old Ms. Harris arrived in Washington in 1982, more than 70 percent of the residents in the nation’s capital were Black and Howard was the hub of the city’s Black elite, a speaking stop for dignitaries and a social hub for Washington’s Black political class.

At the Howard Hotel, one of the city’s only Black-owned hotels, members of the recently formed Congressional Black Caucus would gather for drinks and food, and students could see Black lawmakers like Mickey Leland of Texas and William Gray of Pennsylvania.

“What you begin to see at Howard is that Black people are involved in every area of life,” said Eric Easter, who graduated from Howard in 1983 and knew Ms. Harris. “The mayor, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, everybody’s Black.”

However, the seeds of inequality that would become the basis for modern social justice movements were also coming into view.

At Howard during Ms. Harris’s tenure, students recalled drug markets operating openly near campus and drug use in common areas. They also recall the violent police response that ended up being called the “War on Drugs.”

In previous interviews, Ms. Harris has said she became a prosecutor partly because of seeing those conditions in her college years. And in her 2017 commencement speech she tied her legal and political career to the Howard motto of “Truth and Service,” saying that she fashioned her work within powerful institutions in service to the Black communities that shaped her.

Ms. Rosario, her former debate mentor, said she remembered when Ms. Harris gave a similar explanation during a phone conversation after law school, when she decided to become a prosecutor rather than a public defender.

“I remember asking her, ‘Are you sure?’” Ms. Rosario said. “There was this discussion at the time, about whether Black professionals should become prosecutors or go the government route.”

“She did it because she really believed she would make a difference,” she said.

Younger Black activists now largely reject this framework. They don’t see Blackness, or Black leadership inside a system, as an inherent step toward progress.

Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, the president of Howard, believes the distance between Ms. Harris’s generation and some students today is a natural outcome of progress. Newer movements expand the range of Black possibility, he said, but the pursuit of justice is constant.

“Howard alums, every day, they are out in the communities blocking and tackling and giving agency to those who otherwise feel under represented,” Mr. Frederick said.

However, he added, “younger people today, there is less willingness to have a conversation with people who don’t agree with you. Because I think younger people today feel that just hasn’t worked for us well in the past.”

Since graduating, Ms. Harris has been an active part of the Howard alumni community. Her line sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. said she speaks with them regularly, even from the campaign trail, checking in recently with one member who was coping with a health issue. At an event in Atlanta during her presidential run, she saved a front-row seat for an A.K.A. sister she knew would be in attendance, telling no one.

Former classmates say that watching her campaign, on the debate stage and in other arenas, feels familiar to them: Her preparation. Her intensity. Her laugh.

“That full, mouth-open laugh,” said Ms. Sadler. “Just a full on party laugh.”

Mr. Frederick, the Howard president, saw Ms. Harris a few weeks ago, while she was working out of an office at the school. At one point while preparing for the debate, she huddled with staff at the school’s Founders library, the same place that lawyers for Brown v. Board of Education prepared before they argued before the Supreme Court.

“She was so nostalgic about being in that space, and that history was not lost on her,” Mr. Frederick said. “It was good to be home.”

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