How Kamala Harris' 'Breakfast Club' Gaffe Snowballed Into a Right-Wing-Led Scandal
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Kamala Harris’ Breakfast Club fiasco shouldn’t have transformed into what it did. But it speaks to a larger issue that Harris will continue to deal with throughout her campaign.
In the age of social media, trivial topics can become much larger very quickly.
This was the case with Kamala Harris when news publications, Okayplayer included, wrote that she claimed to have listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking weed in college, even though both of the artists were still unknown at the time. What began as an amusing conspiracy theory then became a means of discrediting her and accusing her of pandering.
But a point is being missed here. That the trajectory in which something so mundane incited such extreme responses from people skeptical or supportive of — as well as in opposition of — Harris, is arguably a sum of multiple parts: post-Barack Obama identity politics and representation fatigue and frustration; the anxieties of misinformation in the age of fake news and how that’s used against people; and Harris’ track record as a prosecutor which conflicts with some of the stances she has adopted in her bid for presidency.
The exchange between Harris and The Breakfast Club hosts Charlamagne Tha God and DJ Envy that birthed this moment has been picked apart. Derived from an earlier part of their interview where Harris admitted to smoking marijuana in college, even jokingly saying she inhaled (an obvious nod to Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale” comment when he ran for president in 1992).
Here’s the exchange transcribed:
DJ Envy: What does Kamala Harris listen to?
Charlamagne Tha God: What was you listening to when you was high? What was on? What song was playing?
DJ Envy: Snoop —
Kamala Harris: Oh yeah, definitely, Snoop. Uh huh, Tupac. For sure, for sure.
Although Ian Sams, National Press Secretary for Harris, and Charlamagne have downplayed the exchange as a joke, it doesn’t come across that way. Sure, Harris laughs, but in context with where Charlamagne’s question came from, it’s not an unwarranted or irrelevant curiosity. Envy also suggesting Snoop lends itself to the question; it’s not a stretch to imagine Envy said Snoop because of his association with weed.
In this moment, Harris could’ve clarified. Two questions were produced but each one had validity to them, even if one was more amusing. But that didn’t happen — not only did she agree with Snoop but even added Tupac of her own volition.
The fact that Envy followed this up with “What do you listen to now? What’s your favorite hip-hop artist now?” only seems to further support the notion that Harris’ responses weren’t interpreted as answers to his previous question but Charlamagne’s question.
The intent of the initial reporting of this was to highlight how funny all of this was. Incited by this viral tweet, it was an opportune moment to highlight something amusing and bizarre that was at the intersection of hip-hop and politics as it pertains to black people, two subjects integral to Okayplayer.
Do politicians pander? Yes. Do they make stuff up? Yes. But this report wasn’t a commentary on that or her policies or her blackness — it was just a comical observation contextualizing what came across as her essentially saying that she listened to Snoop and Tupac while smoking weed in college — whether she meant to or not.
Where the topic shifted was when it was reported by outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, two news outlets known for its right-wing and conservative leanings, transforming it into another indication of Harris’ inauthenticity particularly as it pertains to issues of race and identity. Right-wing social media figure Tomi Lahren also contributed, tweeting Fox’s report with the following caption: “Kammy trying to be cool again.”
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) February 12, 2019
Both Sams and Charlamagne have since essentially blamed this on the right wing, which is fair (although I believe the latter is downplaying his own role.) The intent behind the likes of Fox and Breitbart reporting this — with the former’s Fox & Friends even dedicating time in their segment to the story — is to further alienate their viewers from Harris. (Seriously, just listen to the way correspondent Steve Doocy pronounces Tupac’s name. An absolute travesty.) Sure, countless statements are used to undermine black people seeking political positions, especially when it comes to the presidency.
Steve Doocy pronounces “Tupac” like it rhymes with “Aflac” pic.twitter.com/AkihntlvnU
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) February 13, 2019
But for Sams and Charlamagne (and most importantly Kamala), what could’ve been a better response to the right-wing slander was to not address them directly, and instead acknowledge the miscommunication for what it was — a fun and lighthearted misunderstanding that only an idiot would use against her. Instead, it seems as if they’re hesitant to do so.
The quickness with which to field the blame and not understand how this is a teachable moment to build trust with people — particularly black people — who are skeptical of Harris is a problem, too. Harris not only has to deal with the past performance of Hillary Clinton but the post-identity politics and representation of Barack Obama.
There’s no denying how necessary Obama was to the United States on a representational level. He, alongside Michelle Obama, showed that a black person and their black family could lead a nation. As the first black president, there was a presumption that he’d do right by of us, solely because of him being black. Since his leave, black people have been able to see the ways in which he did and didn’t better our lives.
Clinton faced constant charges of inauthenticity throughout her presidential campaign, particularly when it came to black voters. From doing the Nae Nae on Ellen to her memorable own Breakfast Club appearance where she said she carried hot sauce in her purse (that same year was the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation” which featured the line “I got hot sauce in my bag”), Clinton was viewed with a skepticism, her antics — and even her admission that there is “systemic racism in our criminal justice system” — were not enough to make people forget about her “super-predators” remark in 1996.
Harris has found herself dealing with challenges both Obama and Clinton endured. There is the obvious race-related ones, with people questioning the validity of her blackness and if she’ll be able to appeal to black voters nationally. (Harris’ mother is Tamil Indian and her father is Jamaican.) On the other extreme is people falsely claiming that she’s ineligible to run for president because of her parents’ immigration status, recalling the birther conspiracy theory Obama had to endure both before and during his presidency.
Harris’ record on criminal justice as a prosecutor, district attorney, and state attorney general has come into question following her presidential bid. As Vox reported:
“A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.”
Now, with Harris admitting she smoked marijuana in college, her record as a prosecutor faces even more scrutiny, as well as the fact she opposed marijuana legalization during her time as attorney general.
Harris’ Breakfast Club fiasco shouldn’t have transformed into what it did. But it speaks to a larger issue that Harris is already dealing with and will continue to throughout her campaign: the skepticism some people have of her as a result of her criminal justice record.