The Truths We Hold: An American Journey

The Truths We Hold: An American Journey
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: 8/4/2020
A New York Times bestseller From Kamala Harris, one of America's most inspiring political leaders and Joe Biden's pick for his 2020 running mate, a book about the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.

Book Summary - The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris

Key Insights

Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris wrote her autobiography to introduce herself to American voters. Her book offers a glimpse at her life as the biracial child of immigrants, her experience as a liberal public prosecutor, and her commitment to protecting the weak as the District Attorney of California. She tells vivid stories about the nuanced nature of the criminal justice system, and the way prosecutors and DAs can protect those in need while upholding the law. Harris also uses her book to talk about the worst offenses of the Trump presidency, and her policies on immigration, healthcare, and Russian interference in elections.

Key Points

Harris’s early life as the child of two accomplished immigrants prepared her for a career in law.

Harris was born in Oakland, California in 1964. Her parents, Jamaican immigrant Donald Harris and Indian immigrant Shyamala Gopalan, met while studying at UC Berkeley, and were bonded by their shared passion for civil rights. Harris was raised in a biracial household full of jazz records and Indian spices. Her mother, an award-winning vocalist in India, would sing along to her father’s favorite gospel records.

Harris’s parents were both intelligent and accomplished -- her mother was a breast cancer researcher and her father taught economics. But as Harris considered what she wanted to do when she grew up, she knew she didn’t want to follow in her parents’ footsteps. Instead, she looked to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement - Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. Harris decided to become a lawyer, and use her power and knowledge of the law to stand up for the rights of people like herself. She decided to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. and then headed back to her beloved California to graduate from UC Hastings College of Law.

Harris became a public prosecutor to protect the weak and punish serious offenders.

Harris established herself as a prominent player in the legal community while in law school. She became president of the Black Law Students Association and took it upon herself to ensure that she and all other black law students had the same opportunities as their white counterparts. She set her sights on becoming a public prosecutor, despite the reservations of her family. While her parents though of the justice system as merely a tool to marginalize and oppress people of color, Harris saw the role as an opportunity to bring injustices into the court system.

Harris’s philosophy on public prosecution was more nuanced than most. The typical perspective on district attorneys is that they are either hard or soft on crime. There is no room for middle ground. But Harris knew that her mission was different. She didn’t believe that serious crimes should go unpunished. But she refused to punish marginalized people for minor crimes that were the result of unfortunate circumstances, bias, or lack of resources. Rather than taking a single approach to sentencing, Harris decided to offer leniency to those in need - people who, with better luck or a different skin color, might never have gotten to the courtroom in the first place.

Harris first realized she could make a difference when she advocated for a young mother while working as an intern in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. The woman had been swept up as a bystander during a major drug bust, and by Friday of that week she was still in jail. Harris worried that the woman would lose her job or her children if she wasn’t released that afternoon. Harris begged the judge for a hearing and persuaded the court to release the woman over the weekend. Though she was only an intern, Harris realized in that moment that she could use her power to change lives.

But alongside these victories, Harris experienced painful setbacks. After graduating law school she got a job as a deputy district attorney but failed to pass the bar exam the first time. She was discouraged, but persisted and managed to pass the test on her second attempt. But even after this small victory, Harris had many years of pain ahead of her. As a public prosecutor, she watched a six-year-old girl accuse her teenage brother of rape but was unable to bring the case to trial. In another trial, a fourteen-year-old girl was gang-raped. Harris got justice for her client, but couldn’t protect her from future harm - after the trial, she was trafficked in San Francisco.

After creating a task force to help sexually exploited children, Harris saw that she could make a difference and decided to run for office.

After many years as a public prosecutor, Harris was promoted to oversee a team of prosecutors at the San Francisco district attorney’s office. Though managing other prosecutors was a step in the right direction, Harris was disturbed by what she found at the San Francisco DA’s office. Lawyer’s shared computers, didn’t have access to email, and there was no filing system to speak of - case files were sometimes shredded as soon as the trial was over.

Harris lasted a year and a half in the disorganized office before she was moved to the San Francisco city attorney’s office, where she took on a similar role as head of the division for children and family services. During her time in the city attorney’s office, she started a task force to help sexually exploited children. She set up safe houses for former sex workers, allowing them to receive treatment and heal from past traumas. This work made her realize that she was capable of creating policies that could make a difference.

But Harris couldn’t get the DA’s office out of her mind. After a year and a half working with children and families, she decided it was time to make a change in the criminal division in San Francisco. She filed a bid to run for District Attorney of San Francisco.

Harris’s opponent was an incumbent DA known as Kayo, a hard-hitting former boxer. For her first campaign event, she stood outside a grocery store and used an ironing board as a desk to gather signatures. She was the only black woman in a position held by predominantly white men, and she stood out. She won the election and served as the DA for two terms.

Harris’s mission to fight bias and reduce recidivism rates got her noticed on the national level.

As the DA of San Francisco, Harris had her work cut out for her. She focused her attention first on boosting morale for prosecutors. She bought new equipment and cleaned up the office. She started holding regular staff meetings where prosecutors were acknowledged for their hard work on each case, whether they won or lost.

Harris’s mission in terms of reform was two-fold. She was disturbed by the huge number of inmates clogging up the criminal justice system - more than 2.1 million people at the time the book was written -- and even more disturbed by the number of incarcerated people who would offend again in the first three years after release. She created a program to reduce recidivism called Back on Track, which would provide lenient sentencing for minor crimes. In exchange for a lenient sentence, offenders were required to submit to regular drug testing, participate in work training, learn financial literacy and parenting skills, and more. The cost per participant was half the price of a standard trial and a fraction of the cost of a year in prison. On top of that, only 10% of people who participated in the Back on Track program offended again.

On the other side of the fence, Harris focused her attention on a backlog of unsolved murder cases. She encouraged police to start a campaign to encourage witnesses to come forward with new information and asked probing questions about open investigations. The result was a 25% decrease in a backlog of over 70 cases by the end of her two terms.

Her work as DA eventually earned Harris a seat as attorney general of California. In that role, she started making big changes around bias and inequity in the justice system. When she saw that 90% of people in America can’t afford to pay their bail, she worked across party lines to pass a bill to change bail policies. She started a program to train police officers about implicit bias in an attempt to reduce violence against black constituents. During the recession, she fought hard to negotiate a larger settlement from big banks who tricked California homeowners into accepting mortgages they could not afford.

After years of good work as attorney general of California, Harris got a phone call from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He asked her to take his seat as part of Obama’s cabinet. Harris asked about the possibility of implementing a federal version of her Back on Track program, but Holder insisted the money wasn’t there. She rejected the seat, and instead decided in 2016 to run for U.S. senate.

During her first year as a senator, Harris came face-to-face with Trump’s destructive policies.

Harris was deeply disheartened by President Trump’s election in 2016. As a defender of civil liberties, she was concerned about his bias against marginalized communities, especially immigrants. Under Trump, Harris watched immigration arrests increase by 37%. As a prosecutor, she knew these arrests were counter-intuitive - they targeted women and children seeking asylum, and created a culture of fear that stopped victims from coming forward to name big-time criminals working across the border.

As a senator, Harris joined the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - a seat that was vacant because it didn’t put senators in the limelight. Only a few weeks after she was sworn in, a security probe determined that there was Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Suddenly, Harris and the Select Committee on Intelligence were the focus of news coverage around the world. Harris was a brutal force in the courtroom during the Mueller Investigation and subsequent report. She refused to accept the right’s assurances that there was no intentional interference in the election.

As a Democratic candidate, Harris committed herself to healthcare and immigration reform.

Her work in the senate and brief period in the spotlight during the Russia probe lead Harris to her next endeavor - running for president. She joined a crowd of Democratic-nominee hopefuls on the debate stage and became known for promoting Medicare for all and immigration reform.

Harris uses her book as a platform to express her concern about the current state of American healthcare and immigration policy. She sees these issues are vital to improving equality in the United States. There is as much as a twenty-year gap in life expectancy between people born in predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods versus predominantly poor, Black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore. Harris believes that making healthcare a right, rather than a privilege, will improve quality of life for the most marginalized people in the country. Her policies on immigration match her policies as attorney general and DA - she wants to support asylum seekers and other marginalized communities, and focus on prosecuting violent criminals.

Though Harris didn’t win the nomination, in August 2020 Joe Biden announced that Harris would be his running mate in the November election. As vice president, she maintains her focus on healthcare and immigration reform. If elected, Harris would be the first-ever female vice president, and the only person of color to hold the office.

The Main Take-away

Kamala Harris has a long history of working within the justice system to defend marginalized people. As a biracial woman and the child of immigrants and civil rights activists, she knows that the system too often fails people of color. Harris dedicated her career as a public prosecutor to reducing bail, offering alternative sentencing to at-risk and marginalized offenders, and protecting immigrants and sexually-exploited women. She is willing and able to work across party lines to do what is best for her constituents, and will not grab power if it means compromising her principles. She is firmly against Trump’s policies and believes that immigration and healthcare reform are the first steps toward a more equitable America.

About the Author

Kamala Harris is a U.S Senator and former San Franciso district attorney and California attorney general. She was elected to her current position in 2016. In 2019, she became a Democratic candidate for president. In August 2020, she was selected as the Vice Presidential candidate alongside running mate Joe Biden. When she was elected in 2016, Harris became the second African American woman and the first South Asian American woman to serve in the U.S. senate.


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