In the centennial year of suffrage and 55 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris is projected to become the country’s highest-ranking woman in politics, according to Decision Desk HQ, joining President-elect Joe Biden in the White House as the first woman and Black and South Asian woman to serve as an American vice president.
It is a role that could reshape Americans’ perceptions of women and women of color in political leadership.
A century ago, when women were finally granted the right to vote, Harris’ historic candidacy was unimaginable and unthinkable for most Americans, said Johns Hopkins University historian Martha Jones.
“Except among Black women, there was no robust vision that would permit anyone to imagine where we are,” Jones said. “This is really the legacy of the Voting Rights Act. It is the legacy of women like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, who really bring Black women to Washington and begin to lay claim to Washington as a place where Black women will be office holders, influencers and more.”
On the campaign trail, first as a presidential candidate, and then as the vice presidential nominee, Harris often referenced her candidacies as “what we know can be, unburdened by what has been.”
Her narrative has often been a departure from that of her political rivals. Harris’ ascendance has often meant being the first to hold her position, as district attorney in San Francisco, and later as the attorney general of California.
Harris, 56, is the lone Black woman in the U.S. Senate, and only the second Black woman to serve in that capacity.
Harris was also the only Black woman to run for president in 2020, and only the third Black woman to run as a candidate for a major political party, the first in more than a generation.
Despite being capable and qualified, the path to this moment was never paved with certainty, said Glynda Carr, founder of Higher Heights.
“America is totally different in 2020 than when she ran for president,” said Carr, whose organization endorsed Harris during her presidential bid before she exited the race in December 2019. “The environment around living in a global pandemic, the continued attacks on Blackness and the racial reckoning that has begun in this country created the awakening of the possibilities of having a Black woman on the ticket that didn’t exist when she ran in the Democratic primary.”
In an interview with The 19th in August, days after being named the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Harris herself said Biden choosing her was a bold decision.
“Joe Biden had the audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate. How incredible is that?” Harris said. “That he decided he was going to do that thing that was about breaking one of the most substantial barriers that has existed in our country — and that he makes that decision with whatever risk that brings.”
Harris has helped to shift the notion of electability in American presidential politics and galvanized a crucial part of the electorate — the Black women who have long been the vanguard of the Democratic Party and pushed this cycle to be valued for their input as well as their output, said She the People co-founder Aimee Allison.
“Electability, first and foremost, is about who Black women are inspired by, moved by and willing to put our formidable voting and organizing prowess behind,” Allison said. “Having her on the ticket made the biggest difference this year in terms of being able to reach our voters, have higher turnout and get people to see themselves in the campaign.”
Harris earned her spot on the Democratic general election presidential ticket after a grueling party primary. After returning to the Senate, she continued to push for issues around race and gender, including legislation addressing disparities in pregnancy-related deaths, and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic related to housing, employment and public health data.
On the general election campaign trail, Harris’ status as an alumnae of historically Black Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc., sorority were also assets, fueling fundraising and mobilizing voters and volunteers.
Now a pioneer as vice president-elect, Harris will bring her lived experience as a Black and South Asian American woman to a role both symbolic and substantive, Carr said.
“Her experience as a prosecutor, an executive, and a legislator positions her to be an asset Day One in the White House,” Carr said of Harris. “She literally is going to bring the voices of women, women of color, and Black women into that room when she steps into the Oval Office for the first time.
Harris’ candidacy and future governing represent a new chapter in leadership for women of color, and Black women in particular, said veteran Democratic strategist Karen Finney.
“It normalizes the role that Black women have played throughout the history of this country, that we’re leaders,” Finney said. “For so long, Black women have been in the background and haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s always hard to be the first.”
Seeing Harris at decision-making tables, tackling foreign policy, the economy, climate change or criminal justice can demonstrate that women belong in the highest positions of power, Finney said.
It is not just Harris’ political leadership as a woman of color that will be on display in 2021 and beyond, but that of an increasingly diverse Congress, said Jones.
“The hardest thing for someone like Harris is looking squarely at that gap and that distance and then asking what do you do as someone with a seat at the table to address that? We will increasingly see what it means for Black women to steer this country on critical questions.”
Harris’ candidacy and political success could serve as a model for Black women and women of color seeking higher office, on the continuum laid forth by Shirley Chisholm — in whose spirit Harris launched her campaign for president last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“There will be generations of women who use her blueprint for her political and elected leadership,” Carr said. “What she actually represents is a pipeline.”
With Harris headed to the White House, her Senate seat will be open — and while California is solidly blue, meaning that the balance of the chamber will not be disrupted by her departure, some are calling specifically for Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Harris’ vacancy with a Black woman. The California House delegation currently includes Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass — also discussed as a potential vice presidential nominee this cycle — as well as Rep. Maxine Waters.
Harris’ candidacies have also shone a light on how far the country still has to go on issues of race and gender in politics, said Tina Tchen, chief executive officer of Times Up.
“We are trying to change cultural norms that have existed for millenia.
It wasn’t going to change in four years, and it wasn’t going to change with just one election,” Tchen continued. “Her candidacy is a huge step forward in that generations-long battle for progress. We need to celebrate that step forward and build on it.”
Sen. Kamala Harris announced her bid for president on Martin Luther King Day, the holiday honoring one the world’s most revered leaders. Later that day in January 2019, Harris showed up at her alma mater, Howard University, less than two miles from the White House, the place she was vying to make her home.
“Some people are asking, ‘Why are you bringing everyone together here?’” Harris said on that January day. “It is because Howard University is one of the most important aspects of my life. It is where I ran for my first elected office, which was freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. So, this is where it all began.”
Although Harris ultimately called her presidential campaign quits, citing a lack of funding and dropping out of the most diverse pool of candidates in history, she made history again Wednesday night when she officially accepted the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s vice president, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.
For the alumni and students enrolled in the hundred or so historically Black colleges and universities, Harris’ ascent to be in contention for one of the highest offices in the land has been something to celebrate. Harris made sure they knew the love is mutual; in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, she counted her “HBCU brothers and sisters” as her “family.”
Harris’ supporters and critics who are bonded to her by the shared legacy of an HBCU education are weighing what this moment means to them personally, but also the potential it has to raise the profile of HBCUs more broadly.
“This is a moment in history that is empowering for women, especially women of color, and it is an opportunity to give our voice to HBCUs producing the best,” said Inez Brown, 55, who was initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. at Howard University with Harris in the spring of 1986.
Brown began college at Cornell University, a predominantly White institution, where she says she had a great experience but couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. After a year, she transferred to Howard. Surrounded by so much diversity — more diversity and versatility than you see anywhere else, she said — she felt supported by an institution she felt was committed at its core to her success.
“But even some [Black people], we will sort of look at HBCUs like they are inferior to [predominantly White institutions],” Brown said. “You just have to look at the products that come out of HBCUs and you have to say to yourself, ‘How could people possibly think that way?’”
HBCUs represent just 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities, yet nearly one in five Black people with college degrees have one from these schools. Women have outnumbered men at HBCUs since the 1970s, and these institutions are helping to level the gap in science fields, producing nearly half of all Black women who earned a degree in science, technology, engineering or math from 1995 to 2004.
HBCUs, which were founded primarily after the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved people who were shut out of other higher learning institutions, continue to face their fair share of challenges to secure funding and keep accreditation. Yet they continue to do more with less, graduating more poor Black students than predominantly White schools, and more upwardly mobile Black graduates than their counterparts with much heftier endowments.
These institutions persist as academic powerhouses, producing politicians, physicians and prominent leaders in every field. Graduates are provided a bastion of Blackness before bearing the brunt of bigotry lurking beyond the gates of their campuses.
During their senior year at Howard, Brown and Harris were initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha. Brown has known Harris longer than she hasn’t, and she said their line (the class of women who joined the sorority together) never hesitates to pick up the phone and rally around each other, or show up to an induction — or, if things work in their favor, a presidential inauguration next year.
“Through it all she has been, to us, our line sister Kamala,” Brown said. “She is so authentic, and that is so inspiring for us because you do not have to pretend, forget from where you come, assimilate into society.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded in 1908 on Howard’s campus as the first sorority for Black women, boasting members such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Brown recognizes this moment as meaningful for many, but it’s not lost on her that Harris, who’s broken so many “firsts” in her career, has done so as the member of the first chapter of the first sorority for Black women.
“It is really a nod to our founders,” Brown said. “That they were able to establish something so special and so awesome at a time it was not the norm — for Black women to get together to establish a professional organization legally. It wasn’t just a club. It is a history of excellence. ”
Nearly three decades later, Brittany Foxhall, 28, was initiated into Howard’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same one as Harris. And Foxhall also had the experience of the high-stakes student body elections, coming out victorious as student body president.
“That could legitimately one day be me,” Foxhall said of Harris. “It seems surreal. It’s really powerful. I think Howard kids right now are trying to take ownership over this elation right now, but it means so much more. I’m excited to share her, and share this with people who aren’t Howard alums and aren’t a part of AKA.”
The day Biden announced Harris would join his ticket, Foxhall’s group text with her sorority sisters “blew up.” She felt a mix of emotions: She chewed over not being particularly interested in a Joe Biden presidency, and the question of Harris’ record as a prosecutor.
There was Harris’ 2011 truancy policy during her time as California Attorney General — which Harris has since apologized for — and her choice to be involved with law enforcement at all. That’s just politics, Foxhall ultimately reasoned. All of them have done something that could be deemed problematic, she said. It’s not fair to expect Harris to have had a “2020 mindset” 20 years ago.
“I can’t wrap my head around how anything she’s done in her past is even close to the fascism we’re experiencing now,” Foxhall said.
Foxhall watched the Twitter battles over her “big sister,” and became alarmed that there were people who would prefer to not vote at all. Reading the conversations, Foxhall felt a sense of clarity for what her role would be heading into November.
“As a Howard grad, as a soror, and a Black woman, there needs to be an expectation to protect her,” Foxhall said. “I’m not going to allow this to go down. She’s about to clean up a hell of a mess, and that’s going to be a lot.”
Gabrielle Horton, 29, has added her voice to some of the Twitter conversations leveling criticism against Harris. Despite their shared identities as Black women from California who graduated from an HBCU — Horton went to Spelman College in Atlanta — Harris’ nomination gave Horton no sense of excitement. She is tired.
“I think that this election cycle, 2020, the uprisings, the pandemic, the man that we have in the White House, have sucked all of the energy or any bit of joy I think I might have felt before,” she said.
Like Harris, Horton was bitten by the political bug while attending an HBCU. She worked in the late Rep. John Lewis’ office, and after graduating in 2012, she joined then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign as a field organizer in North Carolina.
Horton financially supported Julián Castro’s bid for the White House. The country “wasn’t ready” for him, she says, but she was hopeful the progressives like him running for office would plant new ideas and push the party more to the left.
“We need an immediate change, people who are responsible and who can step to the plate to lead,” Horton said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect or that we agree on everything. We have a lot of work to do even with Kamala and Joe in office next year, but that’s an easier push than trying to do anything in this administration.”
When Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination, she credited the younger generation with pushing the country where it needs to go. For Horton, that means holding Harris and Biden accountable for their records on crime and law enforcement. In light of the uprisings in response to police brutality this summer, it’s hard to wrestle with this ticket, but at least they’re taking it seriously, Horton said.
Horton wishes she was having “a feel-good time” with an HBCU grad potentially heading to the highest office. But her complicated feelings mirror the reality of being Black in America, holding many things to be true at once — the joy and the trauma, Horton said. She is prepared to hold Harris accountable, just as she feels she has to do the same for HBCUs that have struggled to find ways to be more inclusive of trans and queer people and survivors of sexual assault.
“A lot of HBCUs, including Spelman and including Howard, respectability politics sometimes trumps how all students experience their time,” Horton said. “In many ways some of the pushing and advocacy people have been doing to make them these fully realized spaces to make sure all Black lives matter … is similar to the work we are doing, or have to do, with this Biden-Harris administration.”
But despite her hangups, Horton still feels a connection to the fellow HBCU graduate.
“There’s some experiences only we understand and have had, and it’s a very special connection and bond,” Horton said. “This is not the last HBCU alum we’re going to see in the White House. We can thank her for opening up that door.”
Bennett College, a historically Black college for women in North Carolina, almost lost its accreditation a year ago. It launched the Stand With Bennett campaign and raised more than $8 million to put toward an accreditation appeal and prove its financial viability.
This year, it has a new president at the helm, Suzanne Walsh, who is leading a fully-virtual school year for now. With the coronavirus impacting people of color disproportionately, she just couldn’t see a way to reopen in person. If there’s a silver lining, the fight for Bennett’s future positioned them to be prepared for lower enrollment, reduction in revenue.
Walsh takes pride in Harris’ achievements “as if we all personally helped her,” she said in an interview.
Walsh has worked with HBCUs through her time at different fundraising foundations, but did not attend an HBCU herself. She hopes that Harris being a product of an HBCU gives more visibility to schools like Bennett, whose students joined the Woolworth sit-ins in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, as part of the fight for integration.
“I hope that people do see HBCUs as part of an incredible part of the past and history and also a vibrant springboard for the future — it really is toggling between those two worlds,” Walsh said.
And Walsh is impressed with Biden too. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, she joined a conference call with Biden and a handful of other HBCU presidents — she was the only woman among them. The presidential candidate asked what issues were on their minds, and Walsh said she riffed on her concerns about Breonna Taylor and the role of Black women out in community, businesses and in the streets. Biden circled back to Walsh’s remarks, calling her madame president, and thanked her for bringing up these issues.
“He had such an appreciation and understanding that I didn’t expect for what the conversations were amongst Black women that, quite frankly, it threw me,” Walsh said. “There’s no grandstanding. This is just a tiny conversation of people, there’s no media, we’re just on a phone.”
Dana Williams, chair of the Department of English at Howard University, pointed out that the Biden-Harris ticket represents the first time a Democratic ticket is without an Ivy League degree since 1984.
At this moment in history, the possibility of having an HBCU graduate in the White House “rejects supremacist notions and mythologies about American exceptionalism” that Ivy League institutions uphold, she said. HBCUs have always been about advancing promise, from Howard Law School alumni Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board, and using the school’s resources to prepare the case, to their fostering of notable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, NASA scientist Katherine Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Their students have never had the luxury of accepting the status quo. It’s why Willams herself made the “political decision” to choose Howard, and be trained by the best scholars of literature — whether others recognize them as such or not.
Williams hopes that even if people can’t rally behind Harris, that they can rally behind Black women, who’ve been so reliable, dependable and consistent in politics. Harris’ nomination is a signal, a dare, to ever ignore them again.
“There are Black people who aren’t excited about her candidacy, but I think ultimately, it’s more important that Black women’s vote-labor has finally been acknowledged as valuable in a leadership position,” Williams said. “Black women have saved the Democratic Party over and over again only to be ignored. …We have reached the point where we have commanded the respect of people that should’ve been respecting us all along.”
Williams is a fellow member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and has exclusively studied at HBCUs: bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University in Louisiana, master’s and doctorate from Howard. Williams said she doesn’t think she would’ve been any less excited if Harris weren’t her sorority sister, but it added a “personalization factor.”
Williams said that Harris launching her presidential campaign in January 2019 and going straight to Howard University signaled her consciousness of wanting to be perceived as undeniably Black, connected to institutions that produce “social engineers” and change agents.
“She’s so poised,” Williams said. “It’s part prosecutor, but a tremendous part of it is Black-girl confidence that comes out of an HBCU.”
The August 11 announcement that Joe Biden, the Democratic party’s candidate for the presidency of the United States, had chosen Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, has sent waves of celebration throughout the Caribbean.
Harris’ father, an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, was born in Jamaica when it was still under British rule — and although she identifies as American, Caribbean netizens still claim her as a descendant of the region. So, too, do Caribbean people of Indian descent, as Harris’ mother, a breast cancer scientist, was born in Madras, India.
From Trinidad and Tobago, writer Ira Mathur, herself of Indian descent, felt that the choice allowed “so many of us [to] see ourselves represented.” She wrote on Facebook:
From Madras and Jamaica with love to America […] from the West Indies to South Asia we couldn’t feel prouder or have more hope for a Trump shattered America.
In a piece for CNN, writer Fredreka Schouten contemplated what the move meant for “islanders” like herself:
I, too, am from the Caribbean […] but descended from people who came from all over what the late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite once called ‘a whole underground continent of thought and feeling and history.’
We carry the archipelago within us, looking and listening, always, for bits of what we left behind […] the habit — a preoccupation, really — with detecting the Caribbean heritage in the people around us.
To the nation, Shirley Chisholm represents the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to pursue a major-party nomination for the presidency. To me, she’s also the daughter of a seamstress from Barbados and a factory worker who came from Guyana. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as Secretary of State? His parents hailed from Jamaica. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Barbados roots. […]
Harris, who made a run last year for the Democratic nomination, has navigated public life as a Black woman in America.
That’s not to say she doesn’t embrace all of who she is.
Whether or not the Democrats emerge triumphant come November, Harris has already made history by becoming the first Black and South Asian American woman candidate for a well established political party.
Many social media users suspected Harris would be Biden’s vice-presidential pick, and although most were pleased with the choice, they also understood that it wasn’t a straightforward one.
Renee Cummings, a Trinidad-born criminologist and artificial intelligence (AI) strategist who lives in New York, noted:
She has the experience and she has the look and she has the energy that [Biden] doesn’t have but she also has a lot of baggage when it comes to black and brown men and the criminal justice system. But they must have worked out their strategy and messaging moving forward. She also represents ‘law and order’ and someone who was ‘tough on crime’ and ‘incarcerated a lot of black and brown men’ and they may be seeing that as a good counterbalance for the Trump campaign. She probably polled well among non people of color. She also has a white husband. So the aesthetic works politically. She’s also a very intelligent woman, articulate, and very savvy and will make a good VP. But she’s also half Jamaican so a big moment for Caribbean people in America.
She summarised her thoughts by saying Harris is “great for diversity,” adding:
She is also the daughter of immigrants and represents the promise of America pre-Trump’s attack on immigration. She ticks a lot of boxes.
I completely underestimated the enthusiasm & emotion Kamala’s selection would inspire… how much it would mean to so many. The usual corners of grumbling… but heart full from seeing how happy, proud, energised this is making people. ❤️🙏🏽
Jamaican social media users also found Harris to be a unifying force, and a firm vote of confidence came from Wayne A. I. Frederick, the Trinidad-born president of Howard University, Harris’ alma mater. Posting a photograph of himself and Harris at a graduation ceremony, Frederick said on Facebook:
Today is an extraordinary moment in the history of America and of Howard University. Senator Kamala Harris’ selection as the Democratic vice presidential candidate represents a milestone opportunity for our democracy to acknowledge the leadership Black women have always exhibited, but has too often been ignored. […] As Senator Harris embarks upon this new chapter in her life, and in our country’s history, she is poised to break two glass ceilings in our society with one fell swoop of her Howard hammer!
Harris’ unique experience as a multiethnic child of immigrant parents who were very involved in the activist movements of the 1960s — she was part of the second class of students to be desegregated through busing — undoubtedly helped shape her identity and worldview. In her announcement post on Facebook, she said:
My mom and dad, like so many other immigrants, came to this country for an education. My mother from India and my dad from Jamaica. And the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought them together. Some of my earliest memories are from that time: My parents being attacked by police with hoses, fleeing for safety, with me strapped tightly in my stroller.
That spirit of activism is why my mother, Shyamala, would always tell my sister and me, ‘Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.’
That’s why I became a District Attorney and fought to fix a broken system from within. Why I served as California’s Attorney General. Why I’m proud to represent my state as a U.S. Senator. And it’s why, today, I’m humbled to be joining Joe Biden in the battle to defeat Donald Trump and build a country that lives up to our values of truth, equality, and justice.
Not everyone bought into her explanation. One Twitter user suggested that Harris once used her Jamaican heritage “to uphold an anti-Jamaican stereotype for unaccumulated relatability a broader white audience”. He is referring to a radio interview in which Harris joked about smoking marijuana, after which her father publicly distanced himself from her statement.
Harris’ record of incarcerating high numbers of people of colour is also proving problematic for some, and while there have been opinion pieces that declare the Biden/Harris combo as “disastrous,” some have also deemed it “wise.”
Former Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson, a classmate of Harris’ father, noted the ways in which she has grown:
She has been incisive, she goes to the heart of the issue that has to be resolved, particularly at this time when the US itself is going through severe challenges — including, but not confined to, matters pertaining to race. It is good to have someone on the ticket who can look at that and who has ethnic origins.
Who knows what will happen in the months ahead. But for the islanders keeping score — always reconstructing that continent of islands, if only in our minds — Harris will remain the first daughter of the West Indies on a major-party presidential ticket.
Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, in 1984. In 2008, Alaska’s then-governor Sarah Palin was Republican John McCain’s running mate.
Before Harris was picked as Biden’s running mate, she was his competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination. She is one of many Black American women who have aimed for the highest office in the land despite great odds.
Hands that once picked cotton
African Americans have endured many hurdles to political power in the United States, among them slavery, Jim Crow and disenfranchisement.
As a political science professor, I address issues like these in my government and minority politics classes. But I also teach my students that Black women have a history of political ambition and achievement. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said in 1984 about the progress Black voters made last century, “Hands that once picked cotton will now pick a president.”
Harris is also of Indian descent, making her place on the ticket a meaningful first for two communities of color.
‘Unsuitable’ for the job?
Kamala Harris is a registered Democrat who served as California’s attorney general and later one of the state’s U.S. senators. But, historically, most Black female presidential candidates have run as independents.
In 1968, 38-year-old Charlene Mitchell of Ohio became the first Black woman to run for president, as a communist. Like many other African Americans born in the 1930s, Mitchell joined the Communist Party because of its emphasis on racial and gender equality. Black female communists fought Jim Crow, lynchings and unfair labor practices for men and women of all races.
Other independent Black female presidential candidates have been community organizer Margaret Wright, who ran on the People’s Party ticket in 1976; Isabell Masters, a teacher who created her own third party, called Looking Back and ran in 1984, 1992 and 2004; and teacher Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party ticket, who ran in 1996, 2000 and 2016.
Only one Black woman has ever pursued the Republican nomination: Angel Joy Charvis, a religious conservative from Florida, who wanted to use her 1999 candidacy to “to recruit a new breed of Republican.”
Unbought and unbossed
These Black female presidential candidates were little known. But as the first Black female member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm had years of experience in public office and a national reputation when she became the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Chisholm’s campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.”
She became the target of vehement sexism. One New York Times article from June 1972 described her appearance as, “[Not] beautiful. Her face is bony and angular, her nose wide and flat, her eyes small almost to beadiness, her neck and limbs scrawny. Her protruding teeth probably account in part for her noticeable lisp.”
As a vice president for two terms who had a major role in governing under Barack Obama, Joe Biden knows what the office entails. He has now selected a woman who he believes can not only help him win the election but also to govern if he is elected. It is a watershed moment for African Americans, Asian Americans and women who’ve so long been excluded from so many aspects of politics.