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Kamala Harris, Biden's VP Pick, Makes Black And Asian Representation History

Aug 13, 2020
Originally published on August 13, 2020 4:53 am

California Sen. Kamala Harris will become the next Vice President of the United States, shattering another racial and gender barrier in American politics, at the end of a bruising presidential race and a bitterly divided electorate.

Harris claimed her place in history on Friday after a bruising battle for the White House, at the conclusion of which President Trump falsely claimed victory with millions of votes outstanding, and his legal team pursued action amid the close race. It also closes an election season upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and a fierce national reckoning over race, justice and police brutality.

Democrats were seeking a victory that would demonstrate a repudiation of President Donald Trump and the direction in which he is leading the country. That did not happen this year, in a race with razor-thin margins in some key states, and there was no Democratic wave. But in Harris's elevation to the vice presidency, the party and the country have marked a significant milestone in a caustic political environment.

Harris, 56, will bring a legion of firsts to the vice presidency: the first woman, the first Black person, the first Indian American and the first Asian American to hold the office. She will also be the first graduate of a historically Black college and first member of a Black sorority to do so.Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, will also be the first biracial vice president.

"It sends a message about what kind of country we are today," said Manisha Sinha, a professor of American history at the University of Connecticut. "An interracial democracy that represents people, men and women, from all over the globe. I think that's a very good thing for American democracy. And for me personally, it gives me a sense of national belonging that may not have been there before to some extent."

It is a jubilant moment for many women across the country, but most notably for Black women activists who pushed Biden to name a Black woman as his running mate. Black women have been longtime party stalwarts, and were a key constituency that helped deliver Biden the Democratic nomination, though activists say the contributions of Black women have often been overlooked and taken for granted.

"Black women have always been the backbone of this Democratic Party, and oftentimes not valued for our ability to lead," said Barbara Lee, the congresswoman from Oakland, Calif., who was a co-chair of Harris's presidential bid. "But I tell you now, Black women are showing that Black women lead, and we'll never go back to the days where candidates only knew our value in terms of helping them get elected. Now they will see how we govern from the White House."

Lee said the moment made her think back to working on the campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the pioneering first Black woman to serve in Congress and first woman to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

"When Kamala was selected as the vice presidential nominee, I thought about Shirley Chisholm, and I thought about how it took all this time, but how happy she must be that the seeds she planted are now being sewn," Lee said.

Glynda Carr, the president of Higher Heights, a group dedicated to building the political power of Black women, described the moment as "game changing."

"Kamala Harris' win is going to change the way we think about what leadership looks like," she said. "My goddaughters will know the possibilities that exist for their political leadership if they want to pursue that. I was most prideful to see my little goddaughter, who is in pre-K, standing at that TV, one inch away, looking at Sen. Kamala Harris."

Harris is also a prominent face of a generation of children of immigrants who are a growing political force in their own right. More than a quarter of American adults today are immigrants or children of immigrants.

"Her background is something that we often celebrate about America, that we are this immigrant melting pot, we are a place where anybody can succeed who can come to America and find opportunity, and her family did that," said Chryl Laird, an assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College.

Biden's selection of Harris as his running mate earlier this year, and her ascension to the vice presidency, is a nod to the future of the Democratic Party. Her place on the ticket could well pave the way for Harris to become the leader of the party in four or eight years.

The first time that Biden and Harris appeared together as the Democratic ticket, Biden nodded to the history that Harris had made — and the barriers that she could break in the future.

"This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up — especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities. But today, today, just maybe, they're seeing themselves for the first time in a new way," Biden said at their first event as political partners.

"It is not without struggle"

Harris herself has discussed, cautiously at times, her own trailblazing status and has acknowledged that the experience of being a "first" or "the only" can often come with its own battle scars.

"When you break things, that can be painful. Sometimes you get cut. Sometimes you bleed," she has said, reflecting on her own experiences — and on those of those who came before her. "It will be worth it every time, but it is not without struggle."

In the closing days of the campaign, Harris was the subject of attacks from the president, who called her a "monster" and a "communist," and argued that it would be an "insult" if she one day became the first female president. Republican Sen. David Perdue appeared to intentionally mock Harris's first name at a campaign rally in Georgia.

"If you think of the kind of racist and misogynistic slurs that are hurled at Black women or sometimes even unconscious ideas about who black women are and how they should behave, or how they should talk, I think she's the best answer to that," said Sinha. "In a way, I think it will lead to the country's healing a little bit after four years of blatant racism and sexism being literally espoused from the highest office in the land."

Harris's ascension to the vice presidency, comes four years after Hillary Clinton's bruising 2016 loss. And it also comes after Harris's own much-lauded campaign for the White House fell short of the same goal.

Harris's campaign began with a flag-draped rally in Oakland, Calif., and she was one of a historically diverse field of candidates, including multiple women and people of color, who vied for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. But Harris dropped out in November, before voting began, and in choosing Biden, her party again opted to elevate another white man.

So Harris did not shatter the "highest, hardest glass ceiling," that Clinton somberly talked about when conceding in both 2008 and 2016. But it is a singular feat that a Black woman who is a daughter of immigrants achieves this milestone first, in a country where some may have expected a white woman to break this barrier.

Clinton wrestled with gender and her own history-making status, ultimately giving it a more prominent role in her 2016 campaign than in 2008. As Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University who studies women in politics, explained, while both campaigns were historic, Harris's ascent stands apart from the history of Clinton's campaign.

"Kamala, in comparison, got to kind of do whatever she wants. And part of that, I think, is that she's not at the top of the ticket. Part of that, though, is that she's a Black woman and she in that way gets to separate herself from the legacy of Hillary Clinton in ways that I don't think, say, Elizabeth Warren would have been able to," said Holman. "And part of it has been a very strategic action on the part of the Biden campaign to really showcase Kamala as a unique, unusual individual and an exciting part of the campaign. Let's not even talk about history, let's just talk about how cool she is today."

Her mother's legacy

Multiple women pointed to the profound influence of Harris's mother, Shymala Gopalan, that led the Californian to this moment. Gopalan, who left India in the 1950s to pursue graduate studies at UC Berkeley, died of cancer in 2009. Her father, Donald Harris, is a professor of economics at Stanford University. The two divorced when Harris was a child, and it is her mother's impact on Harris — in life and through her death — that is indelible.

"She speaks about how her mother said to her and her sister, 'You are black girls,'" said Laird, the Bowdoin College professor. "So although she is multiracial, her mother who is Indian, is saying to her you are Black girls, the world will see you as Black girls and you need to understand that you are Black girls. And so that is how she lives her life, in an understanding that how she is seen, how she is viewed is as a Black girl."

Congresswoman Lee, who has known Harris since the 1980s, recalls running into her at a political event after Lee's own mother died in 2015. Harris, Lee explained, connected with her over their shared experience of grief.

"It was just a moment that demonstrated how caring she was and how she could connect and understand the pain of women, the pain of loss and just what it meant, because she's been through that experience also," said Lee. "I think that bodes well for someone who's a vice president of the United States to be able to connect with people the way she did with me."

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Kamala Harris is the first woman of color to run as the vice presidential candidate for a major party. Yesterday she and Joe Biden appeared together for the first time as running mates, and she talked about his comfort with and proximity to Black leaders.


KAMALA HARRIS: And today he takes his place in the ongoing story of America's march toward equality and justice as only - as the only - as the only who has served alongside the first Black president and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.

KING: NPR's Juana Summers covers demographics and culture in the campaign. Good morning, Juana.


KING: What is the context for the rise of Kamala Harris into this position?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So this is a groundbreaking decision by Joe Biden and his team. In this moment, he is elevating a woman who is the daughter of immigrants as his political partner as this country is grappling with historic systemic racism, police brutality and social inequities as well as representation among women with the #MeToo movement.

We'd known for months now that Biden had publicly committed to picking a woman as his running mate, but Biden then found himself under persistent public pressure to not just pick a woman but to pick a Black woman. And that was pressure that came from Black women who have worked within the party and supported Democrats. They wrote op-eds, open letters. They gave interviews. And in those, they argued that Biden's path to the White House relied on Black women and that a Black woman must be on this ticket. And as the political atmosphere in this country after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis seemed to intensify, those calls only got louder.

LATOSHA BROWN: For whatever reason, it takes a long time for America to hear Black women.

SUMMERS: That's LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter. She's one of the women behind an open letter to Biden back in April that urged him to pick a Black woman.

BROWN: In this moment, we thought it was critical that this is the time, this is the moment for a Black woman. I think it's going to show itself to be, we were right. I think it's showing himself already that we are right - that the campaign has taken on a whole nother level of energy right now.

SUMMERS: Yesterday, Harris talked about her family.


HARRIS: And you know, my mother and father, they came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America, one from India and the other from Jamaica, in search of a world-class education. But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

SUMMERS: Harris was raised in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., before attending Howard University, one of the country's historically Black colleges. She's now making history on two fronts - the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent to rise to one of the highest levels of the nation's politics. Neil Makhija is the executive director of Impact, an advocacy group for Indian American candidates.

NEIL MAKHIJA: Of course she is the first Black woman to have achieved this position or will achieve this position and the first South Asian who could be the next vice president of the United States. And I think, generally, immigrant communities and communities of color and women are immensely proud to be seeing her name in the news today and reading her story and to have this chance to also hear our story in the process.

SUMMERS: Mythili Sampathkumar is a freelance journalist who's on the board of the South Asian Journalists Association. She said her parents sent her a message saying that they were proud that a South Indian woman was getting her due. Her own feelings have been complex.

MYTHILI SAMPATHKUMAR: My first thoughts were a mix of pride and anxiety. I'm proud that someone Indian American and who happens to also be half Tamil, like me, is in this position of national prominence and could be in the White House at some point during my lifetime.

SUMMERS: But she also made clear that the Indian American community is not a monolith.

SAMPATHKUMAR: There is a lot of pride in the community from a lot of people, but there are also differences because of her political positions on things like criminal justice reform and Israel, just to name a few.

SUMMERS: Many of those who were moved by Biden's selection of Harris to serve on the Democratic ticket also say they know the types of challenges that Harris, one of the nation's most ascendant women of color, will face, particularly in a campaign against a president who has demeaned political opponents with racist and sexist attacks.

Glynda Carr is the president of Higher Heights for America, a group focused on increasing the political power of Black women. She says she's prepared to confront those attacks as well as misinformation.

GLYNDA CARR: At the end of the day, though, the more negative and attacks on Senator Harris happening, people are going to recognize how Black women protect Black women.

KING: There were some great insights in that piece, Juana, including the fact that there are people who simply do not trust Kamala Harris because she had a career in law enforcement. How is she responding to that?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. That's something that she's certainly gotten questions about over her record as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. These were questions she got during her own primary campaign. What I've been really interested in watching is what Kamala Harris has done since her own campaign ended in December. She turned her attention back to the Senate. And in this wave of nationwide protests against racism and brutality, she marched alongside protesters. She championed proposals to overhaul policing and to make lynching a federal crime. And even yesterday as I was listening to her speak, you heard her affirmatively say in her first remarks as Joe Biden's running mate that Black lives matter.

KING: Yeah, she's going on the offensive. And lastly, what is President Trump saying about Harris appearing on the ticket?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So I think the Trump campaign is still figuring out how to define her. But one of the first reactions we heard from the president was to turn to a familiar insult. He dismissed her as nasty, something he's said about men and women throughout his political career. Now, of course, an attack like that lands - and the connotation behind it's a little different when you're talking about a woman and particularly, in Harris' case, a woman of color.

KING: NPR's Juana Summers. Thanks so much for your reporting, Juana.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.