On Saturday, Kamala Harris made history as the first woman and first woman in color to ever be elected vice president of America.
In her victory speech, Harris praised the women, especially black women, whose shoulders she stands on as she breaks down barriers that have kept mostly white men rooted in the highest levels of American politics for more than two centuries.
“Tonight I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision to see what can be burdened by what has been,” Harris said, wearing a white suit as a tribute to women’s suffrage. She called it a testament to the character of President-elect Joe Biden that “he had the audacity to break one of the most comprehensive barriers in our country and to elect a woman as his Vice President.”
“Although I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris said in his first speech to the nation after the election.
The 56-year-old California senator, who is also the first person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president, represents the multiculturalism that defines America but is largely absent from Washington’s power center. Her black identity has enabled her to speak in person during a year of accounts of police brutality and systemic racism. As the highest-ranked woman ever elected to the U.S. government, her victory gives hope to women who were devastated by Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago.
Harris told young children to “dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not just because they have never seen before”. After Biden’s speech, she joined the scene of her family, including her two grandchildren, who wore white dresses.
Harris has been a rising star in democratic politics for much of the past two decades, serving as San Francisco’s District Attorney and California Attorney General before becoming a U.S. senator. After ending her own Democratic presidential campaign in 2020, Biden lost her as her helmsman. They will be sworn in as president and vice president on January 20.
Biden’s choice of running mate gave further importance as he will be the oldest president ever inaugurated, 78, and has not committed to seeking a second term in 2024.
‘Backbone of our democracy’
Harris often framed her candidacy as part of the legacy of pioneering black women who came before her, including teacher Mary McLeod Bethune, civic activists Fannie Lou Hamer and ropes. Shirley Chisholm, the first black candidate to run for president of a major party in 1972.
She praised black women “who are often overlooked but who often show that they are the backbone of our democracy”.
Despite the tension around Harris, she and Biden face steep challenges, including a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color and a series of police assassinations of black Americans that have deepened racial tensions. Harris’ previous work as a prosecutor has led to skepticism among progressive and young voters who look to her to support comprehensive institutional change over step-by-step reforms in policing, drug policy and more.
Jessica Byrd, who leads the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project and The Frontline, a multiracial coalition effort to galvanize voters, said she plans to engage in the rigorous organizational work needed to push Harris and Biden toward a more progressive policy.
“I deeply believe in the power of black women’s leadership, even when all our policies are inconsistent,” Byrd said. “I want us to be committed to the idea that representation is exciting and worth celebrating, and also that we have millions of black women who deserve a fair shot.”
Harris is the second black woman to be elected to the Senate. Her colleague, Senator Cory Booker, who is also black, said her presence made the institution “more accessible to more people” and suggested she do the same with the vice presidency.
Harris was born in 1964 to two parents who were active in civil rights. Shyamala Gopalan, from India, and Donald Harris, from Jamaica, met at the University of California, Berkeley, then a breeding ground for 1960s activism.
They divorced when Harris and her sister were girls, and Harris was raised by her late mother, whom she considers to be the most important influence in her life.
“When she came here from India at the age of 19, she may not have really imagined this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment is possible, Harris said on Saturday night.
In the village of Thulasendrapuram in the state of Tamil Nadu, which was once home to Harris ‘grandfather, PV Gopalan, festivities broke out on Saturday with locals lighting firecrackers, praying at its main temple and waving posters with Harris’ face.
Women in the village made a rangoli – a colorful folk art drawn on the ground – with the words “Congratulations to Kamala Harris”.
Kamala is Sanskrit for “lotus flower”, and Harris nodded to his Indian heritage throughout the campaign, including a call to her “chitthis”, a Tamil word for a mother’s aunt, in her first speech as Biden’s running buddy.
When Georgia’s Senator David Perdue mocked his name in an October rally, the hashtag #MyNameIs took off on Twitter, with South Asians sharing the meaning behind their names.
The Republicans, including Trumps, mocking her name was just one of the attacks Harris faced. Trump and his allies tried to brand her a radical and socialist despite her more centrist record, an attempt to make people uncomfortable with the prospect of a black woman in leadership. She was the target of online misinformation with racism and sexism about her qualifications to serve as president.
#MyNameIs Pramila. It comes from the Sanskrit word “prem” which means love. The name is constantly misspelled as well as my last name. I just think that when done consciously and continuously. Let’s build an inclusive America. Vote # BidenHarris2020. Our voice, our power.
– Pramila Jayapal (@PramilaJayapal) October 18, 2020
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington said Harris’ power comes not only from her life experience but also from the people she already represents. California is the country’s most populous and one of its most diverse states; almost 40 percent of the population is latino and 15 percent is asian. At Congress, Harris and Jayapal have worked together on bills to ensure legal representation for Muslims covered by Trump’s 2017 travel ban and to extend the rights of domestic workers.
“It’s the kind of politics that also happens when you have voices like ours at the table,” said Jayapal, who in 2016 was the first South Asian woman to be elected to the US House.
Harris’ mother raised her daughters with the understanding that the world would see them as black women, Harris has said, and that is how she describes herself today.
Dismantling systemic racism
She attended Howard University, one of the country’s historic black colleges and universities (HBCU), and promised Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s first sorority created by and for black women. She regularly campaigned at HBCU and tried to address the concerns of young black men and women who are keen on cracking down on systemic racism.
Her victory could lead more black women and people of color into politics.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who sees Harris as a mentor, sees Harris’ success through the lens of her own identity as the granddaughter of a sharer.
“African Americans are not far from the horrors and horrors of racism in this country, and we still feel the consequences of how we are treated and what is happening around this racial uprising,” she said. Harris’ candidacy “creates a lot of pride and a lot of hope and a lot of excitement in what is possible”.
Harris is married to a Jewish man, Doug Emhoff, whose children from a previous marriage call her “Momala”. The excitement surrounding her candidacy extends to women over competitions.
Friends Sarah Lane and Kelli Hodge, each with three daughters, took all six girls to a Harris rally in Phoenix during the race’s final days. “This car is full of little girls who dream big. Go Kamala! “Read a sign taped to the trunk of the car.
Lane, a 41-year-old lawyer who is of Spanish and Asian heritage, volunteered for Biden and Harris, her first ever campaign for a political campaign. When asked why she brought her daughters, ages 6, 9 and 11, to meet with Harris, she replied, “I want my girls to see what women can do.”
( Jowharwith AP)