Argument

Kamala Harris for the People

As vice president, Harris would be ready to go toe-to-toe with adversaries, both foreign and domestic.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for president of the United States at Howard University in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29, 2019.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for president of the United States at Howard University in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29, 2019. Al Drago/Getty Images

Kamala Harris, the second Black woman and the first South Asian American to serve in the U.S. Senate, has once again made history. After great anticipation, Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee for president for the Democratic Party, announced Tuesday afternoon his decision to have the California senator as his running mate in November.

Harris will be the first Black woman and the first Asian American to run for vice president on a major party ticket. And, with Biden’s earlier indication that he will likely not seek a second term should he win the presidency, she is poised to be the first woman of color to run as the Democratic nominee for president in 2024 and possibly win the highest office.

The announcement comes five months after Biden boldly pledged in the final Democratic primary debate to run alongside a woman. From then on, many observers made the case that his running mate should be a Black woman. Strategists, among them Jotaka Eaddy, a former senior advisor for the NAACP, argued that a Black woman as a vice presidential nominee would mobilize voters, including younger voters, who are considerably less enthusiastic about Biden than their parents and grandparents. For their part, the political scientists Ismail White and Chryl Laird suggested that choosing a Black woman would honor the steadfast support of Black Americans—notably Black women—for the Democratic Party.

To be sure, many elected officials and political commentators have opined about Harris as a potential liability, citing aspects of her prosecutorial record as the district attorney for San Francisco and, later, as the attorney general for California. As recently as two weeks ago, some establishment Democrats, including some of Biden’s top donors, were reportedly moving behind the scenes to disqualify her, claiming, according to CNBC, that she is “too ambitious” and would be disloyal to Biden.

Conveniently left out of many of these race-gendered commentaries is Harris’s wealth of knowledge, experience, and readiness for the job. An outspoken advocate for working families, criminal justice reform, and LGBTQ+ rights, Harris will be an asset, both to the Biden campaign and, potentially, his administration.

Harris joins Biden at just the right time. Although he has polled well in head-to-head matchups with Republican incumbent Donald Trump, Biden’s credibility on issues such as race remains in question and threatens to depress voter turnout in the elections. Biden has repeatedly made cringeworthy, racially insensitive comments, many of which he and his surrogates have had to walk back. Viewed charitably, his comments are unfortunate gaffes. Viewed less charitably, they paint a picture of yet another out-of-touch white politician or, worse still, someone using racial distancing to curry the favor of white moderates and conservatives at the expense of people of color.

Negative perceptions of Biden among younger voters and voters of color are compounded by controversial policy positions in the past, including his opposition to compulsory busing and his support for the 1994 crime bill. At a time of national reawakening on race, Biden simply cannot afford any more missteps.

Harris’s addition to the Democratic ticket will by no means be a panacea for Biden’s record. And she will no doubt confront her own opposition. However, meeting the current political moment by selecting a Black woman as a running mate is a step in the right direction for Biden, and it presents him an opportunity to learn and do better.

Harris is no stranger to the deep conflicts, erasures, and wounds interwoven in the American national fabric, and she is uniquely positioned to help a Biden administration address them. For centuries now, Black women have served on the front lines of every progressive movement, creating what the race and religion scholar Ashon Crawley calls “otherwise possibilities”—that is, radical, alternative ways of thinking and existing—in local communities, boardrooms, and policymaking bodies. Always in a state of what the activist Frances M. Beal describes as “double jeopardy,” being both Black and a woman in a system designed for neither, Black women have sacrificed much to advance the cause and the promise of American democracy.

Harris follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jordan followed, serving as the first Black woman elected to Congress from the South. She boldly reclaimed “We, the people” as encompassing an increasingly diverse nation. These women were “unbossed and unbought,” as Chisholm declared in her campaign and later in her autobiography, and women like them continue to be the bridge-builders of the American union, wholly deserving of a seat at the table.

Like the many others who have served in high office, Black women like Patricia Roberts Harris, who served in Jimmy Carter’s administration, Edith Sampson, the first Black American appointed as a delegate to the United Nations, and many others still, Harris will face more obstacles. But, like them, she is a tough and fearless leader, ready to go toe-to-toe with adversaries, both foreign and domestic.

Claire Crawford is a Ph.D. student in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. Her research engages Black perspectives on freedom, power, and justice Twitter: @clairebcrawford

Kelebogile Zvobgo is founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary and a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. Twitter: @kelly_zvobgo

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