Kamala Harris: The first doesn’t have to be the only one

By Dr Niambi M. Carter
Associate Professor of Political Science, Howard University

This week, Joe Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 US election.  As a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, Senator Harris’s selection is historic. The first woman of colour selected for a major party nomination is an unfortunate novelty in the American political landscape.

Over the last few weeks, we have all twisted ourselves into knots wondering which of the highly-qualified women Biden would pick as his running mate. While there is only one spot on the ticket, this does not mean that we cannot think about a deeper incorporation of Black women in presidential administrations.

From Susan Rice to Karen Bass, Biden’s team considered no less than five additional Black women during this process.  It would only make sense that some of these same women make it into consideration for Cabinet seats and the Supreme Court.  The vice presidency is but one position the Biden administration will have to consider.

The network of appointees is vast and across the fifteen executive departments, staff positions, appointments to international organisations and ambassadorships that need to be filled, and the ever-important judicial appointments, there is the potential to create more spaces for Black women and women of colour. If the Biden administration cares about creating a legacy distinguished for elevating women, they will capitalise on this political moment and go further than their predecessors.

Even before the 2016 election, Black women have demonstrated their unwavering support for the Democratic Party.  Despite this, Black women have been highly critical of the myriad ways in which the party leadership has not reflected their level of commitment. Black women were so outraged by the party’s ongoing erasure of their importance, they wrote an open letter to Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), requesting a meeting to discuss their issues and demand Black women be represented in party leadership.

While representation at the highest levels of the party has remained largely male even if less white, the top of the ticket has been slower to diversify. Barbara Lee, Representative for California's 13th congressional district, noted earlier this year how one of the most racially diverse Democratic primary fields quickly became an all-white affair. The rules for participation in the debate kept many of the non-white presidential hopefuls off the debate stage and potentially away from a supportive public.

While the DNC would revise the debate participation rules to allow lesser known candidates to participate, the primaries still came down to a set of white hopefuls. This is not necessarily evidence of ill-intent, but it certainly suggests the way we handle political campaigns does not provide many opportunities for presidential hopefuls who are not exemplars of the prototypical candidate: older, white, and male.

Nonetheless, as the nomination contest continued into the spring amidst a global health pandemic that has killed over 160,000 Americans and counting, and a growing racial justice movement. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a part of the American lexicon for a decade, but the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have inspired a new wave of activities that have touched all parts of this country.

This movement has not only deepened, but broadened. Not only are they dedicated to fighting policing as an institution, police brutality, and mass incarceration, they are also calling for greater accountability across all American institutions. And their demands seem to be resonating with the public, corporations, and politicians alike. I think this movement helped the DNC and the Biden campaign see the urgency of now and why the Harris pick was a significant step in the right direction.

Yet, I would caution the Biden campaign and the DNC to see the selection of Senator Harris as a first step, not the last step, they make toward diversity. The Biden campaign and DNC are staffed with many talented persons of colour working on all facets of the campaign. That same commitment needs to be front-facing too.  People won’t be satisfied with Senator Harris at the top of the ticket. The real commitment will be seen when and where these administrative appointments are made.

That a Black woman could potentially be a vice president should not mean that a Black woman cannot also be considered for the Supreme Court, Department of State or any other position for which she is qualified. The Biden administration will be judged by the other Black women, women of colour, and people of colour they select to inform their policy making.

Black women are watching and taking notes because there will be other elections and the DNC will want Black women’s votes, and they will likely get them, but it’s unclear how much longer taking Black women for granted will work as a winning strategy for the Democratic Party.

Banner image: Senator Kamala Harris speaks at an event in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2019. Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore


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