Kamala Harris’ Toughest Race … in College
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her political skills were formed early.
By Nick Fouriezos
The voters were relentless in vetting their candidate and held high expectations. They wanted a representative with global awareness and quizzed the candidate on everything from the war on drugs to access to voting machines to the accelerating race for the White House. Kamala Harris has called it the toughest campaign of her career — the time, that is, she won a slot as freshman representative on the Liberal Arts Student Council at Howard University.
That campaign launched a political winning streak that came to an end when the California U.S. senator bowed out of the presidential race late last year. But even that loss served only to boost her standing, as Joe Biden affirmed Tuesday when he named Harris his vice presidential running mate. The selection is historic for the 55-year-old Black woman of Indian descent, who, if the Democratic Party ticket wins, would break all sorts of barriers in a job held only by white men for the past 230 years.
As Harris drives ahead in the campaign, her freshman-year college campaign is just one example of how Howard shaped everything from her views on race to public service and community building.
At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you hoped to be. There were no false choices.
Kamala Harris in her book, The Truths We Hold
Harris’ formative college years start with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the country’s oldest Black sorority, for which Tuesday was a day of celebration. The excitement was palpable minutes after the announcement in the voice of Glenda Glover, the sorority’s president, as cheers and shouts drowned her out over the phone line. “It speaks to how far God has brought us as a nation, and what [the sorority] has instilled in her,” Glover says, repeating again and again, “It’s just great, it’s just great.”
The daughter of immigrants, Harris grew up in white-centric circles — from the colleagues of her Jamaican father, an economics professor, and her Indian mother, a doctor, to the majority-white elementary school where she was bused as part of Berkeley’s desegregation program in the 1970s. But Harris was eager to join an environment that celebrated Blackness, so, inspired by an alumnus friend of her mom’s and the fact that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had graduated from Howard, she chose to attend the historically Black college.
“Generations of students had been nurtured and taught at Howard, equipped with the confidence to aim high and the tools to make the climb,” Harris wrote in her book, The Truths We Hold. “I wanted to be one of them — and in the fall of 1982, I moved into Eton Towers, my first college dorm.”
When Harris arrived at Howard, it was dominated by liberal politics but a conservative work ethic — the idea that Howard students could, and should, achieve individual greatness through dedication to their craft or field. That may help explain some of the political pragmatism Harris has shown throughout her career. “I think of issues as a Venn diagram,” Harris told OZY in a 2016 interview. “There is going to be an area where there is an overlap. I like to go for that area and expand it.”
The experience at Howard was transcendent for Harris, starting with the moment she walked into freshman orientation. “The room was packed,” she wrote. “I stood in the back, looked around and thought, ‘This is heaven!’ There were hundreds of people, and everyone looked like me.” Newspaper columnists hobnobbed with football stars, gospel choir singers with math club presidents. “At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you hoped to be. There were no false choices.”
From early on, Harris was determined to make the most of her choices — laughing easily, yet always remaining serious, as friends would later recall. She double-majored in political science and economics, chairing the economics society and leading the debate team, while also interning for California Sen. Alan Cranston, whose seat she was elected to three decades later.
She also pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, members of which have included Toni Morrison and Gladys Knight. “It’s a service sorority,” Glover says, and as such, sorors (the term used in lieu of “sisters” among Black sorority members) were taught to be active in the community. Buses would take students, including Harris, to the National Mall or the South African Embassy a few miles away, where they protested against apartheid and the Reagan administration’s lackluster response.
The sorority made a lasting impact on Harris — so much so that after announcing she was running for president, her first campaign stop was at an Alpha Kappa Alpha national event in South Carolina. With approximately 300,000 members nationwide, the Harris campaign counted on her fellow sorors as energetic volunteers — and she often called them out, celebrating them with the traditional “skee-wee” greeting call.
Her experiences at Howard formed the basis of her career, which began with a deputy district attorney position in Alameda County, California. “I was going to be a prosecutor in my own image,” Harris wrote. “I was going to do the job from the viewpoint of my own experiences and perspectives, from wisdom gained at my mother’s knee, in Rainbow Sign’s hall, and on the Howard Yard.”
Those experiences are a key part of why Biden picked Harris, says Moe Vela, a former Biden senior adviser. Not only will she be “a formidable debater,” he says, but her “attendance at Howard University, and being half Jamaican, half Indian, will give her a perspective much like that of millions of Americans of color.” It was at Howard that Harris grappled with race, and now, in the political race of her lifetime competing for a much larger set of choosy voters, the lessons she learned will be a key part of her pitch.