Last weekend there were little girls around the country wearing “My VP looks like me” T-shirts, a clear signal that who Kamala Harris is, how she looks and how she identifies as a Black woman, will be front and center for the next four years. She’s a vice president-elect unlike any of the 48 veeps before her. As we move forward and think of what a Biden-Harris administration will look like, we must think about not only the substantive policy shifts, but also the descriptive significance of Harris. Today’s Special Dispatch explores what this moment means for Black women — the historical context as well as the rising generation ahead.
The pendulum swing from President Barack Obama to Donald Trump felt like a personal assault to me and to many Black Americans. The mental exhaustion of the past four years has caused plenty of anxiety, not just because of White House rhetoric and policies, but because so many Americans were supportive of them. Also, while anti-Black behavior has existed in this country since its inception, the threat of violence either by a police officer or a vigilante has been heightened these last four years. Therefore, Harris’ election — like Obama’s — feels like a well-earned reward in my view. We must stay vigilant as we endure hardships along the way, but we can celebrate major accomplishments, even if we are far from reaching our ultimate objectives.
2. Go West
Born and raised in California, Harris represents the expansion of the Democratic blue wall west of the Rocky mountains. This is significant since so much of the Democratic Party stronghold has largely existed in the northeast corridor of the U.S. — and Democrats have never nominated a Westerner as president or vice president. To put her geographic identity in context, the last two presidents from the state of California were Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, ideological opposites of Harris.
3. Score One for the Base
For decades now, Black women have been the most loyal Democratic Party voters. They have articulated at the ballot box time and time again that they are the canaries in the coal mine, signaling to others the dangers that lie ahead from particular policies. More than any other group, Black women have supported and voted for candidates who most closely represent values and policy positions that would help the masses. Harris being center stage is the ultimate validation.
While Harris is a graduate of historically Black Howard University and identifies as African American, she brings a multiethnic heritage as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants that speaks to many different cultures across America. “Kamala” means lotus in Sanskrit, and Harris could herald the political flowering of a new generation of women of color across the spectrum.
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Harris began her victory speech on Saturday with a nod to the late civil rights hero John Lewis, but she also stands on the shoulders of Black female activists who didn’t make it into the history books. There’s Lewis’ Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee colleague Fannie Lou Hamer, who was instrumental to the Mississippi Freedom Summer. And we should not forget the “queen mother” of the movement, Septima Poinsette Clark, the daughter of an enslaved person who became a South Carolina schoolteacher and later created a “citizenship school” model to teach Black people about civics and civil rights. She mentored none other than Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. spread her work in Georgia.
2. Bringing Down the House
Harris celebrates her VP victory just 52 years after New York’s Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives, before going on to become the first female major-party presidential candidate. But it’s also worth considering the legacy of the second Black congresswoman: Barbara Jordan of Texas, who was the first Black woman elected from a Southern state. Geography matters, and the political path from Jordan to Stacey Abrams, who has powered a political transformation in Georgia, raises interesting questions about the capacity of Southerners to elect Black women as their leaders.
Dozens of women have served in the House, but there have been only two Black female U.S. senators: Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992, and Harris, elected in 2016. There has never been a Black woman elected to serve as governor of any state in the history of this nation — though Abrams came incredibly close in Georgia in 2018, and is likely to try again in 2022.
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beyond kamala and stacey
Here are the Black female politicos you need to get to know now.
Democrats’ ranks have shrunk in the House, but “the Squad” of progressive female members is growing — and Bush is firmly in that mold. Having shocked veteran St. Louis congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. in a Democratic primary, Bush comes to Washington with a perspective unlike most of her colleagues. “I’ve slept in my car,” Bush said recently, a nod to how this single mother and nurse — whose political activism came out of the Ferguson protests — can feel her constituents’ pain better than most.
2. Letitia “Tish” James
The first Black attorney general of New York is a longtime fixture in city politics as a city council member and public advocate. Since taking the helm as AG, she has clashed with Trump in lawsuit after lawsuit against the federal government, as well as suing to dissolve the National Rifle Association. Now with the president leaving office, she’ll have an even juicier — and politically perilous — opportunity to bring possible fraud charges against Trump and his business in what would instantly become the trial of the century. Remember, a presidential pardon only applies to federal crimes.
3. Nikema Williams
Her predecessor may have only stood 5-foot-6, but he left the biggest possible shoes to fill. Williams, the former chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, is taking over for John Lewis in Congress and will bring her own style to the influential Atlanta seat. An HBCU grad with a 5-year-old son who’s in virtual kindergarten, Williams says job No. 1 is the pandemic — but expect her to help lead the charge on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, an effort to restore federal oversight of changes in local election procedures in places with a history of race discrimination.
4. Emilia Sykes
Is she the Stacey Abrams of Ohio? Sykes, 34, is the House minority leader in the Buckeye State, and she’s putting herself on the path to potential statewide office. She’s demonstrated an ability to wrangle compromises with Republicans to pass bills, but also shown off her sharp political elbows. And she delivered a prescient warning about Democrats’ failures with the Black community in Ohio ahead of a disappointing result for the party there this month.
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