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18th August 2020

Science Viewpoint: Kamala Harris VP pick ‘symbolic and substantive’

Science Viewpoint: Kamala Harris VP pick ‘symbolic and substantive’

Science

science US Senator Kamala Harris, with her husband Douglas Emhoff at her side, greets primary voters in April 23, 2019Image copyright
Reuters

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Kamala Harris is the first black woman and first Asian-American to be on the presidential ticket

Kamala Harris’ selection as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate could mean substantive change that Americans need right now, writes Dr Nadia E Brown.

It is necessary to take a look the political moment in which California Senator Kamala Harris becomes Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate.

The political times have changed. Average Americans are having conversations about systemic racism and gender-based violence.

The Black Lives Matter movement, most notably the sustained protests around George Floyd’s killing and calls for justice for Breonna Taylor, have left many Americans rethinking previous concepts around policing, justice and racial equity.

The MeToo Movement – started by Tarana Burke, a black American activist, over a decade ago to call attention to sexual harm done to women and girls on the margins of our society – has found a national spotlight as white women embrace the phrase to address their own experiences with sexual misconduct, harassment, and violence.

Furthermore, the global pandemic and the federal government’s failure to provide national leadership on curtailing the spread of the coronavirus has highlighted persistent racial disparities that were wilfully ignored just months earlier.

In particular, the coronavirus has hurt black women at disproportionate rates. The pandemic-induced recession has placed black women in precarious employment positions and have exasperated economic inequalities.

Then there has been the rash of anti-Asian and xenophobic attacks linked to the pandemic.

Enter Senator Kamala Harris to the bottom of the ticket.

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Media captionWho is Kamala Harris?

Society has long seen women as moral crusaders who can best clean up the mess made by corrupt (male) politicians. Indeed, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, historic tropes of why women should be given the vote are eerily familiar.

Gendered stereotypes mean women are (incorrectly) seen as less corrupt.

Thus, selecting a woman to be his pick for vice-president was a logical choice for Biden given the some of the country’s views on the Trump administration.

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Media captionThe biggest myth about the ‘black vote’

Kamala Harris as a vice-presidential pick also mirrors an optimism for a woman president – although Americans did not support women candidates during the primary (including Ms Harris).

While there is much to note about her, much more attention is needed on the factors that got us to this point. Placing her historic candidacy in context allows us to see why this pick is just as substantive as it is symbolic.

Symbolically, women, communities of colour, immigrants, and women of colour are all seeing themselves reflected for the first time on a major presidential ticket.

Senator Harris’ origin story is inclusive, diverse and mirrors the changing demographic of America. In a growing multi-racial America, she represents the future of the Democratic Party.

Asian-American communities have been discussing seeing themselves in their political representation.

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Media captionKamala Harris’ childhood home reacts to Biden pick

She also represents black women, a group who have long been the backbone of the Democratic party and have been calling on the party to be more responsive to their policy needs.

Groups such as Higher Heights for America and the Black Women’s PAC – organisations that both seek to increase the number of black women in politics – have called on Democrats to have a black woman as a vice-presidential candidate as an acknowledgment of black women voters’ steadfast support and work for the party.

The hashtag #BlackWomenLead was a viral reminder of the power of black women voters and political elites. This groundswell of support for a potential black woman VP nominee demonstrates years of that group’s organising and advocacy.

So Harris was the right choice for today’s political moment.

As a member of black networks like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first black sorority – and The Links, Incorporated – a volunteer service organisation focused on strengthening African-American communities – she has chosen to identify herself with institutional legacies of black political empowerment.

My forthcoming research on black women’s politics demonstrates the importance of these organisations in shaping both the national black political agenda and the civic skills of their members.

Harris will potentially bring this lineage with her to the White House.

She also brings black women staffers – a long underrepresented population on Capitol Hill – who have a considerable amount of influence on shaping policy.

This is more than symbols. This substantive change is what Americans need right now.

She will bring groups to the table who were previously marginalised and unheard.

As a senator, Kamala Harris championed a ban on evictions during the pandemic, universal healthcare, black maternal health, creating a path for citizenship for Dreamers, and using anti-trust measures to regulate big tech.

These are in step with the type of policies that black women political elites have long supported.

My research into black women and gender in politics demonstrates that black women bring their whole identity to legislative decision making. We clearly see that in Kamala Harris.

Dr Nadia E Brown is an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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