The following is a comment piece written by Six One students Zoey Forbes and Nicole Lee
On 20 January 2021 history was made when Kamala Devi Harris was sworn in as the first female US Vice-President, the first African American and first Asian American vice president, and the highest-ranking female elected official in US history.
Kamala Harris’ appointment is inspiring to many as the representation through politics has historically been catered to wealthy white men. Now many young people may see themselves in her success and hopefully this will change attitudes and preconceptions of what a politician looks like.
However, Harris’ road to the Vice-Presidency was not easy. As a mixed-race person, opponents criticised her for being ‘not Asian enough’ or ‘not Black enough’. Some conservatives tried to diminish her experience as an African American – characterising the Black American experience as one defined wholly by suffering because of slavery. Her biracial heritage was a magnet for attacks similar to those faced by Obama when he was running for President.
Despite this, Harris’ success sheds a positive light on being a first-generation immigrant of Jamaican and Indian parents and having Jewish stepchildren, her family represents the diverse, multi-cultural world. However, American conservatives may not like this message of diversity – after all, 75 million voted for a man who incites racial violence and does not denounce white supremacy. The struggles that she has faced has been representative of a fight that many must experience, defending their rights to be taken seriously and having to ignore hurtful criticisms in order to avoid being seen as ‘too emotional’ or ‘too angry’. To many young people, having someone who has a shared experienced finally being America’s VP is a breath of relief, the historical appointment giving hope to future generations.
Harris also gained a reputation for challenging powerful men. From her scathing questioning of alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court Justice hearing, bringing up Joe Biden’s segregationist legislative history on the Democratic Presidential debate stage, and calling out Mike Pence’s constant interruptions at the VP debate – many have found her confidence and willingness to fight back in a male-dominated world inspiring. Harris’ unapologetic attitudes may inspire young women who have been socialised to be a little quieter, who undermine their own opinions, to speak up and stand by what they believe in.
Harris’ career has also been contradictory, as many progressive critics have noted. While she was Attorney General, her tough-on-crime attitude was one that was popular in politics, while also being seen as one of California’s first true progressive prosecutors who pushed for programmes to help people find jobs rather than putting them in prison. In recent years, critics have called her a ‘cop’ due to her controversies, such as her agency to be the first state-wide agency to adopt a body camera programme – however, not being mandatory for local police officers which many saw as counterproductive – as well as her anti-truancy policy which backfired and hurt lower income families. Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director for the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, wrote that Harris “did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away”.
After the US Supreme Court found overcrowding in California prisons amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, Harris’ office fought to release fewer prisoners, even citing that the state could not deplete its prison labour workforce at one point – although Harris did clarify she was unaware her office was making that argument. Certainly, Harris is not the progressive champion for everyone, and many students whose social awareness grew after the mass-information shared during the BLM protests may not be the most impressed with her work because there is still so much more to be done. A lot of students can see the nuance that comes with Harris’ Vice-Presidency. Though this is a step forward, there is so much more potential and more ideal change that can grow from this moment in history.
Nonetheless, Harris claims that she saw herself working in the system she wanted to change. Being a minority among other prosecutors – who are mostly white men – she has had to play a balancing act. Her race and gender have made this even tougher for her, facing scrutiny for being a woman who may not be ‘tough enough’ for her job, while also battling racial stereotypes. Her struggles demonstrate intersectional oppression that is a recognisable and personal issue to many people.
While her past records may not have been ideal, she has undoubtedly paved the way for many women and BAME people, shedding a light on the systemic struggle that they must face to be granted the same respect in their career.
Having the first Black, Asian and female VP is a symbol for the strides made for diversity and the positive growth of politics, providing many people with the hope that politicians can become more representative of the people they serve, and the interests of minority groups finally brought to attention. America’s massive influence means that Harris’ success is seen globally.
The question of why her appointment as VP is so ground-breaking can also encourage those in more privileged positions to learn more of the struggles that they may not face, spreading awareness and welcoming others to the fight for equality. Although there is still much progress to be made, Harris’ success story is groundwork for much more to come.