Kamala D. Harris’s leap onto the Democratic ticket Tuesday sparked a surge of emotion across the nation as Americans for the first time witnessed a woman of color ascend to the country’s highest political levels.
Harris’s selection as the potential next vice president was met with excitement and relief that Black women, in many ways the heart of the Democratic Party, finally have one of their own on the national ticket. Harris, 55, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, makes history on two fronts — as the first Black woman and first Asian American to reach this level.
“I’m jumping for joy,” said Johnnetta Cole, who was the first Black female president of Spelman College, the historically Black all-female college in Atlanta. “Today, 401 years after the first enslaved Africans came to what was then British Virginia, look what has happened. Anyone who does not feel the significance of this, I have to ask, ‘Who are they? Where have they been?’ ”
Several women said they were surprised by their own reactions, given that Harris was considered a lackluster primary candidate and is hardly a trailblazing activist, and that her own presidential aspirations fizzled last year.
“I have tears in my eyes but joy in my soul,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said on Twitter. “I am so overwhelmed, as I know that women around the nation, women of color, and yes Black women can see their equal status in this nation finally.”
Joe Biden’s announcement instantly draws a new image of what a top American leader can look like, and it comes at a moment of social reckoning as African Americans and women have taken to the streets against a president many consider racist and sexist.
Biden’s choice was described as “safe” by some analysts, a striking description given the historical prejudices facing Black women. That highlighted the swift changes in the political landscape, as the choice of a Black woman — almost unthinkable not long ago — seemed Biden’s path of least resistance.
Biden himself has at times seemed to embody the casual attitude toward women and minorities that many activists are fighting. Before he launched his campaign, a woman came forward to complain that he’d invaded her personal space at a political event, and he faced criticism for saying he’d been able to work with segregationists early in his career.
The country’s two major parties had only put a woman on a presidential ticket three times previously, and all were White. All have also lost.
When Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 joined the Democratic and Republican tickets, the men at the top were lagging in the polls and hoping an unusual pick might disrupt the campaign dynamic. This time appears quite different, with Biden holding a comfortable lead in the national polls as the campaign heads into its final stretch.
Harris and Biden are set to have their first joint appearance in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. They’ve also planned a joint fundraiser. Harris’s niece, Meena Harris, posted on Twitter that it was “pretty awesome and emotional explaining to my 4 year old daughter, with my mom, what just happened.”
Some women had to reach back many years to recall the last time they’d felt this moved by a political event, whether Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 or Shirley Chisholm’s 1968 election as the first Black woman in Congress and her presidential bid in 1972.
“I’m having a Shirley Chisholm moment,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. “There are so many women — Black women — who were never considered. It’s not just her candidacy, but all that it represents.”
Some of the same leaders had eyed Harris skeptically during the Democratic primaries, concerned about her record as a prosecutor in a system that has incarcerated large numbers of Black men. But such sentiments faded for many on Tuesday, as they were overcome by the moment’s historical resonance.
Other democracies, after all, first chose female leaders long ago. Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel in 1969. Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, has been led by Angela Merkel for nearly 15 years.
Harris has a long way to go before becoming the country’s leader, of course — Biden would have to win, and she would have to succeed him. Still, Biden is 77 and would be the oldest individual elected to the White House if he prevails. Many Democrats do not think he would seek a second term, potentially giving Harris an early advantage in 2024 whether Biden wins in November or not.
The senator’s ascent is in some ways the culmination of two powerful social movements, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, that have had widespread impact in recent years in demanding equality.
But it’s also a comeback of sorts; Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss was devastating for many women who’d hoped a woman was about to become president. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dropped out of the race in early March, she told reporters, “One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinkie promises and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.”
Harris’s rise could soften that blow.
Women won the right to vote 101 years ago. Black men theoretically won that right 150 years ago, but barriers to exercising the franchise were quickly erected. Widespread suffrage for African Americans did not occur until the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In the decades since, African Americans have become a central, loyal part of the Democratic electorate. But in recent years some Black Democrats have argued that the party establishment has done little for the African American community, and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 came as Black voters in cities such as Detroit stayed home rather than supporting Clinton.
Tuesday’s announcement suggests Democrats are beginning to understand that Black voters in general, and African American women in particular, cannot be taken for granted, said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a high-profile member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I think that Biden and the Democratic Party realize that Black women have arrived,” Waters said. “The fact that Black women have emerged as a powerful force in the Democratic Party and a force that can be counted on — that has shown that they can deliver the vote and [are] a force that has to be dealt with.”
Still, President Trump has argued that he has done more than any other president, Democratic or Republican, to help Black Americans, often citing pre-pandemic employment figures. On Tuesday, he seized in part on racial issues in saying Harris had been “nasty” and “disrespectful” to Biden during a Democratic debate, when she challenged Biden’s position on busing.
Biden committed to choosing a woman as his running mate during the 11th and final Democratic primary debate in March. The exchange was notable for a number of reasons, including that it was also the first Democratic primary debate in 16 years that didn’t include a woman onstage.
More than an hour into the debate, Biden made a promise that sounded like an afterthought.
“I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a — I’ll pick a woman to be vice president,” Biden said. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”
In fact Biden had been mulling making the historic pledge for months, according to top aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Some top aides would push back when he raised the subject, arguing that he should not box himself in and could just select a woman without announcing beforehand that he was going to do so.
“It was just always something on his mind,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a Biden campaign co-chair. “At that point, without a woman on the stage, it was probably a more appropriate time to say it then with a woman on the stage and look like you’re pandering.”
Richmond said the roots of Biden’s decision went back to the 1990s, when he pushed for the Violence Against Women Act and advocated for adding women to the Judiciary Committee. That followed a turbulent confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose former employee, Anita Hill, testified that he sexually harassed her. Many felt that Biden, then the committee chairman, did not treat Hill with respect.
In the years since, women have continued to lag far behind men in politics, but initially there were signs the 2020 Democratic primaries would be different; there were six women on the debate stage at one point, including four U.S. senators. But those candidates heard consistent feedback from voters: They worried that their friends and neighbors would never support a female presidential candidate.
On March 5, Warren, who at that point the last viable female candidate, dropped out. That prompted a public reckoning with the idea that the Democratic Party would continue in a long tradition of nominating men to the ticket.
The night Warren withdrew, a group of female leaders met in Washington, led by Democratic strategist Heather McGhee, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson.
The conversation focused on what could be done to change the way American women were viewed by voters, and the group decided to write to both Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two remaining viable candidates, asking each to commit to selecting a female running mate.
“What needs to happen to actually break that glass ceiling is to go about it in another way,” Weingarten said in an interview, recalling the gathering. “The notion has to be pierced that people in America would not vote for a female candidate for president.”
She added: “There was a sense that there was some self-fulfilling prophecy that had to be destabilized, that had to be shaken up, that had to change.”
They wrote a letter to Biden’s campaign — and 10 days later he made public his commitment to pick a woman as his running mate.
“He met the moment,” said Weingarten on Tuesday. “He met the moment with Black women, who are the real muscle behind the Democratic Party.”
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