“Let’s go win this.” With those words, US presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris as his pick for vice president on the Democratic ticket.
The two will go up against President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in November 3 election, which is set to take place amidst multiple crises rollicking the United States, including the non-stop divisive roller-coaster that is the Trump White House, over 5 million Covid-19 cases – the most in the world – as well as a national movement against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
Biden had, months ago, promised to pick a woman as his vice-presidential candidate. The choice of Harris goes even further. The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica becomes the first woman of colour to be included on a presidential ticket in American history.
Jamaican and Indian roots
While that landmark is important by itself, it garners even more significant because of the context: If Democratic ticket defeats Trump in November, Biden will be 78 when he takes office in January 2021 – making him the oldest president in American history.
He has referred to himself as a “transition candidate”, suggesting that if they win this November, Harris would be in prime position to run for president in 2024.
That would be a massive development for the child of first-generation immigrants who competed with Joe Biden for the candidacy earlier in the process, but decided to drop out in December 2019, facing difficulties in raising funds coupled with low poll numbers.
Harris was born in Oakland, California, to Shyamala Gopalan – a breast cancer researcher who was born in Chennai and immigrated to the US to study at the University of California-Berkeley – and Donald Harris, an economist from Jamaica who studied at the same university.
Unlike US President Barack Obama – the son of a white mother and Black father – Harris told the Washington Post in 2019 that she never struggled with her identity, despite her biracial roots.
“She calls herself simply ‘an American,’ and said she has been fully comfortable with her identity from an early age,” the Post reported. “She credits that largely to a Hindu immigrant single mom who adopted black culture and immersed her daughters in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”
That hasn’t stopped Harris from engaging with her Indian background. She has talked regularly of the examples set by both her mother, as well as her Indian grandfather – and also about her love of Indian food.
- Aziz Haniffa interviewed Harris in 2009 for India Abroad about her Indian background and what it meant. See also Sunil Adam’s piece on her family.
- Soutik Biswas writes on why Kamala Harris embraces her biracial roots.
- “I am who I am”: Kamala Harris, daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, defines herself simply as “American”, writes Kevin Sullivan.
- The progressive Indian grandfather who inspired Kamala Harris, write Shashank Bengali and Melanie Mason.
- Splainer’s backgrounder on Kamala Harris.
While the presence of a woman of colour on a presidential ticket in the US – which has never elected a woman to the post of either president or vice president – is a major development, the choice of Harris also didn’t come as a major surprise.
She was among the frontrunners to be Biden’s No. 2 ever since he vowed to pick a woman, with her star rising even more after the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests turned the spotlight on the question of race in addition to gender.
After graduating from law school, Harris worked as a prosecutor in Oakland, eventually running for district attorney in San Francisco – an elected post – and becoming the first Black woman to be elected to that position in California. She would move on to becoming attorney general for the state, winning by just 0.8 percentage points, and then running successfully for the US Senate in 2016.
Her tenure as senator saw a few breakout moments, in particular her questioning of former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who complained that she was making him nervous – and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
The same adversarial approach came in use during the Democratic party primaries, when Harris confronted Biden over his stance against cross-district busing, a policy of transporting students to schools outside their districts in the 1970s to reduce the de facto segregation in the American education system.
Harris’ position as a prosecutor has, however also been criticised by many in the Democratic party, particularly for inconsistency in positions she took on the death penalty, on the behaviour of police personnel and for her support of an anti-truancy law that sought to punish parents if their children skipped school.
“A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions,” writes German Lopez. “She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings
Lopez adds, “But what seem like contradictions may reflect a balancing act... As she became more nationally visible, Harris was less known as a progressive prosecutor, as she’d been earlier in her career, and more a reform-lite or even anti-reform attorney general. Now critics have labeled her a “cop” — a sellout for a broken criminal justice system,” Lopez adds.
- In Search of Elusive Justice – a profile written by Scott Duke Harris in 2004.
- 55 Things You Need to Know About Kamala Harris, by Catherine Kim and Zack Stanton.
- Why Joe Biden Picked Kamala Harris, by Edward-Isaac Dovere.
- Kamala Harris Is Biden’s VP Pick — Here’s What It Means For The Election And Beyond, by Perry Bacon Jr.
- In Kamala Harris, a Choice at Once Safe and Energizing, by Jonathan Martin and Astead W. Herndon