BLACK VOICES

Kamala Harris Elected As First Black, Asian American Vice President

In the 2020 presidential election, the California senator leaned into the intersection of her identities and just made history.

There are several villages that helped raise Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is now the first Black woman, Asian American, HBCU graduate, daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants to be elected vice president of the United States.

Ahead of the election, Black women across the United States were pounding the pavement campaigning for Harris. People in Harris’ ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, India, prayed for her and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s victory. Howard University leaders also prayed for Harris and celebrated the historic moment at a special Election Day event. The ladies of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. hosted “Stroll to the Polls” to fight voter suppression and show support for Harris, their soror.

Though her name was second on the ballot to Biden’s, Harris’ role in the 2020 election — at the height of an economic downturn, a pandemic and extreme racial tension — is especially significant. Her win as vice president-elect matters so much, not only for America’s history, but for its future, too.

Harris had the audacity to fight for a seat in the White House while proudly leaning in to her identities. In an interview with The Washington Post, Harris said that when she first ran for an office, she struggled with the fact that America’s election processes force candidates to define themselves into neat boxes. But now she doesn’t spend much time trying to categorize herself.

“I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.” 

Harris' win as vice president-elect matters so much, not only for America’s history, but for its future, too.

Harris, only the second Black woman in this country’s history to be elected a U.S. senator, kicked off her journey to the White House with a presidential bid of her own, and was among the most diverse class of Democratic presidential candidates ever. Announcing her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019, she ran on a platform of providing Dreamers a pathway to citizenship, abortion rights, and pay equity along racial and gender lines. She was one of the only candidates to dedicate room on her platform to the Black maternal mortality crisis. She suspended her campaign on Dec. 3, 2019, citing a lack of funding. But she got another chance to fight when Biden announced her as his running mate in August. 

Harris’ line sisters — the women who pledged her sorority with her — celebrated the announcement, then immediately got to work supporting her. Lorri Saddler, who crossed AKA with Harris and 36 other women at Howard University in 1986, told HuffPost that she and her line sisters regularly host meetings and prayer calls; Harris supports them through their various ups and downs as they support her. Saddler, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Clark Atlanta University, said Harris’ rise puts the significance of HBCUs and the Divine Nine historically Black fraternities and sororities in the national spotlight.

“It speaks to the strength of the Divine Nine. She’s one of all of us, not just one of Alpha Kappa Alpha. She’s one of all of us,” Saddler said. “I think at the core of all of us is service. ... And we are hearing that call and we are proceeding accordingly.”

Kamala Harris addresses supporters at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 2020.
Kamala Harris addresses supporters at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 2020.

Harris had a lot up against her on her road to the White House. Her record as a longtime California prosecutor was called into question early, especially because her cases often greatly affected Black communities. Her war on truancy led to the arrest of some parents. This criticism came even before the nationwide call to defund the police and reform the criminal justice system, causing Harris to defend her record in interviews and on the debate stage.

But Glynda Carr, the national director at Higher Heights, a political action committee dedicated to electing more Black women at the federal and state levels, told HuffPost that as Harris takes office, she will continue to address this criticism and do the work to gain the trust of those communities.

“It is the job of candidates, like Kamala Harris, to be able to address that head-on. And I do believe that, throughout the campaign, she was able, frankly, to introduce herself,“ Carr said. “Our elected leaders continue to need to talk about who they are, and what their vision is, and their experience. And so that will be her work in the next 100 days as we move from campaigning to moving towards governing.”

Harris’ identity also became an issue, even in a country that claims it’s a “melting pot.” Trump, yet again, stoked the birtherism flame as he questioned whether she was born in the United States.

The senator — who was born in Oakland, California, and was a part of the second class of students to integrate the state’s public schools — is undoubtedly a Black, Asian American woman. None of her identities take away from her stake in one community or the other. They emphasize how these groups are not a monolith. 

Yet throughout the campaign, she was still treated like a Black woman — stereotyped, disrespected and disregarded. And after the vice presidential debate, Trump referred to her as “a monster,” adding to the litany of nice-nasty microaggressions during her debate with Vice President Mike Pence, who consistently tried to railroad Harris with interruptions and lies. Harris remained poised and gave America a glimpse of the firm conviction of a powerful Black woman. Carr said the debate, despite its racist undertones, was one of Harris’ most relatable performances during the campaign.

“When she governs as the first and last person in the room with Joe Biden, she’s going to bring all of those identities with her into those rooms,” Carr told HuffPost. “But she also is a reminder of the fact that there are conscious and unconscious biases of women, and women of color, and Black women. And so when she, during the debates, said, ‘I’m speaking. I’m speaking’ — every woman, regardless of race and ethnicity, has been in a position where they saw and felt that, and that was a coalescing point for her.”

Harris follows in the footsteps of the Black women who leveraged their political power for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Now, the shirts that align Harris with Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and Harriet Tubman are a bit premature — but the sentiment that she stands on the shoulders of these women is spot-on. Harris was able to break through because every Black woman, from Sojourner Truth to Stacey Abrams, risked their livelihoods to ensure that a new path was attainable for Harris and those coming after her. That includes the Black American women at the polls and in the streets who lead the country in political engagement.

“Black women hold the power in this election,” Harris wrote in Essence magazine. “That’s why generations of Black women marched and organized and fought to give us this right. Many never got to vote themselves. But they pressed on knowing that, one day, Black women would be a force in our democracy. That, when it mattered most, we would be the ones to mobilize our communities and vote for what’s right: honesty and integrity, decency and dignity, equality and justice.”

Her job doesn’t end here, obviously. Harris is a product of the villages that helped lift her up to this position. Now, as she is set to take office as the first Black and Asian American female vice president, she has a duty to help lift up those communities — from those disenfranchised by the very system she works in to the other Black and Asian American women gearing up to run for office in an effort to make change.