With the triumph of Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential election, Kamala Harris assuming the role of Vice President marked the history of astounding firsts. She became the first Asian American, the first African American, and the first female to become Vice President-elect. After this historic win, pictures of a jovial Harris made appearances on many social media accounts belonging to people of color who exclaimed: “Finally a leader who looks like us!” Hailing from a multiracial heritage, she suddenly embodied an aspirational appeal for millions of Americans of color. But Prosecutor turned Senator turned Vice President, Harris has a legacy of being a trailblazer long before this week.
Let’s read on to unravel the identity and more importantly, policies of this figure who sits on the cusp of history, one heartbeat away from Presidency, and the long-awaited shattering of the infamous glass ceiling:
1. She is biracial
Kamala (named after the Sanskrit word for lotus) was born as a second-generation immigrant to Jamaican born Donald J Harris who had migrated to study at Stanford and to Indian born Shyamala Gopalan, a biologist, and researcher. In her upbringing, strands of Indian and African heritage intertwined resulting in a racially diverse experience. Harris, herself, claimed, “All my friends were Black and we got together and cooked Indian food and painted henna on our hands, and I never felt uncomfortable with my cultural background.” She’s struck an interesting balance of celebrating her identity, whilst reconciling it with the melting pot of American sensibilities as she evades binaries and refuses to be cast away in neat and labeled boxes, claiming “people exist through a prism”.
2. She was a child of resistance
“And that’s how they (her parents) met, as students, in the streets of Oakland shouting for this thing called justice,” Harris explained at the Biden/Harris event at Wilmington, Delaware this year. She also told the Washington Post that she “grew up in a hot spot of the civil rights movement” and had a “stroller eye view” of the struggle for equality. With her parents divorced at the age of nine, Harris and her sister, Maya were raised predominantly by Shyamala whose only goal in life, as per Harris’ own words was to “end breast cancer as a researcher” and “raise her two daughters”. Her mother’s legacy and words have been immortalized through her motto: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
3. She is a lawyer by nature and by profession
Her Alma Mater is Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington D.C where she pursued her double major in Economics and Political Science. She was also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, along with academic entities where she discovered her knack for witty conversation and gritty debate. Her peer and friend Rosario-Richardson at Howard claims she “noticed she had a keen sense of argumentation” and they “bonded over an aptitude for energetic debate with campus Republicans.” She completed law school at the University of California after which she became a prosecutor.
4. She is a woman of many firsts
After she began work in Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, for San Francisco in 2003, Kamala Harris was elected as California’s first female and first Black attorney general. In 2017, Harris became the 45th Senator from the state of California, making history as the second black woman and first American of Indian descent to serve in the body.
5. She’s got major sass, and delivers some unbelievable zingers
The rhetorical skills she acquired at Howard have become part of her signature style of interrogation. In fact, many claims that she has made a greater mark in the hearing room as opposed to through legislation. Her perseverance in getting the truth out of people not being forthcoming with facts has resulted in many viral moments online. Her incessant questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Russia investigation (in 2017), lead Sessions into conceding: “I’m not able to be rushed this fast! It makes me nervous.” Similar was the case for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings on the Mueller investigation (2018), where her persistent fight for the truth left her opponent speechless.
6. “Momala” is a part of a highly functional modern family
In 2014, after her marriage to Doug Emhoff, she became a stepmother to Cole and Ella. But her pursuit of motherhood like everything else was unconventional. She rejected the title of “stepmom” and instead settled with “Momala” with her children. Currently, she has maintained a cordial equation with the children’s biological mother Kristen and even stated in a column she penned for Elle magazine that their “modern family is almost a little too functional”.
7. She has been called out for her lack of consistency
Many critics have called her out on her contradictory statements and her lack of consistency in policy approaches. For instance, in 2004, she promised the people of San Francisco that she opposed the death penalty. But when a federal judge ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional, Harris appealed against the decision. Similar was her stance on health, where she backed Bernie’s rather leftist Medicare For All, only to abandon it in favor of her own more centrist healthcare plan. Much of this was viewed as political opportunism, to garner power.
8.“Kamala is a cop”
Harris’ 13-year law enforcement career is the greatest bone of contention for her opponents, so much so that they forged a title out of it: “top cop”. She has paid lip service for dismantling systemic racism and against police brutality, but her track record suggests the opposite. During her tenure as district attorney in San Francisco, the city oversaw its conviction rate jumping from 52 to 67 percent. Tulsi Gabbard, a member of Congress, attacked Harris saying: “She put 1500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed when asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that could have saved an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. She fought to keep the cash bail system in place”. Bazelon also spelled out her concerns on Democracy Now, including that Harris’s “office fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions, that in some cases kept innocent people in prison”.
9. Her stance has been criticized for being contradictory
Over the years, her policy inclinations have dwindled between leftist to centrist on the political spectrum. Straddling the lines between leftist liberals and moderate progressives, she has appealed to neither according to BBC. Where Climate Crisis is concerned, she has adopted an aggressively proactive stance. But where the issue of US military dominance overseas and the war on terror is concerned, she appears to be on the extreme right within the party. Just this year, she voted against cutting the $740 bn annual military budget by 10%. This means that Trump’s departure from the White House may take with it the blatant Islamophobia, but it will leave behind the same mission cloaked in a different fabric- this time called war on terror. Hence, for folks like me who are part of the “Islamic world” so vehemently denounced by the American government, it won’t matter who is sending the drones.
Harris’ win is indeed a victory for racial representation in the White House. But, I hope that people’s intoxication with anti-Trump sentiments does not put her up on a pedestal where she enjoys impunity. I hope the diversity she adds to the office is not just a token. I hope our political amnesia does not make us forget all that was exposed with the Black Lives Matter movement.
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