By SHANNON ROXBOROUGH
Standing beside future president Joe Biden, Kamala Harris made history over the weekend, becoming the first woman and first African-American to be elected as vice president — reaching the cusp of the U.S. presidency itself.
The Howard University graduate’s meteoric rise from an assistant district attorney of Alameda County in California to the most powerful woman in the world is largely thanks to the overwhelming support of the same college-educated women, many Black, who swept a historic wave of female candidates into the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
Harris’ ascent to the second-highest office in the land puts a significant crack in what former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in the White House.
But Harris is no stranger to shattering barriers for women in American politics. She was San Francisco’s first female district attorney and California’s first woman of color to serve as state attorney general. And in 2017, she made history by being elected the second African-American woman and first South Asian-American U.S. senator in history.
Harris, 56, whose father immigrated from Jamaica and mother from India, was born in the direct aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation but still left Black Americans fighting for equality. Both of her parents participated in movement marches and sit-in protests.
Her achievement comes at the dawn of the new Civil Rights era calling for social justice and racial progress on the heels of a national flood of protests over racial injustice, the subsequent outbreak of protests and civil unrest and a resurgence of social divisions and almost tribal warfare over race, cultural and political flash points.
Accused by some of not doing enough to investigate police shootings and wrongful convictions of Black Americans during her time as California’s attorney general, Harris has regularly defended her work toward criminal justice reform.
Indeed, Harris has a track record of helping vulnerable and marginalized people. Her accomplishments include ongoing efforts to overhaul the broken system of American justice; founding of a program that gave first-time drug offenders the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and secure employment; winning a $25 billion settlement to provide financial relief to homeowners unfairly targeted by big banks during the Great Recession’s foreclosure crisis; helping defeat the partial repeal of Obamacare in the U.S. Senate; and putting forth legislation to raise the minimum wage.
Most recently, Harris emerged as a leading voice on racial equality and police reform after George Floyd died publicly in police custody in Minneapolis, going so far as to boldly march with protesters on the streets of the nation’s capital. And the Senate’s only Black woman leaned heavily on her background as a prosecutor to skillfully cross-examine now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett at her Senate confirmation hearing.
In her victory speech to the nation on Saturday, the vice president-elect paid tribute to “all the women who have worked to secure and protect the right to vote,” noting she stands on their shoulders — as she cuts through the wall that has kept the top echelons of the executive branch dominated almost exclusively white men for more than two centuries. “I’m thinking about my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and the generations of Black women who came before me who believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible,” she added.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris said, encouraging children to “dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not simply because they’re never seen it before.”
Despite simultaneously being a reflection of, role model to and beacon of hope for legions of girls and women, Harris doesn’t have everyone’s respect. With her rising profile, she’s faced more than a few racist, sexist and personal attacks, with some of the milder ones being Donald Trump mocking her laugh and calling her a “monster” and David Perdue, a Republican senator from Georgia, intentionally mispronouncing her name at a campaign rally.
Even so, Harris has managed to earn the respect of millions of men, women and children everywhere, including her two stepchildren from husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff’s, previous marriage, who affectionately refer to her as “Momala.”
In the face of everything, history-making Harris has shown herself to be a woman of depth, dignity and grace, calling for Americans to embrace “hope, unity, decency and truth,” things that are becoming more elusive as many cling to negativity, hate and crude, divisive politics.
Harris is assuming the mantle of leadership at a time of potentially life-altering change for women, the Black community, immigrants and other underrepresented people across the country, and she will likely be a key player in ushering in a new, dramatic era in the midst of that change.
Good luck, Mrs. Vice President!