VP-elect Kamala Harris ticks many firsts, but the old problem of racism still lurks
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (screengrab).

As a bi-racial, multi-ethnic woman, Kamala Harris has broken down many barriers in her political career. But after her latest election victory, the US vice president-elect will need to tackle the country’s entrenched racial divides as her party scrambles to address some of the darker lessons of the 2020 election results.

Before a sea of cheering, weeping supporters, many of them waving flags from the tops of cars as they juggled jubilation with coronavirus-distancing measures, Kamala Harris delivered a victory speech on Saturday night like no other.

Acknowledging her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan – who, she reminded the nation, “came here from India at the age of 19” – Harris noted that Gopalan “maybe didn't quite imagine this moment”.

Dressed in a white suit – the colour of the women’s suffragette movement – the US vice president-elect proceeded to unpack the historical import of the “moment”.

Her mother, Harris noted, “believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible. And so, I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, White, Latina, Native American women, who throughout our nation’s history, have paved the way for this moment tonight”, she declared above the roar at the Delaware Chase Convention Centre parking lot.

On social media, photographs of little Black girls dressed in “My VP Looks Like Me” T-shirts went viral as online shopping sites offered an array of Kamala Harris celebratory attire in various shapes and sizes.

Born to a Jamaican immigrant father and Indian Tamil mother who met during the 1960s civil rights struggle in California, Harris represents multiple minority identities that are a checklist of American diversity today. America’s first female vice president-elect is also the first Black, South Asian and Caribbean person to hold the office. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff, is also set to become the first “second gentleman” and the first Jewish spouse of a US vice president – or president, for that matter.

Identity is back in the halls of power as a celebration of diversity, an acknowledgment of the progress the US has made so far, as well as the challenges that still lie ahead. After four years under Donald Trump, a president who peddled in racially incendiary rhetoric, stoking divisions and encouraging White supremacist groups, the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris win was greeted with palpable relief among people of colour.

CNN political correspondent Van Jones expressed the collective sense of deliverance minutes after the TV network called the election, when the 52-year-old Black commentator paused, collected his thoughts, and ventured, “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a Dad this morning.” Choking back tears, Jones evoked Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s dying words, which became a rallying cry at Black Lives Matter protests: “This is vindication for a lot of people who really have suffered. ‘I can’t breathe.’ That was not just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.”

Vindication was in the air Saturday night as Americans took to the streets, banging pots and dancing at impromptu neighbourhood parties in several cities and towns. “Black people are certainly relieved at the outcome of the election because Donald Trump was an obvious racist and was obviously seeking to elicit the support of racists in the US,” said Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of the award-winning book “Race, Crime, and The Law”, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

But Kennedy – like most Black scholars, activists and community leaders – does not mistake relief for reassurance.

Over 74 million Americans voted for Biden, more than any other presidential candidate in history. But Trump’s score of more than 70 million votes – up from 63 million in 2016 – highlights the unsettling reality that the Republican president’s supporters are, at best, willing to turn a blind eye to his racism, at worst, supportive of his race-baiting.

“It’s sobering to note that 70 million, nearly half of the electorate, supported Donald Trump,” said Kennedy. “That’s deeply, deeply disturbing. Trump is ousted, but Trumpism is very much a part of the American political landscape going forward.”

Trumpism trumps ‘the blue wave’

Trumpism, unlike other “-isms” in political theory, is an ideology that’s hard to define primarily due to the lack of philosophical consistency of its founder and ideologues. It’s broadly viewed as a version of right-wing conservative populism that, according to Peter J. Katzenstein, professor of international studies at Cornell University, rests on three pillars: nationalism, religion and race.

A week after Election Day, Democrats and their supporters are confronting the bitter reality that the extraordinary voter mobilization and turnout for the 2020 polls failed to deliver a decisive repudiation of a populist movement that has invigorated the Republican Party and its base.

The “blue wave” that pollsters predicted would give Democrats control of the Senate and extend their gains in the House of Representatives did not materialize. The Democrats’ Senate majority dream now depends on two tight run-offs in Georgia while their majority in the House has narrowed.

As a longtime senator, Biden is keenly aware of the power of the US Congress, particularly the Senate, to hobble presidential policy initiatives. The 77-year-old Democratic politician’s message on the campaign trail and during his victory lap has consistently been a pledge to serve as “uniter-in-chief” by bringing together a bitterly divided nation.

But as a former vice president to Barack Obama, Biden has already confronted the partisan limits of that message inside the Beltway.

Obama ‘got kicked in the mouth and then we got Donald Trump’

On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama electrified his supporters – and the world – with his message of hope in a post-racial nation.

But when America’s first Black president entered the White House, his message of reconciliation had no takers in Congress, particularly with Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader at that time, who vowed to obstruct Obama’s initiatives. McConnell is currently the Senate majority leader. Last week, the 78-year-old senator from Kentucky beat his Democratic rival, former US Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, to win a seventh term.

Obama’s presidency galvanised the White far-right base, with conservative talk show hosts hurling racist invective, including “birther” conspiracies that questioned, without evidence, Obama’s birth certificate. One of the most enthusiastic birthers was Trump, a New York businessman with no political experience in Republican Party ranks.

Through it all, Obama played it cool. Or as his wife, Michelle Obama, put it, “When they go low, we go high.”

Some Black academics, such as Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University, have questioned whether Obama’s “racial optimism” failed to address the country’s enduring, systemic racism.

But Kennedy believes it was too heavy a burden to be handled by one man, even if he was president of the United States of America. “The fact is, I really respect Barack Obama a whole lot,” said Kennedy. “He was a decent man, he held a hand out, he preached and preached and preached the gospel of reconciliation, the gospel of racial reconciliation, the gospel of regional reconciliation, the gospel of reconciliation with respect to party politics. The man tried and tried and tried, and what did he get? He got kicked in the mouth and then we got Donald Trump.”

During his second term, Obama did address racist policing, particularly after the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the aftermath of the 2013 acquittal of a White man, George Zimmerman, in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager.

Two years later, the country’s first “post-racial” president acknowledged the legacy of the African American community’s bloody history of slavery and struggle for civil rights in a Southern Black church. During a searing eulogy for a Charleston pastor and eight parishioners who were gunned down in a South Carolina church by a White supremacist, the 44th president of the United States appeared to address the weight of history when he broke into an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace”, joined by a 5,000-strong audience.

“Obama was in an almost impossible position as the country’s first Black president. He had the double burden of having to prove himself as an African American leader while at the same time having to demonstrate to Whites that he was an American president, not a ‘Black president’,” said Adam Shatz, a New York-based contributing editor at the London Review of Books who has written extensively on race in America, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“I wouldn’t blame Obama for failing to achieve a post-racial America. That’s not a job for one person, no matter how powerful, and Obama was under no illusion that racism would magically disappear thanks to his leadership. Post-racialism wasn’t so much a policy aim as an aspiration in the tradition of Martin Luther King’s ‘judge not by the colour of the skin, but content of the character’,” said Shatz, referring to the civil rights leader’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Divisions in Democratic ranks

Following the Trump presidency and his surprisingly strong showing in the polls, the dream has been left even further behind. Meanwhile, Democrats are divided on how to address the persistent issue of socio-economic inequalities.

Only a few hours after Biden was declared the winner of the presidential race, divisions between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party – which remained united in the lead-up to the vote – spilled out in public.

In an interview with the New York Times, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blasted moderate Democrats who blamed the party’s farther-left factions for losing them important seats in the House.

Ocasio-Cortez – or “AOC” as she’s commonly known – slammed the “finger-pointing that this was progressives’ fault and that this was the fault of the Movement for Black Lives”. The 31-year-old New York politician noted that, “We know that race is a problem, and avoiding it is not going to solve any electoral issues. We have to actively disarm the potent influence of racism at the polls.”

AOC is a member of “the Squad”, an informal group of Democratic congresswomen that includes Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All four women of colour won reelection this year to a second term in the House.

Responding to AOC’s criticisms, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, quipped that, “Sometimes I have real problems trying to figure out what ‘progressive’ means.”

Clyburn, an 80-year-old African American community leader who has served in Congress for 27 years, is credited with helping Biden secure the Democratic Party nomination earlier this year when the race was crowded with popular progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Clyburn endorsed Biden before the South Carolina primary and the state’s Black voters – constituting 56 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters – overwhelmingly voted for Biden. With the critical Black vote swinging decisively in Biden’s favour, other Democratic contenders began pulling out of the race and it wasn’t long before the former vice president was declared the party’s 2020 presidential candidate.

Dubbed the “kingmaker”, Clyburn said that if Biden got the party’s candidacy, he should select a Black woman as his running mate.

“I say a Black woman as opposed to a minority,” Clyburn told The Washington Post earlier this year. “It needs to be a Black woman. Biden is winning Black women overwhelmingly.”

‘The target of a lot of animus’

Black women have been a bedrock of Democratic party support, with 91 percent of the demographic voting for the Biden-Harris ticket, the highest percentage of any racial group, according to exit poll data.

While White voters were Trump’s single largest voting bloc, exit polls showed Republicans had managed to lure away a portion of the Black male vote. In 2008, for instance, 95 percent of Black men voted for Obama; in 2016, this fell to 82 percent Black male votes for Hillary Clinton. Early exit poll data from the 2020 elections showed 80 percent of Black men voted for Biden.

Before her successful 2016 Senate election, Harris served as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, positions in which the self-confessed “top cop” took some tough law-and-order decisions that affected the biggest victims of bias in the US criminal justice system: Black men.

Her subsequent record in the Senate, notably in pushing back against Trump’s immigration policies and cosponsoring police reform legislation, earned her credit for her capacity to tackle law-and-order issues from the inside. But the daughter of immigrant academics has arguably not been embraced as warmly by the Black brotherhood as by the sisterhood that has championed her glass ceiling-busting record.

In a Washington Post column, “America calls on Kamala Harris – and Black women – to clean up its mess”, Karen Attiah, the daily’s global opinions editor, warned of the racist, patriarchal backlash America’s first female vice president is likely to face. “As much as Harris’s victory is a moment for celebration, as a Black woman, I can’t help but brace myself. Black women know the ugliness that America is capable of,” wrote Attiah.

Harris’s multiple ethnicities make her a prime target for supporters of Trumpism, fears Kennedy. “I have no doubt that in the weeks and months and years to come, we will see the other side of America,” said Kennedy. “We will see sexism – you don’t think there will be resentment and an aggressive voicing of sexism with respect to that part of her identity? You don’t think racism will jump out? You don’t think anti-immigrant attitudes will jump out? She will be the target of a lot of animus going forward.”

The former California top cop, whose single Tamil Brahmin mother brought her up to confront challenges fearlessly, is in a good position to face down an oncoming backlash. For the young women and girls proudly wearing “My VP Looks Like Me” T-shirts, the issue in the future may not be how they look but whether they have their VP’s resilience to take on a violently divided America.