OPINION: Kamala Harris: The hope, excitement and trepidation of Black America

The past months have been dark ones. Protests over racial inequality and police brutality are ongoing. Unemployment continues to surge. And we can’t even agree on the need to wear a mask to protest against a virus that has killed more than 170,000 of us.

In many ways, it looked as if things might get worse before they get better.

Then Joe Biden gave us his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. Howard University grad. Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister who just happens to be both Black and Asian.

And while her addition to the Democratic ticket didn’t come as some big surprise, it definitely lifted my spirits and, based on my inbox, that of a lot of other people.

“As a Black woman, a mom, a graduate of Howard University School of Law and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority,” Sarah-Elizabeth Langford Reed, a member of the state’s Board of Regents, said it felt deeply personal. “I’m just so proud of her and I feel such hope for the future of this country.”

In terms of who should be our next vice president, some have said it doesn’t even matter.

“The big question is does this make her the heir apparent to the presidency?” said Matthew Platt, a political science professor at Morehouse College. “Harris strikes me as too politically malleable. She wants to have the widest possible appeal without losing any support. She lacks policy substance. That troubles me because I think it will mean that Black people would have fewer policy gains under a President Harris.”

It’s also troubling, he said, that Harris fuels the notions of exceptionalism.

“There is a segment of white people who believe Black people can’t do certain things,” Platt said. “She is a child of immigrants rather than a descendant of slaves. That’s nothing against her, but it feeds into a narrative ‘regular’ Black people still aren’t good enough.”

Still, Platt said, we should see Harris’ place on the Biden ticket as the Democratic Party’s acknowledgment that Black voters matter.

Matthew Platt is a political science professor at Morehouse College.

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Credit: Contributed

“I think there is concern that in 2016, Black voters were not given enough perhaps in retrospect,” he said. “I think there was a determination not to make that mistake this time. I think this could be perhaps a turning point when we see more explicit acknowledgment by the party that you have to do more to get Black people to turn out for them in numbers that will win elections.”

Did she have the best resume?

“I think the answer to that is yes,” he said.

As the first Black woman nominated to a major party ticket, Kirsten Swinth, a Fordham University history professor, said it’s important to note Harris follows in the footsteps of two important strands of women’s political leadership.

One, Black women’s breakthrough positions as national political figures, like Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for the presidency in 1972; and two, women’s nomination to major party tickets, particularly Geraldine Ferraro’s VP position on the Democratic ticket in 1984.

Still, the chair of gender studies at Mount Holyoke College, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, can’t help approaching this moment with some trepidation.

Riché J. Daniel Barnes is an associate professor of anthropology and chair of gender studies at Mount Holyoke College.

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Credit: Contributed

The question looming large for her is what will white women and non-college-educated white people do?

A survey released by the Pew Research Center following the 2016 election, Barnes said, showed whites with a four-year college degree or more made up 30% of all validated voters. Among these voters, 55% said they voted for Hillary Clinton. Among the much larger group of white voters who had not completed college, Donald Trump won by more than 2-to-1.

“We know from much of our research on the cultural divides in this country that less well-educated whites tend to be more concentrated in Southern states and have the most vitriol for Black and other ethnic groups,” Barnes said. “That Kamala Harris is a woman, a biracial Black and South Asian woman, and the daughter of immigrants, who has seemingly prioritized her career over motherhood means that she ticks all of the boxes that this large group of the white electorate tends to disdain, especially in favor of Trump/Pence.”

Additionally, the Pew survey found that 45% of white women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, compared to 98% of Black women. On the other end of that spectrum, 47% of white women voted for Trump.

How white women voted in 2016 and the history that undergirds it is something our nation has not yet grappled with or called white women to account, Barnes said.

With the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote, white women severed ties with the interracial and mixed-gender coalitions that had been working toward the abolition of slavery and the right to vote for Black men and Black and white women, she said.

“As we approach the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment (which gave white women the right to vote), we have to ask, How will white women react to the idea that a Black woman may be the first woman elected vice president?”

Speaking to the way Black women have been silenced in white women-led movements, Barnes noted the 22 founders of her own sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, along with Ida B. Wells and many other prominent Black women were turned away from the Women’s Suffrage March in 1913.

They snuck in anyway, she said, bringing up the rear of the parade.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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Will the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote be marked by the election of a Black woman to the second-highest office in our country? Barnes asked. And will Black and white women lead that charge?

Good questions but I will not let go of the hope this nomination has handed so many of us, especially little girls who might not have seen a vice presidency in their future.

At this critical juncture, Barnes said we must consider both what Harris’ candidacy means as a symbolic step in the right direction while making sure the powers that be understand that symbolism is no longer enough.

“Political expediency that makes a difference in the lives of everyday people is the charge of the day,” she said.

In a 2017 speech at her alma mater, Harris told the graduating class that to create change, it’s necessary sometimes to change how change is made.

“Do not be constrained by tradition. Do not listen when they say it can’t be done. And do not be burdened by what has been when you can create what should be.”

It was good advice then. It’s good advice now. Most especially now.

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