Kamala Devi Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first woman, first Black woman, and first person of South Asian heritage to be elected vice president, shattering one of the last remaining barriers for women in American government.
Harris, 56, injected energy and enthusiasm into the Democratic ticket when Joe Biden chose her to be his vice president this summer. In Harris, many Democrats saw what Biden did: a “bridge” to the future of a rapidly changing, diversifying party.
Harris’s entire career has been marked by firsts: She was the first woman and first Black person to become district attorney of San Francisco, and then attorney general in California. She was California’s first Black woman senator — and only the second elected in American history.
As the first Black woman vice president, and the former top law enforcement officer in California, Harris is likely to take a prominent role in an administration grappling with racial unrest and a reckoning over racism in policing. And she will also face a conservative Supreme Court that seems likely to roll back reproductive rights for women, perhaps even threatening Roe v. Wade.
Those issues, especially the Black Lives Matter movement, will be a historic opportunity for Harris as a leader in a party whose older, whiter leadership has drifted apart from an increasingly young, diverse, and energized base. But they could also pose a challenge.
Harris has been criticized by Black activists for the tough-on-crime approach she took as a law enforcement official in California. While she has embraced Black Lives Matter and the need for dramatic shifts in policing in her own presidential campaign, mistrust lingers between Harris and some of the racial justice movement’s top voices.
She will also face challenges that most of her predecessors have not. She has been the subject of sexist and racist comments, including incessant mockery and mispronunciations of her name from Republicans, including Trump and her Senate colleague David Perdue. Trump called her a “monster” after her debate against Vice President Mike Pence and frequently attacked her during his rallies.
Harris has not always drawn attention to her gender on the campaign trail the way other women candidates looking to make history have. In the Democratic primary, Kirsten Gillibrand built an entire, pink-branded campaign around women’s issues, and Elizabeth Warren made pinky promises to little girls.
But during her primary campaign, Harris made a point of using “she”/“her” pronouns when she spoke about the presidency and as she described members of her cabinet. Her words would sometimes provoke applause, or even surprise, from the audience.
She was doing it, she told BuzzFeed News in 2019, to help people expand their understanding of what was possible in politics.
“I’ve always been very aware that for these jobs, we’re asking people to see what they’ve not seen before,” Harris said. ●