The bravery and radicalism of Joe Biden’s choice will become apparent over time.
By Joan Walsh
Kamala Devi Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, on Tuesday night became the first woman of color and child of two immigrants ever nominated for vice president of the United States. She grew up in the flatlands of Berkeley, Calif., raised by her beloved single mother, and was (now famously) bused to school. “We did not have an orderly television family life,” her late mother, breast-cancer researcher Dr. Shyamalan Gopalan Harris, told me 17 years ago. “I was always working.” Harris later chose to attend historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. While in law school, this child of progressives decided she could have the most progressive personal impact as a prosecutor. Her devoted husband, attorney Doug Emhoff, is Jewish. His children call her “Momala.”
None of these sentences remotely describes anyone who’s ever been on a presidential ticket, except Kamala Devi Harris.
When Harris’s selection was announced Tuesday afternoon, my phone exploded with joy—even from people who’d been pulling for someone else. Women confessed to crying (and so did one man: A male friend just told me he teared up buying The New York Times this morning). On MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, the Leadership Conference’s brilliant Vanita Gupta said she was still pulling herself together. “I’m crying,” Amelia Ashley-Ward, the publisher of San Francisco’s Sun-Reporter, a Black community paper, flat-out told The New York Times. If anyone had questions about whether Harris would add excitement to the ticket, well, I know Twitter is not real life, and my friends and family aren’t a professionally vetted focus group. But I’m seeing huge excitement, into Wednesday morning, especially among the feminist resisters, Black, brown, Asian, Native and white, who’ve powered the gargantuan opposition to Trump these long four years.
Joe Biden raised an astonishing $10 million in the four hours after he made the announcement. And Donald Trump extended Harris his highest honor, calling her “nasty.”
Some of the joy, to be honest, had to do with the way the selection process curdled at the end, with people around Biden taking potshots, especially at Harris, but at other women as well. They surely made the process harder than it had to be. Leah Daughtry, chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2016, vented on Facebook Live last week about the way Black women, in particular, were being treated. “I don’t have the strength to carry two White people across the finish line in November,” she declared publicly.
Now, Daughtry won’t have to.
I admit, I had no idea what was coming. I admired all the Black women who were on the short list, as well as (of course) Elizabeth Warren. I came to fear that not choosing a Black woman would be a dangerous signal that the establishment decided the “Black lives matter” moment was over. Had Biden made his choice at the height of protest over George Floyd’s captured-on-camera murder, I was sure, she would be a Black woman. But the pressure to choose a Black woman seemed to peak then, and subside lately.
But not among Black women. An extraordinary array of Black female activists, some nationally known and some just getting started, brought incredible pressure to bear on Biden. This is a story about the power of passionate activism. I wrote about it in early May—the hundreds of Black women who signed a letter printed in The Washington Post floating a range of qualified Black women and making the case for why Biden should choose one of them.
“To have multiple Black women in a vetting process—women who could be not only VP but president—shows you the amazing pipeline of Black women leaders,” signatory Glynda Carr of Higher Heights for Women told me. Many women I interviewed said the exact same thing: “If not now, when?”
There were many more letters, many more lists. Just last week, a letter decrying the stereotyped treatment of the short-listed women, from “Concerned Black Women Leaders,” grew to over 1,700 names.
The group “100 Black Men,” ranging from the Rev. William Barber to actor Omar Epps, added their voices on behalf of a Black woman VP just a few days ago.“We refused to sit down and be silent and play the role of the help,” said Karen Finney, the Democratic strategist who helped organize the first letter advocating for a Black female VP. In the days before Biden’s choice, Finney says, “I hoped, but I didn’t know. People are so excited now!” she told me, her voice ringing with joy.
Aimee Allison of She The People, an organization advancing women of color who nonetheless consistently praised Warren’s outreach to Black women and her grasp of the most essential issues, was thrilled: “Generations of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Muslim, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women have fought to get us to this moment,” she told me. Harris’s selection “is the direct result of the tireless work of women-of-color activists, strategists, and visionaries. The establishment couldn’t imagine that this was possible, so we had to make it a reality.” Allison believes winning back the House in 2018 and winning so many state legislative seats throughout the Trump era “showed that our organizing could generate high women of color voter turnout…. We can lead the charge in the states against voter suppression. It’s a reimagining of American politics.”
I have to confess: The choice makes me feel better about Biden, too, not only because some of his allies tried to steer him away from Harris as too “ambitious.” The pair had a serious tiff at an early debate, when she challenged him on his support of anti-busing measures in the 1970s and told the story of a girl bused to a better school in Berkeley around the same time, landing with the indelible line, “That little girl was me.” People around Biden, including family members, held it against her throughout the process; Biden did not.
Was Harris the most progressive woman on Biden’s so-called short list? That was probably Warren, who immediately praised his choice of Harris. (Harris, it should be noted, refused to endorse Biden before the California primary, despite intense pressure, because Warren was still in the race.) I love Warren, but like a lot of people, I felt the notion of two white leaders in their 70s at the top was a bad look for a party that has to appeal to young people and voters of color who didn’t turn out in 2016. Let’s also remember that our own John Nichols put Harris on The Nation’s “honor roll” of progressives elected in 2016.
But sadly, and somewhat unfairly, Harris got tarred early in her presidential run as a “cop,” by folks on the right and the left, and it doomed her presidential campaign. We still don’t know how that critique will affect her vice presidential run. But here’s a New York Times piece that is fairer than anything that ran while she was a presidential contender, and points the way to a more honest appraisal of her history. It centers an early professional trauma, which I covered at the time: Harris got rocked by refusing to seek the death penalty for a man who killed a police officer, and I think she over-corrected for the backlash, from police and the entire political establishment, that hit her.
On MSNBC on Wednesday morning, New York Attorney General Leticia James made the case that Harris was indeed a progressive prosecutor—starting way back in 2003, though she made mistakes along the way. “She has been in the forefront of discussions on issues related to criminal justice,” James said. “She implemented bias training and body cameras as attorney general.”
She made mistakes—as have we all over the last 20 years. Just about a year ago I unearthed a profile I wrote of Harris, when she was running for DA, 17 years ago. I had to confess to the vaguely sexist and racially questionable imagery I used. I don’t need to flog myself; I already did that. What I want people to remember was her final quote, circa 2003. My condolences to Mike Pence, who faces her in debate October 17.
“I’ve worked my ass off for everything I have. I know this race is gonna get dirty, gritty, sexist, maybe even racist. And I have no fear. I’m working my ass off again, because I don’t intend to lose this election.”
She didn’t. And I don’t think she’ll lose this one, either.