‘Harris Has the Potential To Change the Face of U.S. Politics’Historians in the News
tags: political history, womens history, 2020 Election, Kamala Harris
The symbolic importance of Harris’ ascent in the centuries-long story of America is undeniable. But just as important is what she could mean in concrete terms for the country that just elected her. The vice presidency carries powers both formal and implicit, and a President Biden is expected to delegate a significant portfolio to the former prosecutor and senator who sits beside him, giving her a chance to shape policy as well as that sense of political possibility. Politico Magazine invited a group of political observers, analysts, thinkers and cultural figures to project just why—and how—Harris is likely to change things for America in the job.
‘She will be a perpetual reminder not to neglect the forgotten base’
Tera W. Hunter is a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton University.
When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walks into Cabinet meetings and other important rooms, what will she bring with her as the second most powerful public voice in the nation?
There is a long legacy of Black women being unwavering advocates for expanding democratic rights for all Americans, going back centuries—long before mainstream political institutions embraced us. In 1948, Charlotta Bass, a newspaper publisher and editor from Harris’ home state of California, had been a Republican for over 30 years. She left the party out of sheer frustration at not being able to find support for a racially and gender-inclusive agenda and joined the newly formed Progressive Party. Bass became the vice presidential nominee on the party’s ticket in 1952, the first Black woman to be nominated by any national party.
Twenty years later, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York broke another barrier as a Democrat by becoming the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket. She was anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-choice, pro-labor, anti-war, fiercely independent, and above all principled. But neither major political party has been eager to embrace women like Bass and Chisholm as legitimate constituents and agents, despite Black women’s fierce dedication and loyalty to them.
‘A new federal approach to sentencing guidelines, the use of consent decrees,and drug classification and treatment’
Keisha N. Blain is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.
One of the thornier issues during the Democratic primary and the presidential campaign was Biden’s history with criminal justice reform and the 1994 crime bill. Given Harris’ background as a prosecutor (and facing her own detractors on criminal justice issues), one would imagine that Biden would rely on Harris’ experience to chart out a new path on criminal justice reform that Democrats around the country can support. It’s unlikely that a Biden administration would advocate for radical goals such as defunding the police—those campaigns will have to continue at a local level. However, Biden and Harris can propose plans for a new federal approach to sentencing guidelines, the use of consent decrees, and drug classification and treatment. Drawing on her own experiences as a woman of color, Harris would also be uniquely positioned to advocate federal policies that would address issues such as racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths.
‘Harris knows first-hand the disparities in our criminal justice system’
Daina Ramey Berry is the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is uniquely positioned to bring several issues to the forefront of American politics because of the intersectionality that she embodies. As an African American woman of Indian descent, she knows firsthand the challenges women of color experience in this country. She is also a champion for gender equity and inclusion, and the American people will expect her to make significant changes in this area. She also knows first-hand the disparities in our criminal justice system from her work as a prosecutor and attorney general for the state of California.
However, many politicians make the mistake of thinking African Americans are a monolithic group. But we care deeply about the same issues other Americans care about—equality, education and health care—and we have several different approaches to address these issues. Black women across the country express concerns about access to affordable health care, yet, maternal mortality is two to three times the rate among Black women as it is among white women in the United States. I hope to see changes in this area with a woman of color in a position of power in the White House. Americans will be looking to the administration to make good on their promises to provide more equity in all of these areas, and Harris has proven she will be a worthy partner. She has championed health care and will almost certainly be central to the fight for expanding affordable health care for all Americans.
‘Harris’ election might augur the dawn of rational, humane, and progressive politics in the United States’
Manisha Sinha is Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.
For Harris’ election to be truly transformational, the symbolism of her election must be backed with a range of progressive policies that will benefit the constituencies she represents. President-elect Joe Biden has already made it clear that he visualizes the vice president’s role as far more than simply ceremonial. Like his experience as vice president in the Obama administration, he wants Harris to take on substantial policy initiatives. She would be most suited to address the urgent issues of systemic racial inequality and reform of law enforcement.
With the possibility of a divided Senate, where Republicans led by Mitch McConnell will play their typical role of obstruction, a Harris vote may break a potential tie on crucial legislation ranging from climate change, economic regulation to progressive taxation. In short, Harris’ election goes well beyond symbolic: It might augur the dawn of rational, humane and progressive politics in the United States.
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