The delayed but ultimately decisive win in the 2020 election secured by President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), has ushered in a series of firsts for the United States: a Black person, a woman, a Black woman, will hold the title of vice president.
Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, represented the future-facing message offered by the Democratic ticket for the presidency—in contrast to the calls from the incumbent Trump to “Make America Great Again,” essentially by returning the worst parts of this country’s white supremacist history.
“This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up—especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities,” Biden said when announcing Harris as his pick for VP, in a sentiment that is even more true in the wake of their electoral victory. “But today, today, just maybe, they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way.”
The Vice President-elect’s story, and the wave of new voters she was undoubtedly instrumental in garnering for a Biden presidency in this year’s election, underscore a rich background and journey. The first South Asian-American, the first graduate of an HBCU (Howard), and the first member of a Black sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) to hold the second highest office in the U.S. executive branch, Harris’ was elevated to this height in large part through the votes of millions of Black women, and the on-the-ground organizing led by thousands in crucial states like Georgia and Pennsylvania.
“Black women have always been the backbone of this Democratic Party, and oftentimes not valued for our ability to lead,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was a co-chair of Harris’ own presidential bid, to NPR of the Biden-Harris victory. “But I tell you now, Black women are showing that Black women lead, and we’ll never go back to the days where candidates only knew our value in terms of helping them get elected. Now they will see how we govern from the White House.”
How Harris will govern from the White House remains to be seen. Her background as a prosecutor in California was a frequent cudgel in efforts to sway Black voters—and Black men in particular—away from turning out in droves for her and Biden. Despite the 18 percent of Black male voters who went to the polls for Trump, there is undoubtedly the expectation that the Biden-Harris administration has a mandate to forcefully tackle systemic racism impacting the Black community at large—which Biden himself spoke to on Friday while votes were still being tallied—and that 56-year-old Harris will be a youthful if not progressive force in the 77-year-old President-elect’s policy making.
A former district attorney in San Francisco who went on to be elected as California’s attorney general, the first Black woman to do so, and then only the second Black woman senator in Congress in 2016, according to the New York Times, Harris is no stranger to the challenges and expectations of breaking barriers. She was a frequent target of gendered attacks from the GOP during the lead-up to the election and was even tasked by the media with answering questions about whether she was a “socialist”—similar to the consistent and unfounded accusations against the last Black person with the temerity to seek and win the most rarefied and historically white elected offices in the U.S.
“When we talk about breaking barriers, some would suggest that you’re just on this side of the barrier and then you turn out on this side of the barrier,” Harris once remarked to a crowd of young Black women at Spelman College. “Know instead that breaking a barrier may sometimes be painful but it is so worth it. It is so worth it.”