Harris bursts through another barrier, becoming the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect

November 12, 2020

Kamala Harris, who on Saturday, November 8, 2020 became America’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect, represents a new face of political power after an election all about who wields power and how they use it.

The California senator’s history-making win also represents the millions of women in the demographics — often overlooked, historically underrepresented and systematically ignored — who are now the recipients of that new power for the first time in the country’s 200-plusyear history.

Harris tweeted a video of herself on the phone with President-elect Joe Biden shortly after CNN projected their win.

“We did it, we did it, Joe. You’re going to be the next president of the United States,” she said with a signature laugh.

Harris and Biden’s victory, as projected by CNN, arrived days after a prolonged vote count reflecting a deeply divided electorate. It symbolizes a bookend to the Trump era, which followed the first Black US President and was buoyed by social ills including White supremacy. Harris’ triumph, in particular, marks a new high point in a career of barrier-breaking accomplishments, from San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general to just the second-ever Black female US senator.

“That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me,” Harris said during her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in August, mentioning women such as Constance Baker Motley, Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm.

“Women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty and justice for all,” she had said.

On Saturday night, during her first speech as vice president- elect, Harris also noted the historic moment.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said in Wilmington, Delaware.

“Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities, and to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before. But know that we will applaud you every step of the way,” she said.

Harris attended Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington. Her time at Howard, where she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., profoundly shaped her political vision.

“You didn’t have to be confined by anyone else’s idea of what it means to be Black,” she told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” in September. “You could be a fine arts student and also be class president. You could be homecoming queen and be the head of the science club. You could be a member of a sorority and be in student government and want to go to law school, and it encouraged you to be your full self.”

Over the course of her White House bid, Harris never shied away from mentioning that people attempted to box her in or doubted her as she sought to pave a path in politics.

As a Black and South Asian woman in an overwhelmingly White arena, Harris on her journey to the White House was something of a pioneer. And voters noticed.

Rise and reign

Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964, to parents who raised her in a bassinet of civil rights activism.

Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an Indian immigrant, was a breast cancer researcher; she died of cancer in 2009. Harris’ father, Donald, is a Jamaican American professor of economics. On the campaign trail, the vice president-elect often talked about how her activist parents would push her in her stroller at civil rights marches. The couple divorced in 1972.

Harris grew up in the Bay Area but took frequent trips to India to visit extended family. At 12, she and her sister, Maya, moved with their mother to majority-White Montréal, where Gopalan Harris had secured a teaching post at McGill University as well as a research position at the Jewish General Hospital.

After graduating from Howard in 1986 for her undergraduate degree and from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in 1989, Harris passed the bar the following year and joined the Alameda County prosecutor’s office as an assistant district attorney. From there, she began her political ascent.

In 2003, Harris won her first race for San Francisco district attorney, becoming the first Black woman to hold such an office in California. In 2010, she became the first Black woman elected as California attorney general, and in 2016, she became only the second Black woman ever elected as a US senator.

She often spoke of her barrier-breaking life during her presidential primary campaign, saying that she understood how being the first requires voters to “see what can be unburdened by what has been.”

More than a demographic

Harris is a lot of things beyond her gender and her race, of course. But her mere presence brings so much with it — so much to those, of all ages, who see themselves in her.

As she waited for Harris to take the stage at a rally in Asheville, North Carolina, in October, Elinor Earl, 77, said she never thought that she’d see a Black woman like herself rise through the ranks as Harris has.

“Not at my age,” Earl told CNN. “It’s wonderful to see her. I wouldn’t have missed it for nothing in the world.”

Harris isn’t shy about highlighting her upbringing or her influences, as was clear through her shoutouts to AKAs and HBCUs during her DNC speech.

“Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” she said.

Harris was referring to the nickname for America’s nine historically Black fraternities and sororities, and nodding to the fact that she was the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to be selected as a major party’s candidate’s running mate.

Harris’ remarks couldn’t have contrasted more with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric over the past four years.

In comparison to Trump’s past four years in the White House, Harris’ bid was a pure distillation of the complex joy of representation. Often in her Converse sneakers, the former prosecutor made space for women of color to tell their lived experiences during campaign events on the trail. She made a point to prop up women of color small business owners, frequently telling them to say their companies’ names clearly in front of the press so they could be included in news stories. Certain voters felt, in today’s parlance, seen. And come Inauguration Day, that visibility will extend to the White House and, likely, alchemize into substantive representation.

There’s a sobering corollary to Harris’ historic win. In important ways, her success says as much about America’s political institutions as it does about her.

That Harris is the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president- elect is both an affirmation of her excellence — her skill as a debater against Mike Pence, for instance — and a reflection of the racism and sexism that punish women of color who run for executive office.

And while it’s true that Harris this week achieved yet more firsts, it’s maybe more accurate to describe these firsts as onlys — she became the only female, only Black and only South Asian vice president-elect.

That framing shines a less flattering light on America. But it’s more honest. It also hints at possibility — the possibility that Harris on Saturday opened up the door for women and girls who look like her to follow, to claim power for their own.

Harris’ mother put it best: “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”