Kamala Harris
California Senator Kamala Harris.
Photo provided by AP/Chris Carlson

Wellesley Faculty Discuss the Significance of Kamala Harris as the First Woman of Color on Major Party Presidential Ticket

August 12, 2020

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his vice presidential running mate. His announcement late Tuesday afternoon ended months of speculation over whom he might select.

Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, is the first woman of color to be nominated for vice president on a major party ticket.

In March, Biden committed to naming a woman as his vice president. Since then, conversations around the race of potential nominees have dominated news cycles, with many supporters pointing out the significance of selecting a Black woman following a summer of upheaval over racial justice.

Brenna Greer, associate professor of history at Wellesley, noted that Biden’s choice of a woman of color as his running mate is “the more radical choice within the broader history of presidential politics, with manifest risks and benefits.”

Choosing the “right candidate” could continue to strengthen support for Biden among African American voters, particularly younger voters. However, Greer said, “the choice of any woman of color might drive off white independents or conservatives with racial politics that preclude their supporting a woman or person of color becoming the vice president, and possibly president.”

“A woman of color as vice president brings to the White House intelligence that, like it or not, is vital to leading and uplifting a nation experiencing the devastation of inequality and inequity.”

Brenna Greer, associate professor of history

By selecting Harris, Maneesh Arora, assistant professor of political science, said Biden has added important diversity and energy to his ticket, as well as a proven debater who will likely hold her own in the vice presidential debates. She also has significant political experience to offer. However, “she has been criticized by progressives for her record on crime and policing,” Arora said. “Considering Biden’s own problematic positions on racial issues, and his often ignorant remarks, Harris’s record may further harm one of Biden’s weakest areas as a candidate.”

Greer noted that David Plotz, host of the Slate podcast Political Gabfest, described Harris as “the boring choice” for Biden. Plotz’s co-host on the episode Greer referenced, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, responded that this was an incredible way to talk about the first woman of color on a presidential ticket. “I take his point, however,” Greer said. “Harris is a safe choice in that, as a former prosecutor, she does not undermine Biden’s opposition to ‘defund the police’ and is less likely than, say, former activist and California Congressmember Karen Bass to raise the ire or suspicion of moderates, independents, or conservatives.”

In terms of the significance of choosing a woman of color as his running mate, Arora said, “We are currently witnessing arguably the largest protests in U.S. history which were sparked by the police killing of a Black man. These are just the latest protests as part of the larger movement for Black lives. This sustained activism, combined with a rapidly diversifying electorate, the remarkable racial and gender diversity of the Democratic primaries, and a sitting president who has made a political career from racist remarks and policies, makes this a fitting time in history for a woman of color vice president, if not a woman of color president.”

“A woman of color as vice president brings to the White House intelligence (born out of experience and ‘second sight’) that, like it or not, is vital to leading and uplifting a nation experiencing the devastation of inequality and inequity,” Greer said. “Also, not for nothing, representation is important when it comes to how marginalized people see themselves and imagine what they can do: Seeing that something is possible, makes it increasingly so.”

Still, Greer is cautious about what could happen in November. “We must also remember that while much of the country is showing support, even protesting, for racial justice, a significant portion of the nation is revealing itself to be nativist and xenophobic,” she said. “Racism and white supremacy have also found a place within mainstream politics thanks in large part to the current administration and specifically Donald Trump, who—in the tradition of demagogues like former Alabama Governor George Wallace—consistently exploits whites’ anxieties such that racism could very well carry him into a second term, despite what many agree is a disastrous show of leadership in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.”