Choosing Kamala Harris puts identity at the heart of presidential race

Kamala Harris

Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate will have a lasting impact on how Americans think about the presidential ticket, and confirms the violent killing of George Floyd unleashed a demand for racial equality that continues to have dramatic impact.

Despite being such a historic selection, in certain aspects, Kamala Harris does not actually signal change. She is a moderate in the Democratic Party, an insider more than an outsider, and a highly experienced leader with national, state level and city level credentials. She worked as a district attorney in San Francisco for several years before being elected attorney general for the state of California, and then to the US Senate in 2016. Harris also stood as a candidate against Biden in the contest to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

Like Joe Biden, she is a highly experienced leader with strong credentials. But California is solidly blue, so she cannot deliver a new state for him. In many ways she is a safe choice and — at a time when Biden is far ahead of Donald Trump in the polls and America faces a lot of uncertainty — many leading political analysts say safe is exactly what the Democratic candidate needs.

But certainly as a signal to the American people, and the rest of the world, of what America is and what it stands for, the choice of Kamala Harris is truly historic. The senator from California is the first African-American woman, and the first Asian-American woman, on the presidential ticket. If Biden wins in November, Harris becomes the first female vice-president.

The historic aspects do not end there. Harris also represents a rapidly growing segment of the US population, but one that gets far less mention — multi-racial Americans. The exact size of America’s multi-racial population has been notoriously hard to measure, especially as it has only been 15 years since the US Census Bureau allowed Americans to choose more than one race when completing their census form. But America has long seen itself as a melting pot, so Harris’s place on the ballot underscores a national narrative with a deep resonance across the country, not least among America’s schoolchildren.

George Floyd, America
George Floyd protests, America. Photograph: Ken Fager/Flickr

In recent weeks, it came to feel inevitable Biden would choose an African-American running mate. His selection comes at a time when more Americans than ever before have taken to the streets to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd and racial injustice. And the demand for racial equality has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has disproportionately affected African-Americans who are dying from the virus at around double the rate of their white American counterparts, while twice the number of black businesses are closing relative to their white counterparts.

The choice of Harris also speaks to another fundamental aspect of the ‘American dream’. She is the daughter of two immigrant parents, her father being from Jamaica and her mother from India. Immigration has become one of the toughest issues in US politics, and immigrants have suffered repeated rhetorical attacks from Trump. One of Harris’s first stands in the US Senate was against President Trump’s entry ban to the US on several countries with majority Muslim populations.

When it comes to questions of identity, the choices that the US electorate now face in November could not be more stark. President Trump used the opportunity of the July 4 weekend to deliver a speech at Mount Rushmore which appeared to actively seek division and to ignite America’s cultural wars.

By choosing Kamala Harris, Biden also continues to signal that he will lead from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.

Harris may be left of Biden, but she is far to the right of other well-known progressive candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren. She has not, for example, supported more far-reaching measures to redistribute wealth, especially the proposal for a wealth tax. And she has a track record of being tough on crime during her years as a prosecutor. Although she played an active role in recent protests and signalled her commitment to police reform and anti-lynching laws, not all young or progressive protesters will be easily persuaded by her credentials.

Joe Biden, America
Joe Biden. Photograph: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

However, for voters who hoped for a more progressive candidate, two factors play to the advantage of the Biden-Harris ticket. This election still looks set to be a referendum on President Trump and — especially now — his ability to manage the public health and economic crises at home. And Biden has continued to include the progressive side of the Democratic Party in his plans, giving Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez key roles in developing climate proposals, and establishing a series of Unity task forces to bring the party together.

There are also other more conventional factors at play. Biden has relied on the support of African-American and also female voters. While Harris may not broaden this support, it should help ensure these voters turn out — if primarily via their postal box — to vote for Biden. His choice of Kamala Harris answers the one big outstanding question facing his candidacy and signals the true beginning of the race to the White House.

This article was initially published on Chatham House.

Dr. Leslie Vinjamuri is Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at SOAS University of London.

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