January 20, 2021, will forever be a landmark day in world history, marking the day that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, officially took over as leaders of the United States and began the arduous process of repairing a country hamstrung by a hateful leader, crippled by COVID and divided by decades upon decades of racial injustice and social inequality.
As if the day is not already iconic enough, it also marks the day that America finally introduced a female Vice President into the White House. Of course, Harris is so much more than just the first female VP, she is also the first Black woman and first Asian American to hold such a distinction.
Harris is no stranger to shattering glass ceilings and giving young women all over the world the inspiration to dream big, having also been the first Black woman to be elected district attorney in California history, the first woman to be California’s attorney general, and the first Indian American senator.
Destined For Greatness
Born on October 20, 1964, to an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris was part of a school integration program designed to desegregate the city schools in Berkley, California.
By the age of 13, Harris was living with her mother and sister in Montreal, Canada where she staged a demonstration outside of their apartment building in opposition to a rule that forbade children from playing on the lawn – a sign of great things to come, no doubt.
After graduating from the prestigious Howard University with a degree in political science and economics, Harris then attended law school in San Francisco, passing the bar exam in 1990 and taking a job as an assistant district attorney in Oakland, with a focus on sex crimes.
A champion for women and adamant that she wanted to change the system from the inside out, Harris eventually made her way to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office where she was instrumental in changing the city’s approach to teenage prostitutes, urging lawmakers and law enforcement to see young sex workers as victims instead of criminals.
Harris’ political career only went from strength to strength, with the ambitious prosecutor becoming the first Black woman in California to be elected district attorney in 2003 and becoming one of the first notable officeholders from California to endorse Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential bid.
By 2010 Harris had a larger position in mind, successfully running for California attorney general. As a woman of colour who opposed the death penalty, it was not expected that Harris would win against Republican candidate Steve Cooley, and in fact, the job was initially deemed to be his, however, Harris was declared victorious going on to fight for $20 billion in relief for California homeowners who were suffering in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Harris won her senate race in 2016 becoming the second black woman, ever, to win a seat in the United States Senate and quickly gained recognition for her incisive questioning strategies during Attorney Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions, who was being questioned about his knowledge of Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election, buckled under the weight of Harris’s questioning, claiming that her process was making him nervous.
This no-nonsense tactical approach was again employed by Harris during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, officially cementing her as someone who could one day release the country from the clutches of an increasingly volatile Trump administration.
Headed For The White House
During her presidential campaign of 2019, Harris gained widespread notoriety for challenging Joe Biden about his opposition in the 1970s to busing — the very initiative that had allowed Harris to attend a desegregated school as a child.
Despite the heated exchange, Harris went on to endorse Biden on March 8 2020, with Biden officially announcing the California senator as his running mate on August 11.
Over the course of her four years in the Senate, from which she has now officially resigned, Harris wrote legislation designed to end racial inequality in maternal health and ensure that people detained under President Trump’s travel ban had access to legal counsel. As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Harris contributed to the writing of the Justice in Policing Act after the murder of George Floyd’s incited national protests around police brutality and racial injustice.
Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, has been named by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Harris’ seat.
A Beacon of Hope
As a politician, and as a woman, Harris has not been exempt from criticism or controversy — her sex and race both championed and chastised, sometimes in the same breath. She has been accused of flip-flopping on her stance on the death penalty and healthcare. Despite creating Open Justice — an online platform that aims to share criminal justice data with the public in order to increase police accountability in cases of death or abuse in custody — it has been suggested that she has not done enough for criminal justice reform due to her refusal to investigate the police shootings of two Black men in 2014 and 2015. She has also been criticised for being “selectively Black” during parts of her campaign by some and not doing enough for her Black constituents by others.
Harris’ appointment to the White House is by no means a fix-all for the problems that have plagued the US since time began nor does it change the fact that an alarming number of American’s voted to keep Trump in office. She will not have all of the answers and she will not please even those within her own party one hundred per cent of the time.
Yet, as we start to slowly exhale a collective sigh of relief that the tumult of the past four years has drawn to a close, Harris represents a glimpse of what could be.
In her, we can perhaps see a more tolerant and hopeful America in which Black women are no longer four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts.
We might imagine a world in which young women of colour everywhere can see themselves reflected on a powerful world stage and feel as though someone who looks like them is contributing to the decisions that directly affect them. Perhaps most importantly, those same young women can grow up dreaming big and reaching for goals that the generations before them deemed out of reach or reserved for men.
The Motto Heard Around The World
As a woman born to an Indian father and British mother, who will (hopefully) one day be the mother of a little girl of mixed heritage, I am excited by the prospect of teaching my daughter that she can do anything she sets her mind to, just as Harris’ mother apparently taught her.
Tragically, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an activist and breast cancer researcher who immigrated to the US from India in 1958, was not present at her daughter’s inauguration, having lost her battle with colon cancer in 2009.
But surely, it would elicit no shortage of pride and comfort to know that the motto she instilled in the Vice President is now the mission statement of underrepresented yet hopeful women everywhere: “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.”