Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
A picture has been circulating on social media in the wake of the victory of president-elect Joe Biden. Designed by Bria Goeller for WTF America 2017, a Black-owned political-satire clothing company, the image is Kamala Harris, briefcase in hand, caught in mid-stride. The shadow she casts on the wall is that of Norman Rockwell’s depiction of Ruby Bridges in his 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With. Bridges was just six years old when she had to be escorted by four federal marshals in order to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.
The picture captures the collision of the historic legacy of racial domination and the enormous triumphalism of this moment, as the first Black woman and the first South Asian woman – the first woman ever, in fact – is elected vice-president of the United States of America. Ms. Harris’s victory is a temporal surmounting of all the Black men, women and children who were attacked, beaten, arrested, maimed and lynched in the struggle for the right to vote. Her ascendance to one of the highest seats of government in the country is a challenge to and repudiation of the specifically gendered racism and racialized misogyny so often reserved for Black women.
For those who have always seen themselves reflected in the many and varied halls of power – teacher, manager, executive, professor, prime minister, president – I don’t know if I can convey to you what it’s like to have a life largely devoid of that experience. What it does to your psyche to constantly hear that you can be anything you set your mind to but to never actually witness it come to pass for people who share your identity. To never see anyone who looks like you reach those occupations that we like to tell our children are available to all people, regardless of race or gender.
These messages patrol the boundaries of the realm of possibility for Black girls. They are everywhere and relentless, pervasive and penetrative. The late Richard Iton once wrote that in popular culture, Black people are often treated as punctuation marks – we split sentences like commas, join together equally weighted parts like a semicolon or are positioned as a question mark here, an exclamation mark there. Entire generations of Black people – especially Black women – have been taught that all we can ever hope to be is the jovial sidekick to someone else’s story.
Kamala Harris changes that message. True, the vice-president is ancillary to the president, but that doesn’t change how unprecedented it will be to have a woman as the second-in-command in one of the world’s few superpowers. This election is, in a word, monumental.
Ms. Harris’s victory is not without complications. Her legal career as attorney-general of California – the state of three-strikes sentencing laws and overcrowded prisons – convolutes her claims that she was a “progressive prosecutor” and her efforts to position herself as a champion of criminal-justice reform. And, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, we live in the shadow of an Obama presidency that left Black communities to disproportionately suffer from the ravages of the Great Recession and two Black attorneys-general who couldn’t shift the trajectory of the racist nature of the system of mass incarceration. There are clear limits of the power of representation.
Moreover, this victory could not have been delivered without the grassroots organizing of Black women such as Stacey Abrams, whose relentless work to register voters and fight for voting rights in Georgia turned what was once a reliably red state purple. Ms. Abrams, it bears reminding, is just as accomplished as Ms. Harris, and just as driven but lacks the light-skinned privilege and American Dream-able child-of-immigrants narrative that appeases the voters Democrats want, rather than the Black women who form the most loyal part of the base the party currently has.
Seeing someone who looks like you in the halls of power is not the same as your community being empowered. Having a woman as the vice-president won’t singularly eradicate the gender wage gap, protect victims of domestic violence or bring back the hundreds of thousands of working mothers who were forced out of the American labour market because of COVID-19. Representation is critically important, but we cannot lose sight of the material conditions that make it so rare to see women of colour in roles that we associate with value and respect.
And yet, with the election finally settled, even the most cynical among us can find a reason to feel a sense of relief, or even to be – dare I say it – hopeful. An end to the Trump presidency, regardless of who or what made it happen, is reason enough for celebration. But this particular victory is historic, special and meaningful. Kamala Harris is trailed by the shadow of Ruby Bridges and the vitriol she faced, but, as she said in her victory speech, “while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
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