Harris smashing glass ceiling is victory for women of color

November 7, 2020

The Hill: Harris smashing glass ceiling is victory for women of color
By: Marty Johnson and Justine Coleman

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has broken through one of the final glass ceilings for women with her election as vice president, a moment that puts her a heartbeat away from the presidency and instantly makes her a favorite to one day be president.

On Inauguration Day, the 56-year-old daughter of two immigrants will officially become the first woman to be vice president of the U.S. after Democratic nominee Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election by multiple networks and The Associated Press on Saturday. Her election also will make her the first Black, Indian and Caribbean American woman to serve in the country’s second-highest office.

Harris’s win elevates her to become the highest elected woman in American history, ahead of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“To give you an idea of how rare it [is] … there have been no Black women governors, and there's only been two Black women in the United States Senate, and she's one of them,” Duchess Harris, professor of modern African American politics at Macalester College, told The Hill prior to Election Day. “In terms of symbolism, it really is shattering a glass ceiling.”

Harris’s political ascension is an exclamation point to an election cycle that saw more Black women run for Congress than ever before.

A record 130 Black women were congressional candidates this election cycle, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, with 62 winning party nominations and appearing on ballots on Election Day.

Black women — often disenfranchised from the electoral process in the past — were a driving force behind the Biden-Harris victory over President Trump and Vice President Pence.

“Black women have historically been engaged in politics through voting, through protesting, through mobilization and as candidates,” Pearl Dowe, professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University and Oxford, told The Hill. “This type of work has really been critical to the success of the Democratic Party when they have won elections, whether it is national, congressional or down ticket. So this moment really speaks to almost a reward for years of labor when it comes to how black women have performed and overperformed in the electorate.”

Not only do Black women vote at a higher rate than Black men, but nearly 90 percent of Black women are Democrats. No racial or gender group was as engaged as Black women in 2012, and in 2016, 94 percent of Black female voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. 

In a national election that saw Trump win the White House, Black women were Democrats’ staunchest voting bloc. The group has also grown in size; between 2000 and 2017, the citizen voting-age population of Black women increased by 31 percent, translating to more than 3 million Black women. Around 15 million Black women were expected to be eligible to vote this election cycle.

Color of Change PAC Executive Director Arisha Hatch signaled that the support of Black women would need to be rewarded through a Biden-Harris policy agenda that focuses on the issues Black women find most important. 

“Black women's role in the election of Biden and Harris demands that an agenda that centers Black and other working-class people is the priority of this next administration,” Hatch said. “When we're talking to Black women, especially out in the field, they want to see a competent response to a pandemic. … They want to see shifts in the way that our families are policed, overpoliced and overincarcerated. … They want to be able to put food on the tables for their kids and send them to schools that are not only safe but allow their children to live their best lives in the future.”

Harris’s tenure as vice president could put her in the driver's seat to become the next Democratic presidential nominee as early as 2024 if Biden serves a single term. 

The California senator is now “better positioned than anybody else has ever been” to become the first female U.S. president, commonwealth professor of politics at the University of Virginia Jennifer Lawless said. 

“The vice presidency is the best path to the Oval Office,” she said. “With a female vice president, we’re closer than we’ve ever been before to a female president.”

Harris became the fourth woman to appear on a major party’s ticket after Biden declared her to be his running mate in August. She followed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who ran for president in 2016, and Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, who ran for vice president in 1984 and 2008, respectively. 

Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at EMILYs List, said Harris’s ascension to the White House transforms how people perceive the role of the vice presidency.  

“It means that little girls can see themselves in a role they've never been able to see before,” she said. “It means that when we talk about these roles, when we talk about women in leadership, we have an example in Kamala Harris as someone who has reached one of the highest roles in leadership that you can reach.”

While Reynolds said Harris’s election demonstrates progression, she noted that former President Obama’s election “didn’t end racism” and that Harris’s win “won’t end racism or sexism.” 

Karthick Ramakrishnan, the director and founder of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Data, predicted there will be a “Harris effect” that will inspire more people of color and Asian Americans to run for higher office, much like the “Hillary effect” for female candidates. 

“I think her election offers cautious hope, and the reason why I say cautious hope is that you have the hope that someone who is the daughter of immigrants can become president,” he said, adding that “we can’t forget the last four years.”

Varun Nikore, the president of the AAPI Victory Fund, said Harris’s appearance on the ticket has sparked more excitement in the South Asian community “than I’ve ever seen before in my life.”

The super PAC’s president said electing the first vice president of Indian American descent represents a step toward further recognition of the Asian American community as a voting bloc.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the country, with the number of voters more than doubling since 2000, according to a Pew Research Center study from May. The demographic made up almost 5 percent of the U.S.’s eligible voters in 2020.

“Let's face it: When constituency groups are set up by presidential campaigns and the [Democratic National Committee] and that sort of thing, our community is — it's just been given lip service, frankly, for the last 20 years,” he said, noting that future campaigns will have to give more attention to the demographic.