Aug 11, 2020
For most of my life, candidates on major party presidential tickets tended to look like, and had similar backgrounds to, Joe Biden. It was so unremarkable that it was hard to imagine anything different. No one looked like or had the background of Kamala Harris, not by a long shot. That may go without saying, but it deserves to be said. Boy does it ever.
Ours is a representative government, but for too long in America our leadership wasn't representative of the people as a whole. Not in gender or race. But here's the thing about representation, once walls of the status quo are broken, the imagination of the electorate changes.
Let's take the Senate. It still is in many ways an "Old Boys Club" and one that has about as much racial diversity as a mid-20th Century country club. But there was a time, not that long ago, when that was essentially all that it was. In recent years, that has changed considerably. And now the idea of a woman senator, from either party, seems a natural state of affairs. We sadly have further to go with Black senators. That is not to say that women still don't face many, many more hurdles than men. They do. But with each woman elected to office, as with governors, mayors, and state representatives, the idea of a "typical" political leader begins to change. And it's easier for those who follow.
So representation matters, and it's not just politics. In occupations from the military, to first responders, to astronauts, to athletes, to scientists, to all the other places in society that were once almost always the exclusive domain of men, and often white men, the breaking of barriers redefines what society in all its diversity thinks is possible.
There will be challenges for reporters covering this campaign. And there should be. Kamala Harris deserves to be vetted, and she expects this. But as we saw in 2016, what some might call vetting can also be shameful exercises in false equivalence, shaped by centuries of bias and systemic impediments to women and ethnic minorities, no matter the talents they possess.
Pioneers are judged, and judged harshly. They are judged on scales weighted against people that look like them. It's perfectly acceptable for a reporter to explore how Senator Harris may help turn out the vote, or inspire her political opposition. But that has to be framed alongside the injustices of American society. "Electability" is really a standard for judging the American people and not her. Her record in office can be scrutinized. But wondering whether she is "qualified" is really a far-from-subtle code word for race and gender. How she speaks, looks, the tone of her voice, we can't ignore that these things will enter the political discourse. But they are all subjective qualities that are shaped by what our society and history books have taught us a president or vice president is supposed to look like and sound like. It is time these norms are shattered.
As any scientist will tell you, human beings are by our basic nature, biased creatures. Biases, especially when they are subconscious, help us make sense of a complicated world. What do we fear? What do we understand? What challenges our sense of comfort? But bias leads us astray. Biases close us to new opportunities. But often, if we let ourselves, we can break down these biases. We can see the world through new eyes.
Kamala Harris does that. She is a vote for the America of today. Her story is every bit that of the American dream as the tales we look back at from a century ago with sepia-toned nostalgia. Many of those people were also the children of immigrants, different in language, ethnicity and religion from what privileged America thought the country should be . They were also judged, harshly.
That Senator Harris is a representative for Black America makes this moment all the more poignant. Her path though an historically Black university is a path that echoes the founding injustices of this nation, and the long and winding path to hope.
This campaign is far from over. The choice of a vice presidential candidate rarely moves needles much. But whatever happens American politics represents more of America tonight.