Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will not save us. As two of the more centrist candidates to run in the 2020 Democratic primary, their politics largely do not reflect the more radical and left-leaning ideals of the younger, browner Democratic base. But, damn, if I’m not glad they won.
I can’t understate how moving it was to see a fellow Black woman and descendant of West Indians standing at that podium in Delaware on Saturday night. Vice-President-elect Harris was resplendent in her suffragette-white suit and pearl earrings, owning her momentous achievement while pledging to make sure she would not be the last of her kind. As far as symbolic wins go, it couldn’t have been any better.
It was so good, in fact, that it was tempting to overlook that Harris is still as deeply flawed as vice-president as she was when she ran for the presidency. After all, while symbolic wins are still wins, they’re only symbolic. The real win will be in seeing Harris champion policy that improves the lives of the people who elected her. It will be in making sure that she does not fall prey to the conventional thinking that invented the fiction of the “white working class” as the only demographic with social or economic needs that must be addressed.
As with any vaguely competent woman in public life, the engine of “girlbossification” has already kicked into high gear around Harris. And I admit there is a petty part of me that is glad this is a milestone white women didn’t get to have first while telling the rest of us to wait our turn. But while we should celebrate the progress that her appointment signifies, we should also be wary of her record and not forget to hold her to account. We cannot allow white feminism to co-opt her as a mere symbol of political progress without doing the work of actually progressing. A vote against Trump isn’t ideologically the same as a vote for Biden-Harris. We have to remember we are not meant to be fans of politicians. They work for us.
Harris’s legacy is complicated, because the accomplishments she has built her career on have not necessarily been good for the people she claims to champion. Her truancy initiative in California affected real people and caused real harm. Her pride in being a “progressive prosecutor” calls into question her dedication to dismantling the harmful institutions that have disproportionately endangered the lives of Black and brown people. Meanwhile, her reluctance to commit to defunding police departments in order to reinvest in communities shows a troubling lack of engagement with the most marginalized citizens’ radical demands. She was not the most progressive candidate for the presidency, and she won’t be the most progressive vice-president, either. But she does appear to have a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people who live in this country, and that’s something we can work with.
One of Harris’s major strengths is that she is a stateswoman. She is skilled at commanding a room (or a rally) and asserting her right to take up space. She makes you want to side with her despite yourself, and that will be a useful skill as she works with Biden to guide this country out of a deadly pandemic and a ravaged economy. It’s a basic competency for any Black woman in public life, and Harris has mastered it at an extremely high level, best indicated by her debate performance against outgoing VP Mike Pence. Her achievements are significant because she has managed to play the fucked up long game of both managing the racist assumptions of white voters and appealing to their sensibilities — and win. Her appointment shows that it is possible to successfully fend off unjustified racialized attacks and still prevail. Is it wishful thinking to hope the women who come after her will have a clearer path to their own future victories?
It would be dismissive to simply assert that Harris must be as good as any white VP. As a woman of Black and Indian heritage, she will have to be both Barack and Michelle Obama wrapped up in one. She will be fighting multiple stigmas at once and be held to the standards of both white femininity and Black patriarchy. As we look to her record for proof of her failures, we also must acknowledge that she is pushing a boulder uphill on her own. This would be a demanding battle for any Black woman.
The stress and low hum of daily existential terror brought on by living under the Trump administration was so profound that simply getting rid of him might feel like the end of the road. Our dread has finally given way to a cautious optimism that life in this country might improve. But despite Trump’s failures and harms, we cannot allow the Biden-Harris administration to trick us into believing that anything better than Trump is good enough.
Harris herself will undoubtedly run for the presidency again in the future. It’s our job now to ensure that, when that happens, she has earned our vote by enacting our values through policy that improves our lives. We cannot let the assumed solidarity of her identity obscure the fact that she has been elected to do a job, and if she’s bad at that job, she will have to go, too.
Representation isn’t everything, and identity cannot and will not save us. But it is okay — necessary, even — to be hopeful that Vice-President-elect Harris will live up to her commitment to tag in other women behind her, and reflect her foremothers, into the rarefied rooms of politics, bringing their and our interests with her.