‘I may be the first, but won’t be the last’: Kamala Harris in her first speech as VP-elect

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As the highest-ranking woman ever elected in American government, Harris’ victory gives hope to women who were devastated by Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Saturday paid tribute to the women, particularly Black women, whose shoulders she stands on as she shatters barriers that have kept mostly white men entrenched at the highest levels of American politics for more than two centuries.

“Tonight I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision to see what can be unburdened by what has been,” Ms. Harris said, wearing a white suit in tribute to women’s suffrage. President-elect Joe Biden had the character and audacity “to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country, and select a woman and his vice president.” she added.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Ms. Harris said in her first post-election address to the nation.

The 56-year-old California senator, also the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency, represents the multiculturalism that defines America but is largely absent from Washington’s power centers. Her Black identity has allowed her to speak in personal terms in a year of reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism. As the highest-ranking woman ever elected in American government, her victory gives hope to women who were devastated by Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago.

Rising star

A rising star in Democratic politics for much of the last two decades, Ms. Harris served as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator. After she ended her own 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, Joe Biden tapped her as his running mate. They will be sworn in as President and Vice President on January 20.

Mr. Biden’s running mate selection carried added significance because he will be the oldest President ever inaugurated, at 78, and hasn’t committed to seeking a second term in 2024.

Ms. Harris paid tribute to Black women “who are too often overlooked but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.”

Challenges galore

Despite the excitement surrounding Ms. Harris, she and Mr. Biden face steep challenges, including a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of colour, and a series of police killings of Black Americans that have deepened racial tensions. Harris’ past work as a prosecutor has prompted skepticism among progressives and young voters who are looking to her to back sweeping institutional change over incremental reforms in policing, drug policy and more.

Jessica Byrd, who leads the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project and The Frontline, a multiracial coalition effort to galvanise voters, said she plans to engage in the rigorous organizing work needed to push Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden toward more progressive policies.

“I deeply believe in the power of Black women’s leadership, even when all of our politics don’t align,” Ms. Byrd said. “I want us to be committed to the idea that representation is exciting and it’s worthy of celebration and also that we have millions of Black women who deserve a fair shot.”

Speaking about her late mother Shyamala Gopalan, Ms. Harris said: “when she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”

Kamala is Sanskrit for “lotus flower,” and Ms. Harris gave nods to her Indian heritage throughout the campaign, including with a callout to her “chitthis,” a Tamil word for a maternal aunt, in her first speech as Mr. Biden’s running mate. When Georgia Sen. David Perdue mocked her name in an October rally, the hashtag #MyNameIs took off on Twitter, with South Asians sharing the meanings behind their names.

Battling racism, sexism

The mocking of her name by Republicans, including Mr. Trump, was just one of the attacks Ms. Harris faced. Mr. Trump and his allies sought to brand her as radical and a socialist despite her more centrist record, an effort aimed at making people uncomfortable about the prospect of a Black woman in leadership. She was the target of online disinformation laced with racism and sexism about her qualifications to serve as president.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington said Ms. Harris’ power comes not just from her life experience but also from the people she already represents. California is the nation’s most populous and one of its most diverse states; nearly 40% of people are Latino and 15% are Asian. In Congress, Ms. Harris and Ms. Jayapal have teamed up on bills to ensure legal representation for Muslims targeted by Mr. Trump’s 2017 travel ban and to extend rights to domestic workers.

“That’s the kind of policy that also happens when you have voices like ours at the table,” said Ms. Jayapal, who in 2016 was the first South Asian woman elected to the U.S. House.

Ms. Harris attended Howard University, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first sorority created by and for Black women. She campaigned regularly at HBCUs and tried to address the concerns of young Black men and women eager for strong efforts to dismantle systemic racism.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who considers Ms. Harris a mentor, views Ms. Harris’ success through the lens of her own identity as the granddaughter of a sharecropper.

“African Americans are not far removed from slavery and the horrors of racism in this country, and we’re still feeling the impacts of that with how we’re treated and what’s happening around this racial uprising,” she said. Ms. Harris’ candidacy “instills a lot of pride and a lot of hope and a lot of excitement in what is possible.”

Friends Sarah Lane and Kelli Hodge, each with three daughters, brought all six girls to a Harris rally in Phoenix in the race’s closing days. “This car is full of little girls who dream big. Go Kamala!” read a sign taped on the car’s trunk.

Ms. Lane, a 41-year-old attorney who is of Hispanic and Asian heritage, volunteered for Ms. Biden and Ms. Harris, her first time ever working for a political campaign. Asked why she brought her daughters, ages 6, 9, and 11, to see Ms. Harris, she answered, “I want my girls to see what women can do.”

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