Kamala Harris: What to know about America’s first female vice president

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As the first female vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris is the embodiment of the American Dream.

The former senator from California was born on Oct. 20, 1964, in Oakland. Her father was an economist from Jamaica, her mother a cancer researcher from India, and they met at the University of California, Berkeley, as graduate students.


Her identity politics is only where her boundary-breaking role begins.

With the confluence of crises confronting the Biden administration – and an evenly divided Senate in which she delivers the tie-breaking vote – Harris has shaped up to be a central player in addressing everything from the coronavirus pandemic to criminal justice reform.

The sheer number of challenges the administration faces means it is “all hands on deck” during their early months. She is involved in all four of the major priorities they’ve set out: turning around the economy, tackling COVID-19, and addressing climate change and racial justice.

Harris is the “last voice in the room” on key decisions; President Joe Biden is known to turn to Harris first during meetings to ask for her opinion or perspective on the matter at hand.

California Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the first Congressional Black Caucus member to endorse in the primary when she backed Harris, said the vice president isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

“She’s no shrinking violet,” Lee said. “If she believes that one decision should be made versus another she’s gonna weigh in and give her thoughts and opinions.”


Her champions know she is ready for her moment.

As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina put it, “There will be a lot of weight on those shoulders.”

“Those of us who come to these positions, we come to them knowing full well that we have a burden to make sure that we do it in such a way, that there will be people coming behind us,” he said.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state lawmaker and an early Harris endorser, likened her to other civil rights trailblazers.

“She comes from the same lineage as Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm and Ella Baker,” he said. “I mean, she’s built for this.”


Biden’s naming of Harris last August as his running mate comes 13 months after she flattened him on the debate stage in Miami at the first Democratic presidential primary showdown.

During the debate, Harris criticized comments by the former vice president spotlighting his ability to find common ground during the 1970s with segregationist senators with whom he disagreed, and his opposition decades ago to federally mandated school busing.

“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?” Harris asked Biden during the debate.

In a line that went viral, she spotlighted that “there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Harris was one of the students bused from their homes across town to join White students from the affluent hillside neighborhoods in Berkeley.

When she was attorney general in California, she was friends with Biden’s son, Beau, who was Delaware’s attorney general.


Both thought that leaders got off too easily when they worked together on a settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage lenders after the foreclosure crisis stemming from the real estate bubble burst in 2008. The deal would reduce loans for roughly one million households.

Biden said her relationship with his son, who died of a brain tumor in 2015, was key in his decision to name Harris as a running mate.

Her path was shaped by her immigrant parents, a childhood among civil rights activists, a career at the helm of a flawed criminal justice system and her rapid rise to the top of American politics.

She is known for bucking the political powers that be and being cautious at debates about policy. She became a national figure who knows the power of tough questioning and a viral moment, and also the weight of her role as the first Black woman and first Asian American woman named to a major party presidential ticket.

She’s been faulted for changing too many of her policy positions. 

Former President Trump labeled her “nasty” for her interrogation of his nominees, including now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Some progressive liberals, meanwhile, view her work as a prosecutor with heavy doubt. They have questioned her use of policies they say are discriminatory.

Harris’ allies argue that her work and politics are evocative of the time. Harris found ways to change what she could, they say. As district attorney, she started a reentry program that connected nonviolent offenders to jobs and education that became a national model.


“I remember the first time I visited the county jail. So many young men, and they were mostly Black or brown or poor,” she wrote in her 2019 book, “The Truths We Hold,” recalling her time as a young prosecutor. “They represented a living monument to lost potential, and I wanted to tear it down.”


Harris seemed bound to rise in politics from the very earliest days of her career.

“I have not achieved anything that I have without the support of many who believed in the possibility of someone who has never been there before,” she said in an interview with the news outlet The 19th.

Harris has notched a series of firsts during a legal and political career that has taken her from California to the office of vice president in Washington.

The 56-year-old daughter of immigrants was the first woman and person of color to serve as San Francisco’s district attorney, the first woman and first Black person to become California’s attorney general, the first Black person to represent California in the U.S. Senate and the first woman, Black person and Asian American to be elected vice president. She is also the first vice president with a historically Black college, Howard University, for an alma mater.

The vice president, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, is the representation of a seat at the table for American women of color.


Harris joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in 1986 at Howard, one of the country’s oldest historically Black colleges and universities. When she accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in August, she thanked AKA, saying, “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha.” Soon after, donations in increments of $19.08, marking the year, 1908, when the sorority was founded, started flowing in to a Biden-Harris campaign fundraising committee.

During the inauguration, Genita Harris of the Delta Omega Omega chapter in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, said group chats with her sorority sisters were “going bananas” during a historic moment for the sisterhood and for HBCUs.

“It’s been the same story of White men for centuries,” she said. “Now a new story is being written, and it’s our story.”

When the 2020 presidential election was called, AKA soror Josclynn Brandon pulled over in her car and cried.

“I knew then that I was going to see Kamala Harris make history,” she said. “It confirmed that Black women and women of color are so much more capable than some people believe us to be.”


Elizabeth Shelby, a member of the Alpha Psi chapter of AKA, grew up hearing young Black boys say they wanted to be president after Barack Obama made history as the country’s first Black president. Now, she hopes Black girls will have those dreams too.

“It’s a historic moment,” she said. “To see not only a woman but a woman of color and member of the Divine Nine become vice president is something I never even dreamed of happening as a little girl growing up in America.”

“There is a pride I can’t put into words,” she continued. “It is such a joy to see her rise to this place in our country. It is such a joy to know that she is one of us, that she represents us. She is truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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