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Kamala Harris is both a historic and flawed candidate

The Democratic vice presidential nominee made history as the first woman of color on a major party ticket, but she and Joe Biden still have to answer to a growing racial justice movement.

Senator Kamala Harris, then a candidate for president, campaigns in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 2019. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumpive Democratic presidential nominee, selected Harris as his vice-presidential running mate on Tuesday.JENNA SCHOENEFELD/NYT

When presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced that Senator Kamala Harris will be his running mate, many people were quick to react to the historic aspect of her candidacy: For the first time, a woman of color — in this case a Black and Indian-American woman — has a good chance of being elected vice president of the United States. But many progressives were disheartened by the choice, saying that a more diverse ticket doesn’t mean much if the country continues to elect moderates who will uphold the status quo. In reality, both reactions can be true.

It is true that representation in government matters. That the United States has been governed mostly by white men for centuries is clearly reflected in the many laws that oppress and systemically disenfranchise people of color, and in the laws that have criminalized women’s bodies and failed to protect women from gender discrimination. Having more women and people of color lead in the halls of power would probably make it more difficult to uphold these kinds of laws.


That’s why bringing more gender and racial diversity to government can ultimately help marginalized groups in the long run, even if the current candidates who represent those groups don’t. Just having a woman at the top of a major party ticket in 2016 helped inspire women across the country to run for office for the first time and contributed to sending a record number of women to Congress in 2018. A study showed that when women run for office, it inspires other women to do so as well.

But it is also true that Harris has a disappointing record, particularly when it comes to its impact on Black and brown communities, and that record deserves the scrutiny it has received. Given that Black Lives Matter protests have filled streets across the country all summer, Biden’s choice to nominate as his deputy a former prosecutor who dubbed herself California’s “top cop” does not exactly meet the mood of the moment. In her 2009 book “Smart on Crime,” Harris wrote, “If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up.” That statement alone should rightfully concern the millions of people who have been protesting police brutality and the over-policing of Black people in America.


Her record as attorney general in California is cause for even more concern. She made laudable reforms on police accountability but rejected calls from activists to investigate police shootings of Black people in her state and opposed legislation that would require her office to do so. She supported and enforced a law that prosecuted parents whose kids did not show up to school, which effectively criminalized poverty. And she opposed marijuana legalization when Black people in California were four times more likely to be arrested than white people for a marijuana-related offense and Black and Latino people made up nearly two-thirds of all marijuana arrests in the state.

So in Harris, the left won’t have the same kind of ally pushing for meaningful structural reform as they would in, say, someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But that’s exactly what movements are for: to keep pushing lawmakers to go after more ambitious policies — not people — that can enact real and lasting change. Social movements don’t end if an ally is elected to serve in the White House. They keep organizing, regardless of who’s in power, in order to achieve their goals. After all, it took several powerful movements — not presidents or vice presidents — to make someone who looks like Kamala Harris a viable candidate for vice president.


That’s why the country also has in Harris a candidate who should indeed be celebrated for bringing more diversity to the executive branch — it’s an achievement that has been generations in the making. It cannot be overstated how big of a deal it is to have a biracial, Black, and South Asian woman as a part of a major party ticket and, potentially, as the vice president of the United States.

Imagine how much more possibility Black and brown women and girls could see in their future if they see someone like them leading the nation. Along with a growing movement that is advancing racial equality, it could change choices and career trajectories for many of them, and one day make the entire government — from Congress to the Supreme Court to the White House — not only better reflect the diversity of the nation but also, finally, serve the most marginalized among us.

Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him @abdallah_fayyad.