Who Is: Kamala Harris

Starting in January 2021, I have been a part of Passionfruit, a multilingual online non-profit publication centered around social justice. I have written a number of different opinion pieces for Passionfruit that I will be reposting. The posts were intended for bite-sized consumption, which challenges me to be as succinct as possible while still conveying important concepts. The original post with full credits can be found here.

March 5, 2021

Mere minutes before Joe Biden became the forty-sixth President of the United States, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the country’s forty-ninth Vice President. The child of Jamaican and Indian parents, Harris worked her way up through the ranks of California politics to now hold the second highest office in the nation. No one knows if Biden will run again in 2024. If he chooses not to, Harris seems to be an obvious strong contender for the White House–which makes it all the more important to understand who she is and what she stands for.

In the United States, the Vice President is the second most powerful position in the federal government – the first being the President. However, the U.S. Constitution is sparse in outlining specific responsibilities of the Vice President. One of these responsibilities is that the Vice President is also the President of the Senate and has the power to cast tie-breaking votes. This is particularly relevant given that the current Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Kamala Harris’ career has often been noted for its trailblazing list of “firsts.” As Vice President, Harris is the first woman, woman of color, South Asian American, and Black American to hold the position. She was previously the first South Asian American member of the U.S. Senate, first person of color to be District Attorney of San Francisco, and the first woman, woman of color, South Asian American, and Black American to be Attorney General of California. (Her husband, Doug Emhoff, subsequently has become not just the first Second Gentleman, but also the first Jewish spouse of a Vice President.)

Some mistakenly believe Kamala Harris to be the first Vice President of color; however that honor is held by Charles Curtis, an American Indian and member of the Kaw Nation. Curtis was one of the first American Indians to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He then went on to serve as Vice President from 1929 to 1933 in the Herbert Hoover administration. After losing the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Vice Presidential pick John Nance Garner, Curtis went on to become the first American Indian in the U.S. Senate.

During the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primaries, Harris came under fire for her “tough on crime” record. She blocked gender confirmation surgery for an incarcerated trans woman, fought a Supreme Court ruling that called for the release of non-violent offenders, and incarcerated the parents of children who skipped school. Harris also backed a San Francisco policy to report undocumented minors to ICE and opposed the legalization of marijuana.

Harris has since conceded that her anti-truancy measures, as well as other tough on crime policies, led to “unintended consequences.” On the campaign trail Harris fiercely criticized Donald Trump as lawless and dangerous, citing her anti-corruption work as Attorney General as well as her tough questioning of then-Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Harris made waves in criticizing Joe Biden’s previous opposition to school integration policies, famously saying, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me!”

Until now Harris’ record was rooted in domestic politics; as Vice President, she is already bolstering her foreign policy portfolio. Harris’ foreign policy views align with establishment Democrats, which means supporting international initiatives–like the Paris climate accord–as well as military incursion–like the recent bombings in Syria. This angers progressives, who oppose U.S. intervention, and conservatives, who advocate greater military action. Harris reportedly plans to focus her attention on global health and cybersecurity.

No one yet knows what sort of Vice President that Kamala Harris will become. Historically, Vice Presidents have taken on varying degrees of influence in their respective administrations. If Harris does plan on vying to break the highest glass ceiling in the country by seeking the presidency, one can expect that she will be a vocal advocate for the Biden administration. Harris will likely chart a course to argue that she is progressive enough for the Democratic base but pragmatic enough for swing-state voters – and that her “tough on crime” stances are a thing of the past.


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