Profiles

Kamala Harris rise shows why women do not need any favour

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US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris listens to a question from the audience during a forum in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 2, 2019. PHOTO | REUTERS

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Summary

  • Ms Harris, the daughter of an immigrant Indian mother and a Jamaican father was taught that the road to racial justice was long.
  • Her parents divorced when she was five and she was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother Shyamala Gopan Harris, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist.
  • She grew up engaged in her Indian heritage, joining her mother on visits to India, but Ms Harris has said that her mother adopted Oaklands black culture, immersing her two daughters, Kamala, and her younger sister, in it.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the two thirds gender rule in Kenya and I took the position that women do not need any law or backhanded favour to stand for elective or non-elective positions in the public or private sectors and should do so purely on the basis of merit.

The life journey of Kamala Harris who is to become the first female, first woman of colour and the first person of Asian decent to rise to the second-highest office in America has vindicated my position. But it is not a walk in the park.

Ms Harris, the daughter of an immigrant Indian mother and a Jamaican father was taught that the road to racial justice was long. Her parents divorced when she was five and she was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother Shyamala Gopan Harris, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist. She grew up engaged in her Indian heritage, joining her mother on visits to India, but Ms Harris has said that her mother adopted Oaklands black culture, immersing her two daughters, Kamala, and her younger sister, in it. Her mother was determined to raise her two daughters to become confident and proud black women.

Ms Harris and her younger sister sang in the children’s choir at a black church and studied the arts at Rainbow Sign, a pioneering black cultural centre. After school they spent time at a child-care centre run by a neighbour in the basement of their apartment, learning about black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Sojourner Truth.

As a first grader, Ms Harris joined the second elementary school class in Berkeley to be desegregated by busing, making her an early test for a contentious liberal policy. It was part of her history that exploded during a Democratic primary debate, when she challenged Joe Biden’s past stance on busing and his warm remembrances of working with segregationist senators.

Those experiences had a formative effect on Ms Harris’s professional path, pushing her away from the outsider politics of her childhood and into the Democratic establishment that she came to believe had great power to change. “I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask for permission to change what needs to be changed”, she said.

Although her career as a prosecutor is what made her a politician, it brought political benefits and risks. She began work in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and became District Attorney, the top prosecutor, for San Francisco in 2003 before being elected the first woman and the first black person to serve as California’s Attorney General, the top lawyer and law enforcement official in America’s most populous state.

Ms Harris gained a reputation as one of the Democratic party’s rising stars, using this momentum to propel her election as California’s junior US senator in 2017. As a senator she has advocated for healthcare reform, federal de-scheduling of cannabis, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the DREAM Act, a ban on assault weapons, and progressive tax reforms. She gained a national profile for her pointed questioning of Trump administration officials during senate hearings, including Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault.

She ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination but ended her unsuccessful campaign on December 3 2019. However, on August 11, 2020, she was announced as presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate and on November 7, 2020, the race was called in favour of the Biden-Harris ticket.

She spoke on her campaign trail of those who had come before her, of her parents, immigrants drawn to the civil rights struggles in America, and of the ancestors who had paved the way.

At a campaign rally in Texas, shortly before the election, Ms Harris spoke of being singular in her role but not solitary. “Yes, sister, sometimes we may be the only one that looks like us walking in that room,” she told a largely black audience in Fort Worth. “But the thing we all know is we never walk in those rooms alone; we are all in that room together.”

Her biracial roots and upbringing mean she embodies and can engage with and appeal to many Americans, if not universal identities. Those parts of the country, which have seen rapid demographic change, enough change to alter a region’s politics, see an aspirational symbol in her.

IT’S POSSIBLE

Nonetheless, it was her time at Howard University, one of the nation’s preeminent historically black colleges and universities, which she has described as among the most formative experiences in her life.

Her journey has been one of overcoming challenges and achieving many firsts in the gender and racial arenas. She comes across as an assertive yet graceful woman who is not afraid to confront the status quo. Although she has broken the glass ceiling, this history-making moment should not distract progressives from keeping the pedal to the metal in the quest for change.

It is all about dogged determination, sacrifice and a mindset that says it is possible.

And let us not forget the “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, the first woman premier of Britain, without whom that country would be a pale shadow of itself.