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11 August 2020

Kamala Harris: Biden’s VP pick is first woman of colour on a major party ticket

How black voters react to the California senator will be crucial at November’s election.

By Emily Tamkin

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has selected Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Harris, a 55-year-old senator from California, ran against Biden in the primary, memorably going after him in a debate last June, saying that while she did not think Biden was a racist, “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country”.

“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,” she went on, referring to the practice of sending students within and between different school districts by bus in an effort to integrate American schools. She then delivered perhaps the most memorable line of any primary debate. “And that little girl was me.”

Some thought that the incident meant that Harris wouldn’t be selected to be Biden’s running mate, particularly after Chris Dodd, a long-time Biden confidante who helped him select his potential future vice-president, reportedly said of Harris, “She had no remorse”.

Harris, who is half-Jamaican and half-Indian, is only the fourth woman in American history and the first black woman or Asian-American to run on a major party ticket. She was seen as a strong contender, but her presidential campaign was plagued by the idea, at least in the press and public, that she didn’t quite know how she wanted to position herself.

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She wasn’t a traditional politician – at least in the sense that, unlike the person at the top of the ticket, she is not a white man – but neither did she position herself as a progressive like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps most notably, she’s a proud former prosecutor, pitching the nation that it needed a prosecutor to take on Donald Trump at a time when it is reckoning with its criminal justice system.

But choosing Harris suggests that Biden does have an idea about what he wants his campaign to be – or, at least, who he wants it to speak to.

[see also: How Joe Biden became the front-runner to take on Trump]

“I have the great honour to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris – a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants – as my running mate,” Biden tweeted Tuesday afternoon (11 August). (The Trump campaign, for its part, put out a statement that said the selection “is proof that Joe Biden is an empty shell being filled with the extreme agenda of the radicals on the left”.)

[see also: “Imagine the damage a president could cause”: What would happen if Trump refused defeat?]

Biden had previously said that he would pick a woman as his running mate. That statement could be seen as discouraging (several women contested him for the nomination, and now one must settle for second place) – or historic.

The selection of Harris – over, say, a Midwestern moderate like Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer or a progressive like Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren – suggests that Biden is determined to get black voters, in particular, to turn out for him.

The question, however, isn’t whether black voters who do vote will choose Biden (90 plus per cent of black voters vote Democrat) but whether black Americans will vote in the numbers that Biden needs them to win. In 2016, according to Pew, 45 per cent of white women who voted chose Hillary Clinton; by comparison, 98 per cent of black women who voted did.

[see also: US election swing states: Virginia is for… Democrats?]

Biden’s selection of Harris could be seen as pandering, or a transparent reminder that he was the vice-president of America’s first black president. Alternatively, it could be seen as recognition that black women are the most reliable and important Democratic voters.

How black voters – and indeed all American voters – react to Harris will be seen come November. Until then, the woman who gave Biden perhaps his most dramatic shock during the primary debates will now attempt to help him towards a dramatic finish.