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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 40, New Delhi, September 19, 2020

Moment of History | Suranjita Ray

Friday 18 September 2020, by Suranjita Ray

The nomination of Kamala Harris, the first Asian American woman of colour as the Democratic Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate is historic. It marks a moment of celebration for immigrant communities and the black community in particular across all sections. Increasing pressures on Joe Biden to choose a woman of colour after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 reveal the upsurge of minority politics. Not only have black voters played a significant role in Harris’s nomination but the demand for black representation in democratic politics has also grown with the renewal of the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement.

We have seen the rise of black political leadership in America over the years (see also Subramanian, 2020: 11). The rise of Kamala Harris like President Barack Obama’s reflects the success of providing space for diversities in politics. However, what is ironic is that the identity debate around Harris, whose parents are immigrants – her father is from Brown’s Town, Jamaica while her mother is from Chennai, India – confirms that America continues to struggle with the diverse, plural, multicultural and multiracial identities of its people.

Contesting Systemic Prejudice

Identifying herself as a woman of colour and acknowledging the contribution of the BLM movement, Harris presents an in-depth understanding of the issues facing racial identity politics in modern day America. Relating her experiences to the long history of systemic racism, she argues that black people have never been treated as humans. She acquitted that ‘none of us are free till all of us are free’ in contestation of the systemic prejudice, discrimination, and racism that targets the black community. Protesting the prejudice within the broader criminal justice system, she vouched to work for ‘George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, and for the lives of too many others to name…for our children, for all of us’.

During the recent Democratic National Convention, in the most important speech of her political career, Harris elucidated that ‘vision of our nation as a Beloved Community — where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love... a country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect…a country where we look out for one another, where we rise and fall as one, where we face our challenges, and celebrate our triumphs — together. Today… that country feels distant’. She affirms the need to care for the people that form a democracy. There is much to do to help black people, to develop healthy communities complete with accessible and affordable schools, health care, food and secure living wages, guaranteed safety and wellbeing. She believes that it is not a coincidence but the effect of structural racism that black, Latino and indigenous people fell prey to the corona virus more aggressively than white people. She has introduced legislation to examine the race dimension of COVID -19 as it has affected the racial minorities the most. ‘There is no vaccine for racism’ Harris stated in her speech.

Paying tribute to generations of women and men who struggled for women’s equality and right to suffrage, she promised equality, liberty, and justice for all. She referred to the tragic racial experiences that have become common today and pledged to bring them to an end, inspiring young girls and women of colour from all walks of life – to go for the big things in life. The existing social, economic, political and cultural inequities marginalise the black community. We find a continuous reminder of the black feminist struggle’s argument in today’s America – all women are not equally subject to common forms of oppression in everyday life. We find that women of colour in particular are more vulnerable to multiple processes of deprivation, oppression, subjugation, exploitation, exclusion and marginalisation as they experience racism from white women as well as from men. Therefore, patriarchy is not divided along the lines of ‘men vs women’ as black women struggle to be liberated from the traumas of white supremacy. The narratives of black people, and black women specifically, provide insights into the lived experiences of difference which are sites of continuous oppression, conflict and paradox. These entwined systems of oppression highlight the layered confrontation that women of colour experience on accounts of gender, racial, economic and political identities.

Inequality is deeply bound up with race and gender in America, as nearly a quarter of Black women and twenty-nine per cent of black children live below the official poverty line and fifty-seven per cent black people belong to low-income groups (see also Taylor, 2020). The promises for affordable health care, housing, and child care should be fulfilled to secure the basic rights of millions of black people who are without work, hungry and on the brink of homelessness. While the enthusiasm for Harris amongst many black Americans is based on the assumptions that her racial and gender identities will impact policymaking favourably, there are also apprehensions that her class position makes this expectation challenging (ibid). Despite repeated talk about structural racism, BLM activists insist on a real commitment to policy change which will close the gap between ‘symbolism and substance’.

While Harris has emerged as a leading voice against the persisting inequalities and injustice based on race, the pro-Trump campaign argues that she does not really care about racism as ‘she is not even Black’. ‘She is neither black nor native American. She is Asian American’. Despite the best possible political credentials to compete for the vice-president’s post, the identity debate and where Harris comes from is a question that seems to concern the majority in the political system. Though Harris is no ordinary citizen and served as California’s Attorney General for seven years before being elected to the Senate in 2016, she has been portrayed by the current President and his Republican allies as an incompetent candidate who does not belong to the top ranks in politics. Mispronouncing her first name as ‘KAH-mah-lah’, and continuing to get her name wrong mark deliberate efforts by Republicans to diminish her as non-American (see also Burnett, 2010:11). Mike Pence, the Republican Vice-President candidate, warned ‘a cheering crowd that the choice in the forthcoming elections is not between Republicans and Democrats but whether America remains America’ (ibid). These are no simple declarations. The campaigns raise larger questions about representative democracy and the inclusivity of American society. Such statements undermine people of colour politically, alongside their role in the socio-economic and political transformations that have shaped America, the epitomised ‘land of the free and home of the brave’. It is concerning that the democratic state itself makes it possible to ignore and suppress any political voice from the black community.

Although ‘Kamala Harris became possible’ in America, a democratic land, where democracy has been strengthened by an increasing breadth of democratic movements, such stances raise serious questions about the foundations of ideas and institutions endorsed for their inclusivity. Despite the ongoing dialogue against racial injustice and police brutality which has pushed societies across the world to interrogate inherent racism, at this conjecture it is significant to understand the attempts by the all-powerful state not only to depoliticise the black community but also to reinforce white supremacy.

Beyond Symbolism

At the turn of the century, it is pertinent to analyse how democracy is experiencing an incredible worldwide resurgence of voices from the margins. The increasing political consciousness of black people’s rights movements across America reflects the political articulation of the diversities and aspirations of the large masses. What is worrying is that though racial discrimination, subjugation and stigmatisation seem incongruous in a country which claims to be the most liberal, democratic and developed, we come across reported experiences of racial discrimination and injustice (Ray, 2020). This compels us to not only contest the claims of the State, but also to support the persisting struggles of the black community for their right to survive without stigma and subjugation, and their voices in mainstream politics. The struggles for self-respect and dignity remains a significant chapter in America’s political history.

The vice-presidential nomination of Kamala Harris is important as it contests the political strategies that prevent any alteration in dominant power structures. Harris’s multiple identities enable her to reflect the voices of diverse sections of American society. Although perceiving racial injustice and wrongs might be successful in mobilising a diverse electorate around issues like racism, it is the political dynamics of the country that will inevitably impact the upcoming election in America and determine what it holds for the black community, and suppressed voices across the country. Without being trapped in the politics of assimilation, and without giving up the struggle side of the powerless, disadvantaged, underprivileged and marginalised, Harris should address the systemic deprivations in policy matters to step towards greater liberation and self-determination. The political voices of black people must be valued as the first step towards combatting racism, conveyed through perpetual, systemic, everyday discrimination and subjugation.

It is also important to comprehend that greater representation in democratic politics should move beyond the politics of symbolism to prevent the emergence of mere political icons. Though ‘descriptive representation’ and the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ have been contested by several studies which find that substantive interests of the marginalised and black have been represented by non-descriptive representatives, the legitimacy of democracy lies in deepening representative institutions. Representatives of the marginalised social groups should champion the voices and concerns of the latter even when it does not reflect the views held by a majority of voters. Or else such ‘moments of celebration’ will continue to remain emblematic and paradoxical in reality.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66[a]yahoo.co.in

References:

Burnett, Sara (2020), ‘Democrats see racism in GOP mispronunciations of ‘Kamala’ ’ in The Indian Express, 23 August page 11.

Subramaniam, Nirupama, (2020), “Their Kamala, not Ours” in The Indian Express, 25 August page 11.

Ray, Suranjita (2020), “Racism: An Entrenched System” in Mainstream VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, Lockdown Edition no.22

Taylor, Keeanga Yamahtta, (2020), ‘Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Limits of Representation’ in THE NEW YORKER, www.newyorker.com, visited on 25 August 2020.

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