Kamala Harris’ win: the first step is representation, but now we must see action

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Kamala Harris’ win does not mean that she has automatically healed an America that is so deeply rooted in systematic oppression and exclusion. For we must remember that Harris was herself an economically privileged child growing up with highly educated parents, and access to higher education herself, so her success does little to suggest that the selective nature of American ‘meritocracy’, which is in fact riddled with social inequality, has been rectified.

“But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

These were the resonating words uttered by Kamala Harris, the new Vice President-Elect of the United States, as she made her acceptance speech on 7 November 2020 in Delaware. Black, Asian-American (of Indian descent) and a woman, Kamala Harris’ election into the second highest position within the US government broke a centuries-long pattern of leadership by almost exclusively Caucasian men.

Her accession to the position is undoubtably a ground-breaking moment in American history. And with the tumultuous, socially divisive impact of the Trump administration still lingering in public and international consciousness, Kamala Harris is a necessary cleanse from the overt toxicity and bigotry of her predecessors.

Harris’ election reminds us of one of the most imperative reasons for exercising our right to vote: representation. For years America, in itself an extremely vast, diverse demographic, has been led by one narrow stratification of middle-class, white men. This of course does little to reflect the experiences and interests of the millions who do not fall under this privileged category. Data released by the United States Census Bureau in 2019 estimated that the percentage of peoples who are ‘White alone, not Hispanic or Latino’ was only 60.1%. This means that the remaining c.40%, which amounts to millions of American citizens, have long been misrepresented by people who cannot, and have little tried to, understand the hardships of their communities.

That is not to say that only ethnic minority politicians have ethnic minority issues at heart; nor that only women can address women’s issues, but having someone in office who has (likely) experienced much of the same forms of oppression or micro-aggressions as the demographic of which they represent is the best way to bring these issues to the forefront of public discourse, and subsequently make vital change.

People need to see that their elected officials and leaders mirror the diverse society that they are supposed to support. People need to feel that their individual and collective voices, issues and concerns within their social stratum are being listened to. People deserve to feel as though, in what is so ironically defined as ‘the land of the free’, the ‘freedom’ to pursue even the highest of jobs is a reality for everyone, not just for the select few.

This is the hope that Harris embodies. Like she said in her acceptance speech, the very fact that young girls globally have watched a woman reach one of the most powerful positions in the world envisages a whole new horizon for female potential and possibility. Many young women and people of colour in the US will hopefully now grow up knowing that people like them occupying high office positions is not only achievable for them; it is necessary. Harris, I hope, will be the first of many to break down the long-standing dominance of white, male agendas within American politics.

We must not, however, let this victory blind us from the issues at stake.

The first step is representation, but now we must see action. The coronavirus has devastated the United States, amounting the most COVID-19 deaths globally, not to mention the extremely polarised social attitude towards social distancing and wearing masks. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light the corruption of the criminal justice system; and a system long-entrenched in institutional racism that is, for so many African-Americans, a matter of life or death. The wealth gap is more severe than ever, and we are internationally facing a climate crisis that so heavily depends on the immediate actions of our governments, particularly a superpower like the United States. Having just one female ethnic minority politician who claims to fight these issues in the White House is, of course, not in itself enough. We must be diligent and not allow ourselves to become complacent, continuing to hold both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to high levels of scrutiny and accountability until we see real change.

The important thing is, progress has been made. History has been made. Representation is the first step in fighting for the rights and betterment of all Americans. And though trust must still be earned and promises fulfilled, one can only hope in time we will be able to look back on the 2020 election and take Harris’s view that the election truly marked “a new day for America.”

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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