Around 60 minutes into the event last June in Miami, Kamala Harris said she wanted to make some comments “on the issue of race”. She then turned to Joe Biden, who had sparked outcry by defending relationships he had over the years in the Senate with Republicans, some of whom had toxic political views. Some had even supported segregation.
Harris also took issue with Biden’s opposition to the forced integration of schools in the early 1970s, a process undertaken by the federal government and known as “busing”.
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”
That flash of steel did several things. It projected the California senator to among the party’s early frontrunners, and it earned her a “Go easy on me, kid” greeting from Biden when they met for the second debate.
It also underscored a recognition that were the party to pick Harris as either its presidential or vice presidential candidate, they would be walking into the embrace of history.
“On this subject,” she had said, “it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
It is just 13 months since that night in Florida, and nine months since Harris ended her bid to be president, describing it as “one of the hardest decisions of my life”.
Yet, the nation into which she steps as the first woman of colour to be on the ticket of a major party, already feels very different. The coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 5 million Americans and killed 160,000, has highlighted again the structural racism and discrimination that criss-crosses the nation.
Meanwhile, the protests for racial justice that erupted since the killing by police in Minneapolis of an unarmed black man, point to the hunger for change, the willingness to fight for it, and a belief it will come.
“Joe Biden can unify the American people because he’s spent his life fighting for us,” Harris said in a statement on Tuesday, accepting his offer, her tone somewhat different from the night they clashed heads in Florida. “And as president, he’ll build an America that lives up to our ideals.”
When it comes to women candidates running for president, or else to be their running mate, Harris is not in a crowded room.
She was not the first black woman to do so when she announced her candidacy at the beginning of 2019, headquartering her campaign in Baltimore. That place in history goes to Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first woman of colour elected to Congress, and who ran for the White House in 1972.
Nor is Harris the first woman of colour to be nominated for the vice presidency. In 1996 and again in 2000, Winona LaDuke, an indigenous American, was running mate for Ralph Nader, when he sought the presidency for the Green Party.
This year, the Greens’ vice presidential candidate is Angela Walker, a 46-year-old African American activist from Milwaukee. (Suddenly, America has two black women running to be VP.)
And on the subject of glass ceilings being shattered or at least shaken, Hillary Clinton ran a hard and passionate campaign for the presidency four years ago. She defeated Donald Trump in the popular vote and lost out on the college votes that would have earned her the Oval Office by fewer than than 80,000 ballots.
(Clinton and Harris, the late Geraldine Ferraro, who was Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, and Sarah Palin, who was John McCain's in 2008, represent the four women selected by a major party for one one its slots.)
The 55-year-old Harris is making history in another way: she is not only the first woman of colour on the ticket of a major party, but based on current polls, it seems she and Biden are going to win, something that was never likely for LaDuke, or Chisholm.
Bear in mind something else. While the pandemic and protests may have altered America, there is something that has not changed; Joe Biden’s age or physical frailty.
Were Democrats not so desperate to see the end of Donald Trump, and accepted that Biden was the best way of achieving that, it is unlikely so many would have opted for a 77-year-old man who often appears to lose his train of thought. Many who vote for Biden in November will likely do so assuming he is only likely to serve one term. During the campaign, he noticeably refused to commit to serving two.
And as Biden himself made clear, the most important factor in selecting a running mate was to choose someone who could step into his shoes. From day one if necessary.
“The most important thing is that it has to be someone who, the day after they’re picked, is prepared to be president of the United States of America if something happened,” he said earlier this year.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a woman Biden believes is going have his back and who will help him defeat Trump. And in these times of uncertainty and anxiety, we are presented with a running mate who may be called upon to step up and take on the presidency sooner rather than later.
President Kamala Harris? That would certainly be historic.
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