Aug 17, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Kamala Harris inspires new race conversation

Photo illustration of Kamala Harris.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo by Mason Trinca/Getty Images.

America’s understanding about identity often centers on Black or white — but Kamala Harris' nomination as Joe Biden’s pick for vice president could help change that.

Why it matters: Harris, as both the first Black woman and the first of Indian descent to be nominated for vice president, embodies the far more layered and complicated reality of this increasingly diverse country.

Driving the news: Harris’ identity took center stage as media reports laid out her gamut of “firsts”: she would be the first woman, first Black person, first daughter of two immigrants, first Indian American and first Caribbean American to become veep.

  • Harris self-identifies as Black — “I’m Black. And I’m proud of being Black. And I was born Black and will die Black,” Harris told The Breakfast Club last year — but has also emphasized that the label she prefers is American.
  • “There are a lot of people like me,” Harris told The 19th last week in response to a question about what someone who comes in her package does for the American imagination. “Maybe it is for some to stimulate their imagination but for others, what we know is that this is actually who we are.”

What they’re saying: Harris “gives voters in the U.S. the opportunity to see that blackness is and always has been an expansive racial category,” Jennifer DeVere Brody, a Stanford University professor who teaches on race and ethnicity, told Axios.

  • “A rigid black-white binary has structured much of United States political and social policy that has been concerned with preserving whiteness."

By the numbers: The Census Bureau allowed people to identify with more than one race for the first time in 2000. As Vox notes, Pew Research estimates America’s multiracial population stands at 6.9% — three times what the 2010 Census indicated.

  • The Census Bureau estimates America’s multiracial population will triple by 2060.
  • Harris’ family’s Black heritage is also an Afro-Caribbean immigrant story. One out of every ten American immigrants — roughly 4.4 million people — are from a Caribbean nation, and the U.S. diaspora — people like Harris — is around 8 million.
  • Her family’s Indian heritage represents the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate: Asian Americans. A Pew study found the number of Asian America eligible voters grew 139% between 2000 to 2020.

Between the lines: Even the way the Census is conducted reflects how race and identity is viewed in this country.

  • The “one-drop” rule of history, with roots in slavery, had census takers well into the mid-twentieth century assigning race — and therefore what rights people had — University of California Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan told Axios.
  • “The one-drop rule still has significant power, especially for people like Harris who came of age in the 1970s that didn’t have as much a vocabulary for mixed race communities.”

The bottom line: What you see in Harris is true of all of us, Ramakrishan said, including people who self-identify as white.

  • “What she calls her Indian heritage is more intimate, private and familial. Her Black identity is more community and more political. This is true of all of us. People have very complex dimensions to their identity.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that Harris would be the first female vice president; she is not the first woman to be chosen as a vice presidential candidate.

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