It took less than one day after Kamala Harris was announced as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee for a racist and baseless “birther” conspiracy theory to start circulating among her critics.
The morning after Joe Biden named Harris as his running mate, making her the first black woman and the first Asian American to join a major party’s presidential ticket, Newsweek published an op-ed casting doubt upon the California senator’s US citizenship because she was born to immigrant parents. The argument was immediately discredited by legal experts, who noted Harris was born in a hospital in Oakland, California, and was thus undeniably a US citizen.
But that irrefutable evidence did not stop Donald Trump, one of the champions of the similarly baseless birther claims against Barack Obama, from stoking the conspiracy theory.
Donald Trump has continued his attacks against Harris in the two months since, most recently calling her a “monster” after last October’s vice-presidential debate.
Harris could become the country’s first female vice-president, potentially setting her up for a successful White House bid after Biden leaves office.
But Trump’s comments have underscored a consistent theme of Harris’s entire political career, one that will probably only be amplified if she becomes vice-president: it’s not easy being the first.
Harris’s involvement with political activism started when she was a child, a fact that she has frequently touted on the campaign trail. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, and her father, an economist from Jamaica, met as graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s and became involved with the civil rights movement.
Her parents’ activism gave Harris what she has called “a stroller’s-eye view of the civil rights movement, surrounded by adults who were committed to service and community involvement”. Harris has particularly credited her late mother with inspiring her to enter public service, saying during the vice-presidential debate, “The thought that I’d be sitting here right now I know would make her proud, and she must be looking down on this.”
After graduating from Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, Harris returned to California to obtain her law degree and join the Alameda county district attorney’s office.
In 2003, she ran for San Francisco district attorney, becoming the first black woman to hold the office. When Harris was elected as California’s attorney general seven years later, she broke even more barriers, becoming the first woman, the first African-American and the first Indian-American to assume the role. Harris currently serves in the US Senate, making her the first African-American to represent California in the chamber.
Now Harris hopes to be a first again – the first woman to run on a successful presidential ticket. In addition to Hillary Clinton’s historic Democratic nomination in 2016, Geraldine Ferraro served as Democrat Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, and Sarah Palin ran with Republican John McCain In 2008. All three women suffered defeats.
The attacks against Harris began well before she was announced as Biden’s running mate. Although she had run against Biden in the Democratic primary and had confronted him at the first debate on his past opposition to mandated bussing to racially integrate schools, Harris was widely considered to be the frontrunner in the “veepstakes” as the August announcement approached.
Some of Harris’s critics sought to deter Biden from choosing her by going public with their reservations about the potential running mate.
Many of these criticisms are familiar to those who followed Clinton’s historic presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2016. Clinton was frequently attacked as shrill, weak and – of course – too ambitious.
As a woman of color, Harris faces the challenge of weathering attacks based on both her race and her gender. In addition to the birther conspiracy theory, several political strategists argued Harris’s opponents have sought to use the racist trope of the “angry black woman” against her.
Some of the most controversial attacks against Harris have come from Donald Trump. Asked about Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate, Trump told reporters in August that Harris, a member of the Senate judiciary committee, was “extraordinarily nasty” when she grilled Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 supreme court confirmation hearings. (Trump similarly mocked Clinton as a “nasty woman” during the 2016 race.)
After the recent vice-presidential debate, the president attacked Harris as a “monster”, “horrible”, “totally unlikable” and a “communist.”
Harris herself has been clear-eyed about the challenges she faces as a woman of color running for the second-highest office in the country. Asked about the baseless birther claims back in August, Harris said: “They’re going to engage in lies, they’re going to engage in deception, they’re going to engage in an attempt to distract from the real issues that are impacting the American people.”
Despite the Trump’s comments about Harris, several strategists expressed confidence that Americans would reject fearmongering attacks based on her race and gender.
The Biden team appears to be relying on a similar hope, considering the campaign has sought to highlight the historic nature of Harris’s nomination as the election approaches. The day of the vice-presidential debate, the Biden campaign released an advert called “Mirrors” that featured a young black girl watching news coverage about Harris’s nomination. At the end of the ad, the young girl steps on to a stage while the words, “On November 3rd, vote for her” appear onscreen. The girl says into a microphone, “Our time is now.”
Regardless of her future title, Harris’s accomplishments have already helped forge a clearer path for women, particularly women of color, seeking higher office. The vice-presidential nominee has voiced a similar sentiment in the past. In 2009, while Harris was running for attorney general of California, a reporter asked what her motto was. She responded by quoting her mother: “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Biden himself has indicated he views Harris as the future of the Democratic party. Campaigning alongside Harris in March, months before she was announced as the running mate, Biden described himself as a “bridge” candidate who would help elevate “an entire generation of leaders.”
Published in The Guardian on October 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.