Kamala Devi Harris was sworn into office on Jan. 20, making her the first woman and first person of Black and South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second-highest office. To commemorate this moment, the University of Michigan’s Democracy & Debate Themed Semester hosted a virtual panel discussion Monday afternoon to discuss the vice presidency, intersectionality and the future of the United States.

To begin the conversation, Angela X. Ocampo, a panelist and assistant professor of political science, paid homage to the achievements of political and social activists who paved the way for Harris.

“As much as this is a moment to celebrate this important occasion, we have to recognize also the herculean efforts of other Black women throughout American history and American politics to achieve suffrage,” Ocampo said. “It is on the fruits of their labor which we have seen now with the election of our new vice president Kamala Harris.”

Echoing Ocampo’s statement, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, assistant professor of French and Francophone studies, spoke about how Black women have been active in political movements, both recently and historically. From activist and politician Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight campaign in 2020 to the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, a statement that originally defined Black feminism and identity politics, Joseph-Gabriel recognized the efforts of Black feminists and activists who helped make Wednesday’s inauguration a reality. 

Joseph-Gabriel said Harris and the marginalized voices she represents need to be heard now more than ever as ugly displays of white supremacy and systemic racism remain commonplace. 

“To talk about Kamala Harris and identity politics in good faith will require us to be attentive to (identity politics’) original definition and framing in 1977,” Joseph-Gabriel said. “It will require us to take seriously the practices of citizenship by Black women in order to look forward to a future that can contain the possibility of a Black woman vice president whose politics would be repugnant, dangerous and threatening to the structures of white supremacy and systemic racism.”

Ocampo and Ian Shin, assistant professor of history and American culture, said the idea of intersectionality within identity politics is important and is reflected in Harris’ role as vice president. 

According to Shin, Harris embodies Afro-Asian solidarity and shows the legacy of U.S. immigration policies and foreign relations. Whether Harris is presiding over the Senate or handling foreign policy issues, these familial ties to race and immigration serve as some of the vice president’s key ideological influences, Shin said.

“We can see, through Kamala Harris’s inauguration and in her family history, a whole century of U.S. immigration and foreign relations from the pathbreaking interracial marriages of South Asian laborers in the early 20th century to the government policies and military interventions that shaped migration flows from Asia to the United States,” Shin said.

Rackham student Michelle May-Curry said while Harris’ identities are important, they should not be tokenized. Instead, Harris should be viewed as a prominent and respected figure in the vanguard of Black women’s politics, May-Curry said.

“Kamala Harris is certainly a part of this force of Black women and this legacy,” May-Curry said. “It’s an important extension of this question to ask: What readings of Vice President Harris’s politics are inhibited when we overemphasize or overextend the symbolism of her many firsts in this moment?”

To answer this question, Ocampo drew a connection between symbolic and substantive representation, noting that elected legislators have a responsibility to both advocate on behalf of certain groups and inspire future social activists to enter the political arena.

“The fact that (Harris’ vice presidency) is being symbolically seen as a first can have a lot of implications for opening spaces for women of color in politics to transform the way in which women of color can act and behave in politics,” Ocampo said.

May-Curry said Harris embodies who the nation thinks it is, not who it actually is — just weeks before the first woman of color VP was inaugurated at the Capitol, white supremacists stormed the building, revealing this stark contrast. 

“History does tend to repeat itself,” May-Curry said. “After the Reconstruction Era, there was Jim Crow. After Civil Rights and Black Power, there was Reagan and the entrenchment of neoliberal politics. After Obama, there was Trump.”

Business senior Jasmine Williams is hopeful that this milestone will usher in a new, refreshing wave of social and political activism. With diversity and inclusion at the forefront of social policy, Harris’ vice presidency serves as the beginning of a brighter future for America, Williams said.

“I know that (Harris) represents the cultivation of so many people’s hopes and dreams for a better future, a future where young women, people of color, those of blended families and so many more can aspire to continue to break barriers,” Williams said. “I believe the ascension of Kamala Harris to vice president is the cultivation of this new era in our country.”

Daily Staff Reporter Evan Delorenzo can be reached at evandelo@umich.edu

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