By Thea Gribilas
On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris became the first woman and person of Black and South Asian descent to be sworn in as the vice-president of the United States.
After establishing herself in the 2020 Democratic party’s presidential primaries, she was eventually chosen for the vice-presidential nomination early on in Joe Biden’s campaign.
Ryerson students say that as a political figurehead, Harris’ gender and cultural background is important to the future of politics.
“This is an incredible milestone in American politics,” said Victoria Tziretas, a first-year business management student. “This historical event will have an incredible impact on young women around the world who aspire to work in the field of politics or live out any hopes and dreams that are suppressed by society’s biases and glass ceiling.”
Two decades younger than Biden at age 56, Harris represents the next generation—setting a precedent for the future of racialized women in executive political positions.
“This historical event will have an incredible impact on young women around the world”
Harris took the oath of office with two bibles. One of those belonged to late civil rights activist and first Black Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and the other belonged to Regina Shelton, who Harris considers a second mother to her and whose house she would visit daily after school.
“The fact that you now see a person of colour, a woman and [a child of an] immigrant who is multi-ethnic in a high position of executive power can make a huge difference when little girls are looking for someone who looks like them in a position of great importance in U.S. politics,” said Caitlin Andrews-Lee, a politics professor at Ryerson who recently moved to Canada from the United States.
Harris was born in 1964 to immigrant parents; Shyamala Gopalan, a biologist who was born in India, and Donald Harris, a professor of economics at Stanford University, who was born in Jamaica. Both Gopalan and Harris were groundbreakers in their own right.
Harris herself was only the second Black woman and first of South Asian descent to serve in the Senate. She was also the first female, Black and South Asian attorney general of California.
“Her resume shows that anything is possible in American or western countries and that women, immigrants and minorities can come over and have a dream, and fulfill [it],” said Saadiq Jasat, a second-year accounting and finance student.
“She is an incredible role model who will make and has made groundbreaking changes,” said Tziretas.
Many are now looking to see if Canada will have its second female prime minister—after Kim Campbell who only served in office for 132 days in 1993—in upcoming years.
“I think that the U.S. and Canada may both be considered outliers in terms of their absence of an enduring impactful female executive”
“I think that the U.S. and Canada may both be considered outliers in terms of their absence of an enduring impactful female executive,” said Andrews-Lee. “But I think Canada is actually ahead of the U.S. in that respect.”
Nonetheless, she said both countries have room to improve and “have to look to countries like Germany, Brazil, Chile and Argentina which have all had powerful impactful female executives.”
“I think probably one of the biggest impacts [Harris] will have is that she will inspire other women and people of various backgrounds to do what they want to do and pursue what they want to pursue and I hope to see that here in Canada,” said Jasat.
But Harris has also faced some scrutiny about her past as a prosecutor.
In 1990, Harris became a prosecutor in her home state of California, where a tough-on-crime dynamic emerged, primarily targeting the Black community.
During her 27 years as a prosecutor, she enforced laws that sent the very voter base that she’s looked at attracting to prison, causing many Black voters to be wary of her. These laws include California’s controversial “three-strikes law” under which after three violent crime or serious felony convictions, defendants would be given a penalty of 25 years to life.
“Certainly in terms of public opinions, it has been one of the more controversial points about Vice-President Harris,” said Andrews-Lee.
Andrews-Lee also says that it’s important to consider that nominating a candidate that appeases the party is different from what appeases the general population.
“The fact that she’s been attorney general of California was positive for some voters and not for others so it really depends,” she said.
After former president Donald Trump falsely claimed for months that he won the election, citing unprecedented levels of voter fraud, the inauguration of president Biden and vice-president Harris is considered a major victory around the world.
“I’m thrilled and personally very excited that we have a multi-ethnic woman of colour in the U.S. as the vice-president,” said Andrews-Lee. “I hope that that changes to the actual presidency in the next cycle or two.”
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say I am disappointed that it took this long for such an important and incredible change to unfold,” said Tziretas. “But I am very happy this change took place and feel as though the positive, lasting impact this will have will only initiate feelings of hope and excitement around the world.”