The importance of Kamala Harris | Opinion

The Democrats are banking on energising Blacks and women, without alienating White voters
Senator Kamala Harris in Los Angeles, California, 2019(GC Images)
Senator Kamala Harris in Los Angeles, California, 2019(GC Images)
Updated on Aug 17, 2020 08:28 PM IST
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ByAmit Ahuja

Kamala Devi Harris, a Black-identifying woman of Indian heritage, has been picked as the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. African-Americans form only 12% and Indian-Americans under one per cent of the electorate. Overwhelming majorities of both groups already support the Democrats. Historically, three women have appeared on the presidential ticket before Harris. All of them have lost. So, then, why did Joe Biden pick Harris as his running mate in what many are calling the most crucial election in American history?

In diverse democracies such as America and India, identity-based fault-lines often organise politics. We know that for a political party, having a voter base is not enough; whether it shows up to vote is what counts. Harris’ selection will preserve the Democratic Party’s support among Blacks and women, two groups that have been energised by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the women’s movements, and boost their turnout in the November election.

Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris and her sister were raised as Black. She attended a prestigious historically Black college, Howard University, in Washington, DC. Blacks may be 12% of the electorate, but they contribute 25% of the Democratic Party’s vote share. This should give the group leverage with the party, but it does not. Republicans do not compete for their vote and the Blacks are stuck with the Democrats. In 2016, nine out of 10 Black voters voted the Democratic Party ticket. So, Blacks, as a one-party constituency in a two-party system, get sidelined.

Brutalised by police violence and devastated by the pandemic, the African-American voters are hurt. They are tired of being taken for granted. The BLM movement was propelled by this injustice. These disappointed voters can punish the Democratic Party for its neglect by not showing up to vote. The 2016 presidential election signalled the Black disaffection; turnout of the group fell by 7% from the 2012 election. Black turnout is critical for winning in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. Trump won all four states in 2016. Biden and the Democratic Party have received this message. They are hoping that the presence of Harris, a strong and charismatic Black candidate, on the ticket will improve turnout among Black voters.

Seven out of 10 American voters are White, and Harris’ nomination revives an old fear in American politics that by reaching out to Black voters, the Democratic Party may drive the White voters away. One distinguishing feature of Harris’ biography has been her embrace of her multiple identities, including her immigrant identity.

She has cut her teeth in the Democratic Party in California, America’s most populous state, which is only 5.8% Black. To succeed, she had to fall back on her multiple identities to amplify her appeal beyond Blacks. In California, she was able to build support among the White and Hispanic communities, skills which should help her broaden her appeal at the national level.

While race drives voter choices, gender does not have a similar hold on voter behaviour. In 2016, for example, White women voted for Donald Trump (47%) over Hillary Clinton (45%) by a small margin; a startling outcome given Clinton was the first female candidate, who also happened to be white, and Trump’s blatant misogyny.

Harris is smart, competent, and walks into the nomination with the necessary experience. These attributes do not protect her from the conscious and unconscious biases against female candidates in the electorate and the media. The prejudice is only harsher against women of colour. President Trump has already rolled out the longstanding trope of the angry Black woman against the senator, calling her nasty, mad, vicious and mean.

Angered by Trump’s insults and the stories emerging from the Me Too movement, women have been mobilising since 2016. Biden and the Democratic Party are betting on this historic moment in which women and people of colour are energised against Trump. Biden already holds a lead of 25 points over Trump among potential women voters and he hopes to further bolster it after picking Harris.

While Harris’ race and gender have received attention, her skin tone has not. Although her complexion may not have explicitly mattered to her nomination, implicit impulses may explain her ascent. Harris identifies as Black and phenotypically appears Black. She places on the lighter side of the skin colour spectrum among Blacks, though. Research on electoral effects of candidate skin tone suggests that the lightness of her skin tone enhances her electoral appeal. Studies find while skin colour does not predict who runs for office among African-Americans, it does impact which candidates win elections. Implicit bias against dark skin tone makes it more likely for lighter-skinned candidates to win than their darker-complexioned counterparts.

Indian-Americans are a minuscule part of the electorate, few reside in swing states, and like other recent immigrants, their turnout is low. Indian-Americans and Indians are rightly proud of Harris. Her election to office in November would mark a substantial achievement for a person with Indian roots. Still, it is important to remember that Harris is not on the ticket for her Indian heritage. There are other parts of her identity, not to mention her competence, that are responsible for her selection.

Amit Ahuja teaches Political Science at University of California-Santa Barbara and is the author of Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements, published by Oxford University Press
The views expressed are personal
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