Joe Biden has announced that Senator Kamala Harris will join his political pursuit of the White House.
Women of color, particularly progressives, might feel torn. Perhaps they will be excited. Harris is sharp, strategic and witty, undoubtedly qualified to be vice-president of the United States. She graduated from a historically Black college and belongs to a prestigious Black sorority. A biracial woman with Jamaican and Indian heritage, we have seen her break color barriers and shatter glass ceilings, even though poor, Black women have felt and swept the falling shards.
Thousands celebrated her senate seat win and even more were captivated when she picked apart presidential candidates at debates – especially Biden. Her one-liners were unforgettable. Until we remembered that she honed those argumentative skills in court as a prosecutor, including during fights to uphold wrongful convictions.
Then, there’s the fatigue. Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity. Political accession and racism go together like stars and stripes. Michelle Obama was horribly depicted as an ape. Donald Trump called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a “low IQ individual.” Just weeks ago, a congressman called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “disgusting” and a “fucking bitch.” Squad members and fellow representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib regularly experience xenophobic, Islamophobic, and racist attacks, which intensified after their statements regarding social justice. Like the rest of these women, Harris deserves safety and protection from harm. Black women, especially her sorors, will likely be her first line of defense.
Yet the defense against racist, sexist attacks must not interfere with the necessary offense required to push the Biden-Harris political ticket, for people who choose to play the electoral politics game. When activists criticized Barack Obama, we were scathingly reminded how hard it was for him to be a Black man in the White House. He had significant executive power and influence to shift resources, call for legislation, and even free people from prison (which his own administration seemingly neglected). We were told to wait. Then, after eight years, we were told that too much was at stake to organize for free college, universal healthcare, the end to police and prison violence, and a clean planet. Nina Simone’s song, Mississippi Goddam, calls this “Do It Slow:”
But that’s just the trouble, “Do it slow”
Desegregation, “Do it slow”
Mass participation, “Do it slow”
Reunification, ‘“Do it slow”
Do things gradually, “Do it slow”
But bring more tragedy, “Do it slow”
Fifty-six years since the song’s release, the time seems never to be right to push politicians towards progress. No more. No more imaginary ancestral, postmortem pleas on who died so that we can vote today. People fought and died for lots of reasons alongside voting, but most importantly, for the right of self-determination, which moderates defend for the right and dismiss for the left. No more.
This generational fatigue, from Nina Simone to Nina Turner, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Cori Bush, is compounded by the political fatigue of doing progressive work around a party that undermines progressive values. Biden and Harris will be determined to prove that their beloved party has not been hijacked by “the radical left,” as Vice-president Mike Pence described today. He continued: “So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris.” This inaccurate characterization is an unfortunate tactic that will push the Biden-Harris ticket further to the right. Together, Biden and Harris might still reject universal healthcare during the deadliest pandemic in recent memory. Together, they might promise expensive common sense “police reform” to a movement against senseless police spending. And together, they will affirm the power of the Black vote, while daring, even asking, do you really have any other choice?
I am doubtful that Biden and Harris can be pushed. My hope of being wrong is greater than my fear of being right. That hope comes from the countless activists who are choosing to organize across the state and local level, who are vigorously defending democracy on their blocks and creating care in their families and communities. That hope comes from studying the Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, who, facing impossible odds and considerable violence and no resources, decided to forge an alternative to the political establishment. Hamer asks, “Is this America, the land of the free and home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
So many of us are fatigued from laboring to change this country and that needs to be acknowledged. If we want to celebrate Black women, let’s start there.
• Derecka Purnell is a social movement lawyer and writer based in Washington DC