Kamala Harris: A Career of Firsts
When Kamala Harris stepped onto stage in Wilmington, Delaware as Vice President-Elect, millions in the United States and around the world waited with bated breath. Amid a campaign that had seen over 250,000 Americans die from COVID-19, and protests erupt over racial violence, many had become numb to the possibility of change. But as Harris began to speak, reflecting on the historic nature of her election, the anxieties of Democratic voters gradually began to dissipate. They had sent the first woman, Black woman and Asian American woman to the White House, and reaffirmed that for all its flaws, the US was still a country of hope, possibility and progress.
For many politicians, such expectations would be an immense burden. However, for Harris, it has come to define her storied political rise. Born in Oakland, California to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, her biracial identity has become the identifying feature of her professional career. After attending the HBCU Howard University and the University of California Hastings College of Law, Harris pursued a career in the public service, inspired by her parents’ activism during the civil rights movement. Recruited to the Alameda County district attorney’s office, she cracked down on and reformed law enforcement’s approach to teenage prostitution. This presaged her successful run for San Francisco district attorney, where she became the first Black woman to hold the office. In 2010, she narrowly became the first woman of colour elected as Attorney General of California. During her tenure, she was lauded for creating Open Justice, an online platform that publicised criminal justice data and helped improve police accountability. Having then been rumoured as a potential Supreme Court nominee of President Barack Obama, Harris instead became a US Senator for California in 2016; a position wherein her sharp, incisive questioning continues to earn widespread acclaim.
Nevertheless, Harris has also experienced sustained criticism for her prosecutorial record, particularly among progressive Democrats. She was previously found to have withheld information about a police laboratory technician compromising evidence, resulting in the dismissal of 600 legal cases. As California’s Attorney General, Harris criminalised habitual truancy; a move that disproportionately affected Black and Latino children. Moreover, she appealed a Federal Judge’s decision that deemed the death penalty unconstitutional, opposed a bill mandating her office investigate police shootings and refused to support state-wide standards for police bodycam usage. Harris also has a questionable record of pursuing wrongful conviction cases.
Activist and voter backlash to these decisions, together with staff squabbles and diminishing campaign contributions, are what eventually grounded her 2020 presidential run. This was despite initial promise, when she challenged Joe Biden on his previous opposition to busing. Nonetheless, Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate, was proof that her star, while hurt, had certainly not been extinguished. Many now view her as the presumptive frontrunner for the 2024 Democratic Party nomination, given the unlikelihood of Biden seeking a second term. If that were to happen, Harris would again make history. After a career of shattering glass ceilings, it would be foolish to bet against her.
This article was originally published in YDS' end of year Special Edition, '2020'. The Special Edition can be accessed here.
Sanjay Balakumar is a fourth-year International Studies and Law student at the University of New South Wales. His interests are diverse; they include economic and political security in the Indo-Pacific, the socio-political dynamics that shape countries’ elections, and technology's impact on informed political discourse.