Two weeks after a deadly insurrection put on display the White outrage that threatens the country’s multiracial democracy, a dramatically different scene unfolded at the US Capitol.
On January 20, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into office.
The inauguration of the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president following the aforementioned assault did two things at once — marked a hopeful turning point in the long fight for racial representation and justice, and underscored in sobering fashion that confronting White supremacy will be one of the new administration’s main challenges.
Harris’ political rise even just over the past one and a half years is nothing to scoff at. Maybe most obviously, the former California senator’s ascent to the vice presidency will change the face of power in a literal way.
There was no shortage of coverage of how the 2020 Democratic primary field, which Harris was a part of, began as one of the most noteworthy in history. More specifically, the diversity of the slate of candidates who vied for the nomination was unprecedented: Latino, Asian, Black, gay, female. In December 2019, though, Harris suspended her campaign, as the field gradually congealed around straightness and Whiteness and maleness.
It was no small thing, then, when Biden chose Harris as his running mate in August. “It just feels like Black girls like me can run for class president. Black girls like me can go for the big things in life like she did,” Paris Bond, a teenager, told CNN that month.
Or as Harris’ late mother used to say to her barrier-busting daughter: “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Just as moving: when the Democratic duo trounced Trump in the November general election. Propelled by a multiracial coalition, Biden and Harris not only thwarted the reelection campaign of a man who used his Whiteness as a weapon — they also ended the perverse pageantry of an administration that embraced virulent masculinity.
But as vice president, Harris will be able to offer more than symbolic representation.
“Joe Biden’s vice president will most likely be the most powerful vice president in history because the trend is toward more powerful vice presidents. Joe Biden knows the value of having a vice president with lots of responsibility, and Joe Biden is going to inherit an epic disaster,” as former Barack Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said last year, referring to the nightmarish toll of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Already, Harris has indicated how she’ll battle the once-in-a-century crisis and its attendant racial disparities — disparities that are the result of a history of discriminatory policy.
Last May, she introduced the Covid-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force Act to “bring together healthcare and other policy experts, community-based organizations, and federal, state, local, tribal and territorial leaders to confront the racial and ethnic disparities of this pandemic head-on.”
In December, Biden selected Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of internal medicine, public health and management at Yale University, to lead the health equity task force.
“Health care free of racism and discrimination is a right and not a privilege,” Nunez-Smith said during a web briefing last month. “It is time for us to respond to the crisis of discrimination in health care.”
In other words, Harris will change what power looks like and directly influence whom it serves.
But even with those triumphal dimensions, the new administration, from the very beginning, will have to navigate the resurgent currents of White supremacy.
In an interview with NPR last week, Harris didn’t mince her words in her condemnation of the recent attack on the Capitol.
“It was the same thing that went through my mind when I saw Charlottesville,” she said. “It’s the same thing that went through my mind when I saw a picture of Emmett Till. It is not the first time I have seen a demonstration like what you are describing in the history of our country.”
That Harris drew parallels between the horror of the Trump years and the brutality of decades past made sense. The seizure of the Capitol was a gruesome reminder that White supremacy has always been tightly stitched into the American fabric.
Indeed, historians have noted how the takeover echoed the Reconstruction period in terms of White backlash to racial equality.
For instance, in 1873, more than 150 armed White men — most affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan — murdered between 60 and 150 members of a Black militia that had been defending the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, following the state’s bitterly contested 1872 gubernatorial election.
“The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority,” the Columbia University professor Eric Foner explains in his 1988 book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”
Accustomed authority. More than one and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, the US has yet to deal fully with the enduring threat of White entitlement to political control, as evidenced by the Confederate flag-waving mob’s assault on the Capitol.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Harris said in the interview.
There might be a consoling prospect to the carnage earlier this month, however.
The attack could provide Biden and Harris with the political momentum necessary to act more vigorously than some of their Democratic antecedents — to banish White supremacist groups and clamp down on the corruption and racism that afflict police departments, Ronald Brownstein argued last week.
Often, the US assumes itself to be better than it is, particularly when it comes to nourishing racial progress. The new administration will have the opportunity to narrow the distance between that assumption and reality.