When U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) entered the race for president in 2019, China Cochran, a political organizer and activist from Detroit, immediately backed her. Finally, she thought, there could be a Black woman in the White House — a space built by slaves that has long been led almost entirely by white men.
While Harris won’t be president, she will enter the White House with President-elect Joe Biden as the country’s first female, Black and Indian American vice president. And her historic win is reshaping the country’s political landscape to center people and communities that have long been marginalized and disenfranchised, Cochran said.
“I’m so proud to have someone who looks like me at the forefront,” said Cochran, who ran for office earlier this year and currently works in the public service sector in Wayne County. “I’m excited to see her in the Oval Office. I know she won’t forget about Black women, because that’s who she is. I know she won’t forget about immigrants because her parents were immigrants.”
In a country where Black women have repeatedly carried Democratic wins and propelled social change, but have often been ignored by the political leaders and systems that benefited from their work, Harris’s victory will prompt a public exploration of those barriers and empower people of color, according to those interviewed by those Michigan Advance.
From Black female attorneys and Michigan’s first Indian American legislator to biracial women working to involve young mothers in government and South Asian American educators, leaders of color across Michigan said Harris’ win will inspire Black and Asian American women to run for office, chip away at systemic racism and ultimately lead to a more equitable country.
“This is a groundbreaking, historical point in our lifetime,” said Rita White, president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. “As Black women lawyers, we’re very proud that Kamala Harris has risen to this level. It’s inspiring, especially for young women of color; they can understand that we’re moving in a much different direction in terms of being able to break the glass ceiling.”
“No woman of color, or anybody, should have their potential in this world doubted, and Kamala Harris is a perfect example of that,” White continued. “The way she stood up to [Vice President Mike Pence during the debates] and set her ground with him, it gives African-American women more confidence that no one should bring you down; we are enough.”
Harris and Biden, who served as vice president to the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, captured votes from a vastly diverse group of people. Black voters made up 11% of the national electorate, and nine in 10 backed Biden, per AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide. But it was, as is often the case, Black women who delivered a Democratic win in the Nov. 3 election.
According to exit polls conducted by Edison Research, about 90% of Black women voted for Biden, the highest percentage of any racial group in the country. Eight in 10 Black men cast their votes for Biden, as did 70% of Latinx women and six in 10 Latinx men. The majority of white women, meanwhile, backed President Donald Trump. About 55% of white women voted for Trump, exit polls reported. AP and other researchers will be able to more precisely pinpoint the electorate as more data is available in the coming months.
These numbers are reminiscent of past elections, when Black women have overwhelmingly come out to support Democratic candidates, but, unlike in the past, there’s now a Black woman as vice president, which Cochran said she hopes translates to a party that not only remembers its grassroots activists, but actively works to incorporate Black women and women of color into the cabinet, push for policies that dismantle systemic racism, and support and elect women of color.
“With this win and previous wins, Black women have saved the day,” Cochran said of the presidential election. “Black people, and especially Black women, are always saving the Democratic party. Now, I want the party to be very intentional about their moves going forward. I want them to be intentional about Black people in the administration, intentional about our paths to victory, intentional about supporting candidates who are progressive. It’s hard for Black women to run for office and be supported by their party.”
Carrie Budzinski, who recently launched a nonpartisan platform that aims to engage women, especially young mothers like herself, in government and is preparing to launch her own bid for Livonia City Council, believes Harris’s election will lead to more women of color running for office—as well as to a general public that associates women of color with positions of power.
“With Kamala Harris, I believe [her becoming vice president] has the biggest impact on children and what they see,” said Budzinski, whose mother is white and father is Black. “For myself growing up in the 90s, there weren’t as many women of color role models or public figures. …There weren’t a wide spectrum of people to identify with. Today, the landscape for children is so different, and that’s so powerful and important.”
Arielle Johnson is the deputy director of the Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department for the city of Detroit and a leader of the organization, “Motor City Women for Kamala,” which worked to mobilize voters to support the vice president-elect. She also said Harris’ election is emblematic of a long history of political involvement by Black women that needs to finally be honored.
“Having Kamala in this role is game changing for Black women,” Johnson said. “If you think about the women’s suffrage movement, you don’t talk about Black women and their roles. Black women have always been working behind the scenes and are the backbone of so many movements, but you don’t know it because their stories aren’t uplifted or told.”
In nods to the overwhelming support their ticket received from Black women, Harris tweeted a message of gratitude on Nov. 9.
“I want to speak directly to the Black women in our country,” Harris wrote. “Thank you. You are too often overlooked, and yet are asked time and again to step up and be the backbone of our democracy. We could not have done this without you.”
Biden thanked Black voters in his victory speech on Nov. 7, saying he could not have won without their support.
“The African-American community stood up again for me,” Biden said. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
That sentiment, however, has not always been believed. While prominent Black leaders — including Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza and world-renowned activist and scholar Angela Davis — backed the Biden-Harris ticket, they also aired significant concerns about the ticket.
They flagged Biden’s history of supporting a 1994 crime bill that increased funding to law enforcement agencies and led to the mass incarceration of African Americans, and Harris’s history as a “tough on crime” prosecutor who, as California’s attorney general, largely avoided intervening in cases involving killings by police. Biden has called his support for the bill a mistake and said his administration will work to curb incarceration rates and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The Biden administration’s plans to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system include expanding the power of the U.S. Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions, eliminate the death penalty, and end cash bail. His plan also includes allocating $20 billion for a grant program meant to promote crime prevention at the state and local level with programs addressing literacy and child abuse, both of which are correlated with incarceration.
“On the crime bill, I think he has learned,” said White of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. “I think he has learned the school-to-prison pipeline is terrible, that the criminal justice system needs reform.”
White added that with Harris’s background as a prosecutor, she’s “looking for big changes in criminal justice with this administration.”
In response to criticism of Harris’s legal background, supporters have pointed out she implemented racial bias training for police while serving as the district attorney in San Francisco and, as a U.S. senator, sponsored policing legislation this past summer that would ban police choke holds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants.
“Once Joe chose Kamala, I initially had concerns with police reform and her stance there,” Johnson said. “But when I looked at her past and where she comes from, being a Black woman, it didn’t take me long at all to get excited.”
Still, that excitement doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns with the Biden administration, Johnson said — but, she emphasized, they are ones that feel approachable.
“[Biden is] going to have to be pushed in some areas where progressives have significant priorities and goals,” Johnson said. “I think he’ll be progressive in some areas, but not as much as someone like me would hope. In regards to racial justice, police reform, health care, education, I don’t think he’ll be as progressive as a [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders administration would be.”
“But he’ll listen and can be educated, which is different than we had [with Trump],” Johnson continued.
As with Black Americans, Indian Americans said Harris’s win sheds a welcome light on the South Asian American community, and especially on South Asian women. Harris’s mother grew up in India; her father moved to the U.S. from Jamaica.
“I’m a very proud American, and I’m very proud of my Indian heritage and to see India in the spotlight,” said Padmaja Rao, a second-generation American whose parents are from India. Rao is a board member of the Michigan-based South Asian American Voices for Impact (SAAVI) and is the associate director of the Career Services Department at Wayne State University.
“It’s been a nice homage to our heritage, and to see Kamala in the news and see how far she’s come as a woman, as a person of color, as a Black woman, and as an Indian American, it’s been very encouraging,” Rao continued.
Harris’s candidacy and win have brought South Asian women to the forefront in a way that Rao said feels particularly powerful.
“When I have processed all of this, I’ve thought, ‘Wow, this is possible, and we are seen,” Rao said. “For women in general, we haven’t been seen. When you do a deeper dive, the Asian women and South Asian women, we’ve been hidden. To be seen is very encouraging.”
Biden has vowed that members of his administration, in addition to Harris, will be South Asian American and said he plans to focus on policies that will empower South Asian American communities.
“Our government will reflect the diversity of the United States, and Indian American voices will be included in shaping the policies that impact their communities,” Biden’s website states.
The president-elect said he will focus on wide-ranging issues affecting Indian Americans, including curbing racist and xenophobic attacks against them. Additionally, Biden said he will work to address the security needs of Indian Americans’ houses of worship, strengthen United States’ relations with India, and work with Congress to provide “a roadmap to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants — including more than 500,000 from India.
Rao, who has considered running for office, said Harris’s presence on the national stage is already further piquing South Asian Americans’ interest in becoming involved in politics. In Michigan, South Asian Americans, including members of SAAVI, have launched large-scale efforts to encourage the South Asian American community to get involved with politics, from voting to running for office.
“I think the next generations of South Asian Americans are seeing they don’t have to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor,” Rao said. “They see they have other avenues.”
Once people from marginalized backgrounds do become elected, there are further barriers that have to be surmounted, said state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy), the first Indian immigrant and Hindu elected to the Michigan Legislature.
Kuppa, who penned a piece advocating her support for a Biden-Harris ticket prior to the election and lauded Harris’s win as “shattering a glass ceiling,” explained she’s faced challenges as the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Legislature “because there’s been propaganda against me.” However, she emphasized that connections with the community have provided necessary support.
“If you know who your neighbors are and they know you, you’ll be OK,” Kuppa said.
And, she emphasized, navigating the glass from shattered ceilings is worth it when it means people like Kuppa and Harris can pave the way for other women of color.
“I’m very happy to see Kamala breaking another glass ceiling,” Kuppa said. “She is a great role model.”