On Wednesday, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris takes center stage as she debates Vice President Pence. While many celebrate Harris’s nomination as a landmark development in the crumbling of racial and gender barriers in American politics and Republicans portray Harris as a radical, some on the left have expressed disappointment with her relatively moderate political temper as a law-and-order Democrat friendly to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Israel. They question whether representation and Harris’s formation as the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica who met through anti-racist activism in Berkeley in the 1960s really matter if her own political record offers little hope that she will radically change the lives of ordinary Black and Brown people.
Such critics anticipate an echo of their earlier disappointment with Barack Obama, who, as a Black president with similar antecedents, remained committed to the U.S.’s militarized, imperialist foreign policy and failed to dramatically improve the lives of Black Americans — so much so that the Black Lives Matter movement erupted under his presidency. In this view, the story of Obama’s and Harris’s anti-colonial and anti-racist inheritance is one of betrayal: They are mere tokens of representation that help uphold the racist, colonial order.
But this pessimistic account misunderstands the way context shapes political action, how history happens. The question is not whether but how representation matters (especially in a party that depends on the support of people of color rather than one that showcases minority leaders specifically as tokens to deflect charges of racism.) Black Lives Matter may have erupted out of disappointment with the Obama administration, but it was also substantively enabled by the reality of a Black president — a monumental bit of racial representation that emboldened Black people to assert their dignity and raised their expectations of their own lives. The Obama presidency’s failures made the movement necessary but also offered a hospitable and hopeful context in which a movement asserting the dignity of Black lives could find traction and gain widespread legitimacy.
Historically, disillusionment over dashed hopes for change initiated from above has galvanized more revolutionary, collective organization. Early in his career, the Indian anti-colonial leader Mohandas K. Gandhi focused on eliciting change from above, appealing to the British to fulfill their own liberal ideals. Only when he realized colonial institutions were inherently racist did he radicalize his goals and tactics, transforming himself from the suited-up young lawyer into the iconic dhoti-clad rural Indian who emboldened ordinary Indians to claim freedom now.