A Century of Selective Suffrage: The Complicated Nature of Kamala’s Name on the Ticket

We live in a world with revisionist history. Or, to put it another way, we fawn over symbolism and ceremonial accomplishments. I get it. We are still in a pandemic. There quite literally have been months of bad news left and right. Biden’s VP pick is one of them for me.

In 2012, I proudly strutted across my college campus, patiently waited in line at the church across the street, and casted my vote for Barack Obama. As a first-time voter, I could not be prouder that the person I got to vote for was a Black man. The country that built its infrastructure on the backs of people like me elected its first Black president 4 years before; and with my help, it would go on to re-elect him.

At 18 years old, I couldn’t see beyond the allure of what it meant to vote for Barack Obama. I wasn’t building the left-leaning politics that I am building now. I knew little about the largest deportations recorded in history or the drone strikes in the Middle East. The glimmer of hope that real, substantive change could come from representation was too important to me. If a racist country could elect a Black president, perhaps we could overcome our past.

I’m not making that mistake again with Senator Harris.

Senator Harris stands at podium

The representation politics that were sold to me in 2012 resurfaced at the thought of the first woman president in 2016. The importance of young girls seeing themselves in the White House coupled with the fact that we were behind several developing nations and other western countries in having a woman lead the country were all strong and compelling arguments for Secretary Clinton’s presidential bid. It felt familiar, the emotional appeal to my vote. It also felt hollow. Because I learned that a racist country could not overcome its past with one candidate, I also knew that a sexist country could not overcome its past with a female candidate.

Clinton’s track record with the African-American and African diasporic communities, from referring to Black men as ‘superpredators’ to the denial of Haitian asylum seekers, lets me know right away as a Haitian-American that I could not fully celebrate in her nomination. Yet women of all races continued to tell me how important it was to just “get a woman to the White House.”

It seems as though we haven’t learned much from 2016.

This year marks the centennial anniversary of white women’s suffrage. Though touted as a monumental stride for all women, the 19th amendment was fought for as an appeal to racists because the 15th amendment granted African-American men the "right" to vote. The twentieth century fight for suffrage was part of a continued legacy of white women’s violence against people of color. From Professor Stephanie Jones-Roberts’s research covering white women slave owners to Emmet Till's murder to pink hat rallies in 2017, there are centuries of white women wielding their brand of femininity as a tool for exclusion and violence.

You might be thinking, what does this have to do with a woman of color like Kamala Harris? Lots of things.

Don’t get me wrong, for what it's worth, Senator Harris is certainly qualified for this role. So much so that at one point, she was running for President and not the understudy. If becoming Commander-in-Chief and subsequently running a country with the leading rates of mass incarceration in the world, rampant income inequality due to a corrupt billionaire class, and staggering death rates in a global pandemic due to incompetent leadership is your goal, then eye on the prize, ladies. No one should run for second place. But I digress.

Throughout the last three presidential cycles that I have tapped into, the misinterpretation of identity politics has led to a strong(er) emphasis on candidates’ qualities such as race, gender, and sexual orientation rather than their policies, positions, and decisions. This is particularly harmful when the latter negatively impacts the former. For instance, the Harris-backed anti-truancy law disproportionately affected Black and Latino families in California. The implementation of this law punished parents for their childrens’ attendance records. Similarly, as The Supreme Court found that California’s prisons were overcrowded, many questioned how the first Black Attorney General could argue in defense of the prison labor force given the research on how many Black and Latino people were incarcerated.

Senator Harris is a complicated figure for Black folks across the political spectrum. Derricka Purnell summarizes my feelings perfectly when she said “[Black] Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity.” While I recognize that this IS monumental, I recognize it comes at a price. I’m not sure I can willingly look past that. I certainly cannot ask others to do the same. It is disingenuous to champion a candidate because of her identity while ignoring the ways she has wielded power in a way that further marginalizes, and frankly criminalizes, the very same groups of people that are meant to feel uplifted by her presence. Yes, two things can be true. Yes, you can be excited that a Black woman has reached this significant milestone, but you must also accept that you are co-signing what she has done to get here. As my friend Oriana reminds me, “people of color can perpetuate harm.”

This dichotomy is also a tool of white supremacy. Telling voters to consider the lesser of two evils or to fight “strategically” to vote out 45 suppresses the energized progressive underbelly of the left. It doesn’t surprise me that white women pushed me to do this in 2016. It doesn’t make it less frustrating in 2020.

I’m bracing myself for those of you that will ~girlboss~ me through the rest of this election cycle. The monumentally selective centennial is here, and those of you looking to address how your foremothers failed Black women are tweeting things like “listen to Black women” and treating this moment like the penultimate act of intersectionality.

As I think of all the white cisgender women who will march their "I Voted" stickers onto Susan B. Anthony's tombstone on Election Day, I can’t help but laugh. I’m sure the fact that Kamala Harris is on the ticket will feel like we are coming full circle and righting historical wrongs. I’m sure this is a victory in itself for some of us who see that women of color are finally being included. It is an easy narrative to perpetuate. It is, if anything, half of the truth.

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