America calls on Kamala Harris — and Black women — to clean up its mess

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is introduced by then-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as his running mate during an event at Alexis I. DuPont High School in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Sen. Kamala D. Harris can now add Shatterer of Glass Ceilings to her already impressive résumé.

One hundred years after women in America secured the right to vote, Harris is now set to become the first woman to become vice president of the United States. Harris, born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, will also be the first nonwhite woman to occupy the office.

Exit polls showed that once again, Black women put the Democratic Party on their backs, with 91 percent of Black women voting for the Biden-Harris ticket, the highest percentage of any racial group. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams emerged as a Black political superheroine; her voting rights organization Fair Fight helped register 800,000 voters and may help deliver the traditionally red state to Biden. It is a point of pride that Harris’s path to success was shaped by Black institutions; she graduated from Howard University, a historically Black college, and is a member of the historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.

However, as much as Harris’s victory is a moment for celebration, as a Black woman, I can’t help but brace myself. Black women know the ugliness that America is capable of. We know that the violent twin forces of racism and sexism course through America’s DNA so powerfully that not even a Black woman in the White House can be safe from it.

As a Black-identifying woman and a highly successful daughter of immigrants, Harris’s elevation represents everything that America claims to uphold and defend as a country. For decades — setting aside recent years — we have claimed that immigrants are not just welcome but an essential part of the great American experiment, testing whether this nation is capable of extending the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to those who exist outside the margins of whiteness and maleness.

Of course the outgoing president has made clear that he does not stand for that. Donald Trump has gone out of his way to mispronounce Harris’s first name and pejoratively called her a “female socialist.” . Trump even decided to resurrect the birther conspiracy, questioning whether Harris met the citizenship requirements to be vice president.

Any political figure’s physical safety is a concern in normal times, but as a nonwhite woman, Harris has a larger target on her back in the era of Trumpism. In October, a Maryland man was charged with threatening to rape and kill her. In the days before the election, as Harris made homestretch campaign stops in north Texas, a Biden-Harris campaign bus was surrounded by a caravan of Trump supporters. Instead of urging calm and civility, Trump tweeted that the “patriots did nothing wrong” and later posted video of the caravan and said “I LOVE TEXAS!"

I worry about the attacks that will come Harris’s way. Trump may leave the White House, but his brand of violent racism and sexism will remain embedded in America’s political psyche like shards of broken glass.

As Harris, like many Black women, navigates an America full of angry Trump voters, we can be sure there will be disappointment and missteps. Even during the campaign, we saw what that would look like: When the Biden-Harris campaign released a statement about the police killing of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia, it dedicated more space and energy to scolding protesters for property damage than condemning the actions of a police department that needlessly stole the life of a mentally ill Black man.

James Baldwin once asked white America, “How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?” I would humbly add another question: Under what conditions will America allow women and Black people to reap the benefits of decades upon decades of struggle?

This is a triumphant moment that calls for celebration. The best way for America to honor Harris’s historical moment is to protect, support and elevate Black women.

America has decided to elevate a Black woman to the vice presidency just as the country has been humiliated and on its knees. Harris must now help save a deeply polarized America ailing from a deadly pandemic and a shattered economy. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario to Black women — White America always hopes that we will clean up its mess. But Black women don’t vote to save White America; we vote to save ourselves from White America and its impulses. It’s time for Democrats to work to give Black women the better and safer America that we deserve.

Read more:

Ann Telnaes cartoon: Madam Vice President

Michele L. Norris: Harris won’t stop her ‘smirk.’ Nor should she. It’s Black women’s superpower.

Karen Tumulty, Kate Woodsome, Sergio Peçanha: How sexist, racist attacks on Kamala Harris have spread online — a case study

Karen Attiah: America hates to let Black women speak

E.J. Dionne: President-elect Biden has what America needs

The Post’s View: Thank you, America. Our democracy has proved its resilience in electing Joe Biden.

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