Half a century after Americans landed men on the moon, a Black woman is the nominee for vice president, thus standing on the threshold of becoming president. As a measure of human progress, the first is to physics while the second is to social equality. Yet each is alike in the distance traveled and the obstacles overcome.
Joe Biden vowed to name a woman as his running mate even before he emerged as the Democratic Party’s primary winner from the most diverse field of presidential candidates – diverse in gender, ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation, and ideology. He had no shortage of prospects.
In Kamala Harris he has chosen a governing partner with roots in social justice. Ms. Harris was raised in Oakland, California, by immigrant parents. Her father emigrated from Jamaica to study economics. Her mother arrived from India and became a medical scientist. They raised their daughters amid the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. Ms. Harris became the district attorney of San Francisco and then attorney general of California before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. Her selection reflects Mr. Biden’s promise to reduce incarceration and reform policing in response to the summer’s social justice protest movement.
As an emblem of a Democratic establishment that is largely male, white, and older, Mr. Biden may be a transitional agent of change. He has billed himself as the bridge to a more inclusive era of politics that has already arrived in the party’s rank and file. The current Congress marks the fifth time in a row that the House and Senate became more diverse following an election. Women make up nearly a quarter of the membership in each chamber, the highest percentage in history. The speaker of the House is a woman. Roughly 13% of lawmakers are immigrants or children of immigrants.
When Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be added to the ticket of a major political party in 1984, her candidacy was considered a novelty. Since then the political landscape has been transformed. Nearly half of all the women who have ever served in the House were elected since 1998. Across the Capitol’s Rotunda, 29 of the 56 women who have served in the Senate were elected in 2000 or later. Beyond Washington, 29% of all state legislators are women.
The Republican Party added a woman, Sarah Palin, to its ticket in 2008. Eight years later, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to lead her party into an election. Although she lost, she shattered one glass ceiling. Six women sought the party’s nomination this year. There is also greater gender, ethnic, and income diversity unfolding in congressional and state legislative races.
Demographic milestones are one measure of progress to the extent that they reflect a broadening consent about equality in citizenship. Over the decades, from Emancipation to the current social justice movement, representative democracy has gradually come to represent a fuller range of the governed. The acceptance of different groups also forces deeper insight into each person’s qualities of thought, regardless of human circumstances. Governing, after all, requires universal application of laws and principles.
Through the troubled history of the United States, Black women have borne in quiet dignity and despair a unique weight, whether from sexual violence, social injustice, or economic marginalization. Now that history enters a new chapter with a Black woman as the Democratic candidate for vice president. Whether her party’s ticket wins or loses, the choice of Ms. Harris sends a signal – especially to Black girls – that Americans have gained greater capacity to recognize each individual’s inherent worth.