Today history was made. The first Black female Vice President was sworn into office. As a nation we should be proud but not surprised. Black women have been a force in every aspect of American life, though rarely given the credit they deserve. From the inauguration stage President Biden called for national healing, a sentiment echoed by leaders from both sides of the aisle and the news media. Healing requires us to reflect on the historical significance of this moment and chart a path for even broader change.
Many might look at the United States’ diversifying population and think it’s “about time” a woman of color ascended to the ranks of the executive branch. While this progress is long overdue, this attitude also glosses over important truths about US history and politics. The right to vote was reserved only for white land-owning men at the inception of this nation. About 80 years later, Black men were given the right to vote on paper, but discriminatory practices, physical threats, and bodily harm caused systemic suppression of this right. Some 50 years later the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. Still, these rights meant little in practice for Black Americans who struggled to get on the voting rolls well after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed:
“What was minimally required under the law was the appointment of hundreds of registrars and thousands of federal marshals to inhibit Southern terror. Instead, fewer than sixy registrars were appointed and not a single federal law officer capable of arrests was sent into the South” (pg. 35)— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Voting Rights Act in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,
This history of voter suppression is illustrative of this nation’s resistance to full Black political participation. Voter suppression has had tangible impacts on the makeup of our elected officials. There have only been 11 Black senators in the history of the United States. While there have been over 12,400 members of Congress throughout our history, only 163 of them have been African American. Unequal distribution of power harkens back to an age-old idea that Black people are “deficient” and thus “undeserving” of full citizenship. Generations of Americans could’ve hardly imagined that a first generation American of African descent could rise to one the highest offices in this nation’s political order. Given the history of anti-Black racism in America, the election of Kamala Harris is a monumental development. To heal we must first take a moment to recognize why this day is so historic, and we must also ask which Black voices continue to be marginalized. There can be no doubt that the disinherited descendants of American slaves who showed out for Kamala continue to face the shackling effects of incomplete citizenship. These are the voices that Vice President Kamala Harris must represent to lead our nation on the path of true healing and equality.