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“This is a historic moment in American political life. Historic for myself, for my people. For the first time in the history of this nation, a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.” Charlotta Bass, an activist and the first Black woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States, spoke these words in 1952. She was the first Black woman to be nominated as vice president of the United States. As a nominee with the Progressive Party, her slogan was “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.” The issues, as she saw them, included housing rights, labor rights, voting rights, and addressing police brutality and harassment.
The recent announcement that Senator Kamala Harris will serve as the Democratic nominee for vice president alongside Joe Biden highlights how Senator Harris stands on the shoulders of women from Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer to Amelia Boynton, Shirley Chisolm, and Charlotta Bass. Harris is one link in a very long chain of Black women, women of color, and women of conscience who have pushed this nation toward a more perfect union. This struggle has been a matter of survival and preservation, both for ourselves and our communities, in the face of racist, patriarchal power structures that have made every attempt to threaten and invalidate our very existence.
Regardless of political party, we who are the heirs of these witnesses must always stand first on the issues. But the issues that matter to our communities are not separate from questions of representation. As Alicia Garza wrote in a recent Glamour article, the nomination of Kamala Harris for vice president is “incredibly significant, as a woman, much less a Black woman, has never served in this role in the 244 years since the country was established.” Many of us have our voting rights today largely because of Black women. From the Black women who marched in the suffrage parade in the early 20th century to Black women like Amelia Boynton Robinson, who helped initiate the Voting Rights Campaign in Selma in 1965, the demographic Kamala Harris represents has consistently led on issues that matter to poor and marginalized communities.
Just this week, we marked Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, passing the number of days into the year that a Black woman must work to make what her white counterpart made last year. Black women, who disproportionately serve as caregivers and frontline workers, know that representation and occupying a space are not enough. For every Black woman who will make it into the halls of Congress or the White House, there are many others who will be left to struggle in the streets, and they must be heard too.
Whether this will be a truly transformative political moment depends to a large degree on the 74 million women who were poor or low-income before the Covid-19 crisis and the millions more who have joined them since March of this year. If these women see not only a face but also a focus on issues that directly impact them, they could create a turnout that fundamentally changes what is possible in our politics. If a new governing coalition in Washington is compelled to honor the hard work of the low-wage and essential workers who are being treated as expendable, the majority of whom are women and women of color, then we will know that this moment is about more than representation.
If we extend free health care to the 80 to 100 million people who were uninsured or underinsured before Covid-19 and the 27 million-plus who have joined them, a majority of whom are women, then we will make this a moment of transformative change. If we fully restore and expand the Voting Rights Act, which has left millions of women who suffer from racist voter suppression disenfranchised and without a voice in the political process, then this will be a moment to reconstruct democracy. If we enact policies to protect and preserve our environment, redress the years of environmental racism, and prepare for a climate crisis that is already wreaking havoc on poor communities and communities of color, then we will know that this moment is not just about representation.
The choice of Kamala Harris can turn into the kind of public policy that raises these issues and addresses these inequities, as women of conscience have always demanded. If this happens, then this ticket is more than unbeatable. It will turn the mourning in the streets into the kind of public policy that can push America into a Third Reconstruction, as transformative as the Reconstruction that followed after the end of slavery and the Second Reconstruction that transformed American society through the civil rights movement. But if we don’t see the transformative change that Black women and women of conscience have always pushed toward, it will be a disappointment not only to this generation but also to all the generations of matriarchs in our family and Senator Harris’s family. We believe that deep down inside, Senator Harris knows this and will continue the tradition of the courageous women who came before her to fight for all of us. The question is whether the Democratic Party can resist being defined by the labels of left or right and instead embrace the moral center of our deepest religious values and constitutional values, which demand that in every policy and decision we establish justice.
With the assaults on the very foundation of our democratic institutions, the resurgence of overt police and policy racism, and a public health crisis that is disproportionately claiming the lives of poor communities and communities of color, this moment requires nothing less than the radical reimagining of America that Black women have always championed. True transformation, a radical restructuring of our society, and a genuine democracy inclusive of all of us is what our country needs now, more than ever. The blood, sweat, and tears of those who struggled before us demands it and our collective lives as “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” depends on it.