Joe Biden has selected California Sen. Kamala Harris to join his presidential ticket as vice president. The nomination is historic; not only would Sen. Harris be the first woman ever to hold the role of vice president, but she would also be the first Black woman and first person of Asian descent ever to do so.
While this novel representation of women of color at this level is a laudable milestone in the history of American politics, the notion of representation alone as equity is passe. During the 1980s and 90s, calls for equal representation of women, and minority groups grew forceful (though they had long been present). Indeed, this was a time in which women, people of color, members of the queer community, oppressed religious groups and many others were underrepresented on TV, in the movies, in politics, in corporate boardrooms and elsewhere.
Echoes of these calls for equal representation persist today — and for good reason: oppressed groups are still underrepresented in positions of power in the U.S. Now, however, in the 2020s, we must acknowledge that the representation of oppressed groups in itself is not enough to achieve equality. Indeed, many commentators correctly suggest elites and historically privileged groups have co-opted the dialogue of equal representation to selectively represent the voices they want to hear — the ones that favor the oppressive status quo while blaming minorities for their own oppression.
This dynamic was certainly at play in the case of Barack Obama, who was notorious for castigating Black fathers and making comments about what he sees as self-destructive tendencies among Black people. Such patriarchal, elitist views neglect to consider the immense structural role of racist challenges in front of Black communities. Still, Obama’s do-it-yourself attitude toward Black people was appealing to White people – this view, in effect, severed them from any responsibility or complicity they may have in the systemic oppression of Black people in the U.S.
I fear this dynamic is even more prominent in Biden’s selection of Harris to be his running mate. Her history as a “tough-on crime” prosecutor is well-known. Her record as a California prosecutor includes historic records of Black incarceration in the state. She blocked efforts of men of color to show they were wrongfully convicted of crimes. She was behind a draconian truancy policy that punished parents for their children’s absence from school. She has even been accused of over enthusiastically taking the side of police. In a time when police officers are being more scrutinized than ever for their role in systemic racism (especially by the left), all these elements are consequential.
Incidentally, Harris has oxymoronically called herself a “progressive prosecutor.” Oxymoronically because we know unequivocally that “tough on crime” usually means “tough on minorities.” While Blacks make up about 13.4% of the population, the NAACP says 34% of the incarcerated population is Black; 35% of those executed over the past 40 years have been Black; and Blacks were the victims of 22% of fatal police shootings. Harris asserts her time as a prosecutor was characterized by changing the system from the inside out, but her record displays her complicity in the oppressive apparatus.
Of course, many on the left assert Biden himself may be even worse for racial equality – myself among them. Either way, his own past (mainly regarding his apparent opposition to school integration) certainly incentivizes him to want to earn “diversity points” without sincerely addressing the underlying structures of racism in the U.S. And that is precisely the problem with only considering equal representation without considering the content of that representation: it allows elites who are complicit with the racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic status quo to symbolically claim antiracist status by merely associating themselves with members of oppressed groups regardless of their actual beliefs, words and actions.
In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi reminds us anyone can be complicit with structural racism. In other words, just because someone is a member of a racially oppressed group doesn’t mean that their representation alone is antiracist — it matters just as much or even more what that person says and does. When Barack Obama blames problems in Black America on paternal absenteeism, that has racist undertones. When Kanye West calls slavery a “choice,” that has racist undertones. And when Kamala Harris calls herself tough-on-crime, that, too, has racist undertones.
In the end, note that none of this means equal representation of diverse groups isn’t important — it absolutely is. Rather, it means if equality is the goal of equal representation, then we should represent the voices who are actually fighting for equality. Unfortunately, while infinitely preferable to Trump and Pence (who actively fight for inequality), history suggests Biden and Harris may still not fit the bill. Oakland civil rights attorney Anne Weills said it best: “She (Harris) is maybe a modest reformer, and that’s fine. But I don’t think that means she is particularly progressive. She doesn’t look at the big picture about how to make structural change.”
And structural change has to be what it’s all about.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.