On Wednesday, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris takes center stage as she debates Vice President Mike Pence. While many celebrate Harris's nomination as a landmark development in the crumbling of racial and gender barriers in American politics and Republicans portray Harris as a radical, some on the left have expressed disappointment with her relatively moderate political temper as a law-and-order Democrat friendly to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Israel. They question whether representation and Harris's formation as the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica who met through anti-racist activism in Berkeley in the 1960s really matter if her own political record offers little hope that she will radically change the lives of ordinary Black and Brown people.
Such critics anticipate an echo of their earlier disappointment with Barack Obama, who, as a Black president with similar antecedents, remained committed to the U.S.'s militarized, imperialist foreign policy and failed to dramatically improve the lives of Black Americans — so much so that the Black Lives Matter movement erupted under his presidency. In this view, the story of Obama's and Harris's anti-colonial and anti-racist inheritance is one of betrayal: they are mere tokens of representation that help uphold the racist, colonial order.
But this pessimistic account misunderstands the way context shapes political action, how history happens. The question is not whether but how representation matters (especially in a party that depends on the support of people of color rather than one that showcases minority leaders specifically as tokens to deflect charges of racism.) Black Lives Matter may have erupted out of disappointment with the Obama administration, but it was also substantively enabled by the reality of a Black president — a monumental bit of racial representation that emboldened Black people to assert their dignity and raised their expectations of their own lives. The Obama presidency's failures made the movement necessary but also offered a hospitable and hopeful context in which a movement asserting the dignity of Black lives could find traction and gain widespread legitimacy.
Historically, disillusionment over dashed hopes for change initiated from above has galvanized more revolutionary, collective organization. Early in his career, the Indian anti-colonial leader Mohandas K. Gandhi focused on eliciting change from above, appealing to the British to fulfill their own liberal ideals. Only when he realized that colonial institutions were inherently racist did he radicalize his goals and tactics, transforming himself from the suited-up young lawyer into the iconic dhoti-clad rural Indian who emboldened ordinary Indians to claim freedom now.
Likewise, it was mass movements against British rule in Kenya and Ghana, in French Algeria and the Belgian Congo, that forced the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to acknowledge in 1960 that "the wind of change" was blowing through Africa. Radical change is always the work of ordinary people, and yet we only demand it fitfully — often when representation makes it thinkable. Though Black life in America has consistently been a story of oppression, an effective popular movement against that oppression flourished in the 1950s and '60s, with the visible rise of Black and Brown leaders of newly freed nations around the world. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fidel Castro both visited independent India in 1959; 17 African countries gained independence in 1960.
But representation alone could not cure colonization and racism, especially in a world in which imperialism persisted in new guises: the British and French decolonized slowly, while the United States busily took up where they left off, launching interventions in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, newly independent countries often kept colonial governing structures in place.
In 1961, Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquan thinker who joined the Algerian struggle for independence, warned of the futility of merely replacing European masters with Black or Brown ones in colonial governing structures. "Let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw inspiration from her," he implored. "Humanity is waiting for something other . . . than such an imitation. "
Gandhi, too, had urged rejection of Western education, technology and institutions, recognizing their role in colonizing minds and bodies. But despite such warnings, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, opted for a Western-inspired technocratic developmental vision for his newly freed country, leaving colonial governing structures created by the British relatively unchanged, as today's Modi government's repressive use of them make plain.
Indeed, partly because colonialism works, insidiously, by elevating and co-opting some members of the colonized population, decolonization remains an incomplete and intergenerational process. Harris and Obama both had grandfathers who worked for the British, in colonial India and Kenya, respectively. Obama's father pushed back more against colonialism, joining the Kenyan independence movement, for which he was briefly jailed, but remained committed to the model of Western technocracy, arriving in the United States to study economics in 1959 on the eve of Kenya's independence. Harris's Jamaican-born father discerned colonialism's sinister dependence on a "native Black elite," but likewise determined to study economics in the United States for technocratic ends, arriving in 1961, a year before Jamaica's independence. His speech on colonialism's cultivation of non-White elites at a Black study group in Berkeley in 1962 drew Kamala's Indian-born mother to share with him how her relatively elite upbringing had sheltered her from colonialism. Both joined the struggle of the underprivileged in the United States.
Still, the subsequent American-born generation's will to state power merged anti-colonial impulses with the colonial outlook that survives vestigially alongside it. Though Obama recognized his father's faith in Western technocracy as a colonial legacy, determining to continue his Kenyan forefathers' struggle as a community organizer in the United States by instead putting "faith in other people," he, too, could not fully shake off the burden of mimicry that is colonialism's most potent legacy: Instead of trying to remake the American state, his objective remained the Nehru-like one of attaining control of a state that could only persist in failing those it was never built to protect. If this commitment to liberalism is a colonial inheritance, so too is the language of individual righteousness (rather than, say, collective organization), through which many express disappointment with Obama or Harris. Such aims and habits are what makes our world so fundamentally "postcolonial. "
As Obama himself has lately affirmed, democracy is not about voting for someone who will "make everything better" but "active . . . citizenry." For Obama, this renewed awareness of the difficulty of creating radical change from above may double as a kind of self-absolution. But history, too, testifies to the power, and responsibility, of ordinary people to demand and make change — from struggles for immigrants' and minority rights to campaigns against war.
If Harris proves unable or unwilling to do much for Brown and Black people, her representation effect can still embolden Americans to demand and make change ourselves. Representation makes new kinds of change thinkable and thus possible. But the work of creating change remains a collective obligation, not something to be left to those who, necessarily, make compacts with power to reach the top of existing political structures. Indeed, those who passively await change initiated from the top likewise become complicit in those structures, even as they attempt to signal their virtue by diagnosing the failures of those at the top.
Obama's policies may not have radically changed the lives of ordinary Black people, but his presence in the presidential office cracked open powerful institutional doors for other heirs of anti-colonial and anti-racist activism, including Harris, but also, perhaps more significantly, Rashida Tlaib, of Palestinian descent; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Puerto Rican descent; Ilhan Omar, of Somali descent; Ayanna Pressley, of African American descent; and Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna, of Indian descent (the latter frequently alluding to his ancestors' anti-colonial activism). The rise of increasing numbers of openly progressive Brown and Black politicians in congressional offices that are more intimate with local communities is a substantive representation effect of the Obama years.
Harris's anti-colonial lineage gives us something to hold her accountable to as she, like Obama, makes the compromises that have enabled her rise. Precisely because colonialism co-opts elites, recalling past progressivism helps keep the flame of progressivism burning today. We narrate history partly to influence the unfolding of history now. However stale her politics may seem, Harris's nomination will nevertheless change the lives of ordinary Black and Brown people. The more inclusive the powerful elite is, reflecting our own diversity, the more the young and disempowered are emboldened to assert their rights, needs, and desires. As thinkers as diverse as Gandhi and Malcolm X have insisted, freedom lies in the very audacity of demanding it, together.
Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and professor of history at Stanford University. She is the prizewinning author of "Spies in Arabia" (OUP, 2008) and "Empire of Guns" (2018). Her new book, "Time's Monster: How History Makes History," is out in October 2020. This piece was written for The Washington Post.