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Why the selection of Harris matters

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks after Democratic presidential

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks after Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduced her as his running mate during a campaign event at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

The word “historic” gets thrown around a lot.

In my lifetime, there have been only three truly historic political nominations on a major-party ticket: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. The designations signaled change for the better, and each filled me with hope for the direction of our country and America’s ability to live up to its ideals.

To that small list we have to add Joe Biden’s pick of Sen. Kamala Devi Harris as his running mate.

I met Harris in June 2009, when she campaigned in New York City as a candidate for California attorney general. I was impressed by her work, her story and her passion for civil rights. Her words that day are similar to what she talked about at her first joint appearance with Biden on Wednesday — her biography and public service have prepped her for higher office.

Whether some progressives admit it or not, Harris is a great choice for many reasons. As Neil Makhija of IMPACT, an organization that works to elect Indian-Americans, wrote before her selection was announced: “Harris knows the Black American experience. She knows the South Asian American experience. She knows the immigrant experience. She knows the aspirational power of the American dream. She is the running mate for this moment.”

He is right. She is also one of the most progressive members of the U.S. Senate. And on the Judiciary Committee, she brilliantly questioned Trump administration officials and appointees — most notably, Attorney General Bill Barr and then-Supreme Court-nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I can’t wait to see her debate Mike Pence.

My more progressive friends — perhaps even my more progressive self — will scrutinize Harris’ criminal justice record in California and find a lot with which to disagree. But there’s much to like about her trajectory on the issues of nonviolent crime and police arrest data.

What’s more, she’s exactly what the Biden campaign needs — a solid running mate and potential partner in the White House. She is also the first Asian person to run for vice president. The first Black woman on a major-party ticket to run for vice president. The first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate. Things like these are often described as shallow, or “just symbolism.” But symbolism matters in politics, and often in a very un-shallow way.

My family members, all Indians, see someone who looks like us, has a name like ours, and probably an aunt or uncle like we have, and that is powerful. 

In 2018, speaking at a fundraising gala for Pratham USA, a leading Indian American charity, Harris talked about going back to India every two years as a kid, and the profound impact her mother’s dad had on her:

“My grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life. One of the things that he definitely taught me is that freedom and democracy are not given to us. We have to fight for it. Freedom and democracy are not something we take for granted. And if it will endure, it will be because we fight for the ideals and the nobility of what it means to live in and fight for and support a democracy.”

To everyone who thinks Biden and Harris have this race in the bag, you are mistaken. There’s a lot of hard work and pain ahead (see some of the online racist attacks), and that’s not including whatever the Russians plan to do. So we must vote.

Sree Sreenivasan is the Marshall Loeb visiting professor of digital innovation at Stony Brook University School of Journalism and the cofounder of Digimentors, a digital consultancy.