Former Vice President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he had chosen Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate.
This does not come as a total surprise. Mr. Biden pledged during the primaries that he would select a woman for this position.
Yet the significance of this decision and its meaning for Black women, the most loyal members of the Democratic Party, cannot be overstated. Black women’s commitment to the party has often gone unacknowledged, but they have been tirelessly loyal to the Democratic Party for generations.
Now comes the real, unanswerable question: Is the selection of Ms. Harris, despite her strong credentials, simply symbolic, a token gesture that will change little for Black women? Or does it truly recognize the importance of Black women for Democrats?
There is no denying this country’s political structures were not designed with marginalized groups in mind, least of all those who sit at the intersection of two marginalized communities, as Black women do. Yet their consistent support for the Democratic Party has not come about blindly; they understand the political system and where they believe they have the highest likelihood of realizing political gains for the Black community.
It is Black women, more so than any other racial-gender pair, who have gotten behind efforts at more inclusive representation with their unquestionable support for the prospect of the first woman president in 2016 and the first Black president in 2008, as well as the re-election of the first Black president in 2012.
Further, they have never hesitated to critique and challenge the party to do better by its members and what the party stands for.
Ms. Harris herself provided a good example in the primary season, when she challenged Mr. Biden’s record from the 1970s on busing. In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer famously called out the party for its lack of inclusivity after an all-white Mississippi delegation was sent to the Democratic National Convention. Shirley Chisholm challenged the status quo of the party leadership with her 1972 presidential bid to the dismay of many Democrats.
Ms. Harris has risen to this position through her work in California, as attorney general, and in the Senate. Electorally, her appeal could motivate Black voters because, as one of their own, she offers a political lens that has a greater potential to focus the concerns for Black Americans.
In fact, research shows that Black women are more likely to support “one of their own” more enthusiastically than voters in other race-gender pairings. Her presence on the ticket could serve as a motivation for voter mobilization and turnout for all African-Americans, and she has the potential for broader appeal to women voters of all races.
Some may view this vice-presidential decision as merely strategic, a play for turnout of African-American voters. I would contend this is the nature of politics, like choosing a vice-presidential candidate because that person lives in a swing state. Ms. Harris was selected through the same vetting process that other candidates have gone through. And what’s more, she is at least as qualified, if not more so, as previous running mates.
As a Black and woman candidate, Ms. Harris can expect substantial scrutiny. There will be some in the Black community who have reservations because of her prosecutorial record. This is particularly true for Black mothers, who may not like her enforcement of truancy laws as the state attorney general in California.
Ms. Harris will also face expectations that Black women politicians have faced: She will be expected to be everything to everyone. Indeed, research on attitudes toward Black women shows that there are expectations and stereotypes often leveraged against them to be more assertive and tough, while also nurturing and caring.
And she will be running in the wake of the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and against the suggestions that sexism was at least part of the reason for her loss.
If anything, Kamala Harris will run into significant obstacles because of her sex and race. But I suspect she knows that. After all, Black women who get involved in politics learn this very quickly.
Yet like Ms. Harris, they are more patriotic than people imagine because they are up against such challenges. From her days as a child in California to her days at Howard University to her steady rise in politics, Ms. Harris has lived and worked in this legacy and, in many ways, thrived.
Chryl Laird, an assistant professor of political science at Bowdoin, is a co-author of “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.”