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Kamala Harris Public Syllabus

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Vice President Kamala D. Harris has broken gender and racial barriers in American politics. She now begins a four-year term in office during a historic moment marked by a global pandemic, national economic hardship, and an upswing in overt nativist sentiments and racism. As a former US senator and state attorney general, she brings a wealth of expertise and experience to a role that she will inevitably reframe in the years to come.

Harris’ swearing-in on January 20th also calls our attention to a crossroads and perhaps an inflection point in American history. She took the oath minutes before Joseph Biden became the 46th president of the United States, 14 days after the assault on the Capitol by domestic terrorists, and a little over 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment. The commemoration of this suffragette anniversary during the 2020 calendar year often reflected the extent to which women of color were excluded from the extension of the franchise. Such exclusions were especially poignant in an election year that witnessed widespread concerns about voter suppression and inequitable access to the polls. 

Our hope is that this collective public syllabus project will be as much about the future as the past and the present. How might Harris' vice presidency help us think critically about movement toward a more diverse and inclusive union? This ethos serves as a major impetus and inspiration for this project. In this regard, Harris' own professional history is not without some controversy. Indeed, many have been skeptical of her self-presentation as a “progressive prosecutor” and “reformer” working within a broken criminal justice system while serving as a prosecutor, district attorney, and California’s attorney general. Others aver that she was in fact ahead of her time in addressing the implications of “tough on crime” policies that exacerbated racial disparities and accelerated mass criminalization and incarceration.

While recognizing the limits that the vice presidency imposes on the individuals who hold that office, we want to think collectively about the myriad of domestic and international issues that both Harris’ inauguration as vice president and the identities she embodies raise for critical engagement as we seek a path for a more diverse union.

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Kamala Devi Harris: In Her Own Words

We start our public syllabus, crowd-sourced from dozens of contributions, with Harris' own words and self-presentation. The Truths We Hold, her campaign book published in the weeks before she launched her presidential campaign shares the deficiencies of all campaign books. As a NPR review from January 2019 notes: "The Truths We Hold reads as a memoir-but-not-really. Harris does tell her life story, but she uses it as a vehicle for telling us what she really wants us to know about her .... Harris presents herself as a potentially formidable presidential candidate. Which is to say: She efficiently makes her case, like the prosecutor she is." Her campaign book can be profitably compared with her first book, written almost a decade earlier, Smart on Crime

We also want to acknowledge that the Kamala Harris Public Syllabus is being published as the nation and the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic — with its implications for vaccine equity and disproportionate impacts, both locally and globally; with a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that killed six Asian woman in what many are characterizing as part of a larger pattern of hate crimes directed toward Asian and Asian American Pacfiic Islander communities; and with yet another “crisis” at the southern border, for which President Biden has appointed Harris to lead a coordinated effort to address. The last interview included below provides a good representation of how Vice President Harris is navigating these multiple issues and concerns on behalf of the administration.

Harris and History

While everyone agrees that Harris made history with her election as vice president, we can nonetheless debate how this achievement ought to be characterized. Is it a radical break with the past, a continuation, or culmination of particular histories and struggles? And what are the wider implications for women and women of color in politics more generally? The materials in this section are divided into two parts: those that help us to consider Harris as part of a long sweep of history, following in the footsteps of Shirley Chisolm, Patsy Mink, Barbara Jordan and others both known and unknown; and those that position her as a “famous first.”

Madam Vice President: Will She Transform the Office?

The president of the United States is arguably the most powerful person in the world, while the vice president is overlooked and often forgotten by history. With broad speculation that President Biden will not run for a second term, Vice President Harris has an opportunity to reshape the traditional roles and responsibilities of her office during this most public of political tryouts.

Women in/and Politics: Shattering Glass Ceilings

One hundred years after national recognition of (some) women's right to vote, the United States elected its first woman to the vice presidency and has yet to elect a woman as president. What challenges do women face as candidates and what shapes public support for them? How are the policies they support distinguishable from male politicians?

Kamala Harris & the Politics of a Multiracial (and Inter-Faith) America

This section of the syllabus begins with the ways that Kamala Harris’ mixed-race identity, interracial marriage, and blended family have been discussed and understood across different constituencies, including segments of the press and by Harris herself. This section also incorporates a focus on the changing demographics of American political culture with special reference to the broader histories of Carribean and South Asian immigration and how the Harris and Harris-Biden campaigns sought to mobilize these constituencies during the 2020 electoral season.

This was ultimately one of the most challenging sections of the Kamala Harris Syllabus to shape. We recommend starting with Kumari Devarjan’s episode of Code Switch (“Claim us If You’re Famous”), which explores Harris’ identity as Black and Asian and South Asian and Indian American. It swiftly gets into “messy territory, like what her political prominence might help illuminate (or obscure) about South Asian political identity, how multiracial people are perceived, and how Blackness intersects with all of those things.” The episode features the work of Nitasha Tamar Sharma, an associate professor of African American studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. As always, we include resources that deal specifically with Harris as well as resources that we hope will be useful for broader contextualization. On that note, students and general readers might want to pay special attention to the social justice orientation of Andrew Jolivette’s 2010 keynote address for the inaugural Critical mixed Race Studies Conference, which advocates for cross-ethnic and transnational solidarity.

Kamala Harris & The World 

While it is too early in the Biden-Harris Administration to gauge Harris’ potential impact on U.S. foreign policy, her role already has been substantial. She has engaged in direct dialogue with an unusually large number of world leaders for a vice president. She has also been centrally involved in decisions on U.S. policy in the Middle East, on pandemic preparedness, and on international women’s rights. She also has been assigned to spearhead the U.S. response to the migration crisis, including a major foreign policy challenge: how to address the conditions causing migrants to flee from Central America. She is therefore engaging on issues central to America’s identity and to her own as a former law enforcement official and member of an immigrant family. This section of the syllabus includes early commentary on Harris’ foreign policy role, but its broader purpose is to provide context on how issues of race, gender, and ethnicity have come into play in foreign affairs in the past. It is useful to recall the presence of women and people of color as the face of U.S. power and diplomacy, including Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and of course Barack Hussein Obama, among others.

  • Alexander DeConde, Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History (Northeastern University Press, 1992)
  • Mark Ledwidge, Race and US Foreign Policy: The African-American Foreign Affairs Network (Routledge, 2013)
  • Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 2015)
  • Karen E. Smith, “Missing in Analysis: Women in Foreign Policy-Making,” Foreign Policy Analysis 16/1 (January 2020): 130-141
  • Melanie Verveer, “Why Women are a Foreign Policy Issue, Seriously Guys,” Foreign Policy 193 (May/June 2012): 90-21
  • Claire Crawford and Kelebogile Zvobog, “Kamala Harris for the People,” August 12, 2020
  • Vicki Assevero, “Complex identities: Kamala Harris and US foreign policy towards the Caribbean,” New Atlanticist, November 12, 2020
  • Eugene Daniels and Natasha Bertrand, “Harris Gets a Crash Course on Foreign Policy,”, February 26, 2021
  • Greg Sargent, “Why Kamala Harris’s new immigration assignment could be a big deal,” The Washington Post, March, 24, 2021
  • Olivier Knox, “The Daily 202: Kamala Harris is playing an unusually large role in shaping Biden’s foreign policy,” The Washington Post, March 8, 2021

The Politics of Fashion

Many of the profiles and think-pieces on Harris’ glass-ceiling shattering accomplishments in American politics have a preoccupation with her wardrobe and fashion choices. Is this a gender-biased distraction or is it an important part of Harris’ self-presentation? In a critic’s notebook piece in The New York Times, journalist Vanessa Friedman reminds us that “the pearls, the pumps, the sneakers” matter, as did her decision to wear a white pants suit when she appeared for the first time as Vice-President Elect: “The point was that to wear those clothes — to make those choices — on a night when the world was watching, in a moment that would be frozen for all time, was not fashion. It was politics. It was for posterity.” The materials in this section feature a variety of opinions on how fashion has played a role in discussion about Harris' political career, including the controversy over the Vogue cover; as well as contextual materials that speak more broadly to issues of gender, politics, identity, and fashion.

Harris and the Cultural Worlds of HBCUs and the Divine Nine

The less formal Vogue cover that features Harris in Chuck Taylors and positions her in front of a pink and green backdrop all speak to the ways that she has adopted Black cultural forms associated with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (such as Howard University from which she graduated in 1986) and with Black sororities (such as the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, of which she is a member and whose signature colors are pink and green). This section of the syllabus thinks generativity — and critically — about these associations, and how the Harris campaigns (first for president and later for vice president) sought to mobilize these and other Black cultural institutions.

At the same time, we want to consider the ways that Harris (and other Black women) have been confined and judged by cultural assumptions and strictures rooted in race, gender, sexuality, and color. Future iterations of the Kamala Harris Public Syllabus would do well to incorporate sections on how Harris might help us to better understand these dynamics and Black ethnicities more generally, in a global and diasporic manner. In the last two entries we invite a conversation about the policy promises that the Trump administration made to HBCUs and those put forth in the early months of the Biden-Harris administration. How, we should ask, will the support that African-American voters gave Biden and Harris be repaid through educational policies?

Harris and Criminal Justice 

As a former district attorney for San Francisco and attorney general for California, Kamala Harris made her career as a prosecutor. As a leading criminal justice official in a state that experienced one of the nation’s most dramatic rises in the number of incarcerated persons while in office, Harris was both lauded and criticized. While Harris saw herself as someone committed to reforming the elements of a War on Drugs, others saw her actions as district attorney and attorney general as contributing to California’s rising prison population rather than reducing it. Harris outlined a vision for moving her state in a new direction in her 2009 book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer. As attorney general, Harris sought to limit prosecutions under California’s three-strikes law, worked to reduce incarceration through diversion programs, and implemented police training on implicit bias. Harris became increasingly vocal about the need for meaningful criminal justice reform in America when she became a U.S. senator, and sponsored a bill that would would criminalize lynching and another that would encourage states to eliminate cash bail. As a presidential candidate, Harris grew more outspoken on this issue, calling for ending mass incarceration, legalizing marijuana, reforming sentencing, stopping private prison use, and encouraging rehabilitation. Despite her support for wholesale criminal justice reform by the 2020 campaign, Harris was asked to defend her previous positions, such as her defense of California’s death penalty and her decisions to decline to investigate some police shootings. Some commentators have suggested that her race and gender may have forced her to temper her views on crime and punishment to avoid being stereotyped. As vice president, Harris is part of an administration that has continued to call for police and criminal justice reform.

Harris and the Promise of an Anti-Racist Politics?

We include this final section of the Kamala Harris Public Syllabus as a question, as opposed to a statement. In what ways might Vice President Harris help us to ground, debate, and reflect on the possibilities of an anti-racist politics for 21st-century America — and beyond? We see this section as just a beginning and welcome suggestions for additional materials. These can be sent for consideration to:

We give the last words to one of the early inspirations of the Kamala Harris Public Syllabus: "Kamala Harris and the Reframing of the Vice Presidency." This panel discussion, sponsored by the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester at the University of Michigan, featured Ruby Tapia, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Michelle May-Curry, Angela X. Ocampo, Ian Shin, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, and Jasmine Williams, with Introduction by University of Michigan Provost Susan Collins. It was held on January 25, 2021 and is available here.