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Kamala Harris Public Syllabus

Vice President Kamala 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 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.

Editorial Board Members

Jenna Bednar, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science; Edie N. Goldenberg Endowed Director for the Michigan in Washington Program

Catherine Carver, Operations Co-Lead, 2020 Democracy & Debate Theme Semester

John Ciorciari, Associate Professor of Public Policy; Director, International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center

Matthew Countryman, Chair of the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies; Associate Professor of History, American Culture

Angela Dillard, Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies, History, and in the Residential College

Fiona Lee, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Professional Development

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology

Ann Chih Lin, Associate Professor of Public Policy

Barb McQuade, Professor from Practice, Michigan Law

Stephanie Rowden, Associate Professor, School of Art & Design

Marie Ting, Associate Director, National Center for Institutional Diversity

Heather Thompson, Professor, History; Professor, Afroamerican and African Studies; Professor, Residential College Social Theory and Practice Program

Kamala Devi Harris: In her Own Words

We start our public syllabus, crowd-sourced from dozens of potential 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.

Harris and History

While everyone agrees that Harris made history with her election as Vice President can nonetheless debate how this achievement ought to be characterized. Is it a radical break with the past or a continuation or culmination of particular histories and struggles? And what are the wider implications of 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, Barbara Jordan and others both known and unknown; and those that position her as a “famous first.”

  • Jones, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. Book. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
  • Gershon, Livia. "Who Was Charles Curtis, the First Vice President of Color?." Smithsonian Magazine. 13 January 2021.
  • Shirley Chisolm, Unbought and Unbossed
  • "Chisolm '72: UnBought & Unbossed" documentary film that includes great interview with Rep. Barbara Lee
  • Kathryn Schulz, "The Many Lives of Pauli Murray," The New Yorker, April 10, 2017.
  • Carly S. Woods, "Barbara Jordan and the Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights," Quarterly Journal of Speech 2020, VOL. 106, NO. 3, 291–298 https://doi.org/10.1080/00335630.2020.1785640
  • Simien, Evelyn M. Historic Firsts : How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics. Book. New York, NY : Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Lerer, Lisa and Sydney Ember. "Kamala Harris Makes History as First Woman and Woman of Color as Vice President." New York Times. 7 November 2020, updated 20 January 2021.

Dressing for History

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 of 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

Women in/and Politics

Kamala Harris & Family: Multiracial (and Inter-Faith) in America

Carribean/South Asian Migrations/Immigration

Harris & Pop-Culture/Performing Diversity

Harris and HBCUs

Madame Vice President: Will She Transform the Office?

Harris and Foreign Policy/Domestic Policy 

African-American & Asian-American Activism: Laying the Foundations

Harris, the Law/Criminal Justice, and the Carceral State 

California Politics and Race

Harris and the Promise of an Anti-Racist Politics?