Kamala Harris’s rise, multicultural roots and challenges

Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware on Nov. 7.

Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, speaks in Wilmington, Delaware on Nov. 7. (AP Photo by Andrew Harnik)

What more could symbolize the American dream than the ascension of Kamala Harris? Born and raised in Oakland and Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, and as the daughter of Jamaican and South Indian immigrants, Harris checks multiple diversity boxes. After cutting her teeth as a Bay Area prosecutor in Alameda and San Francisco counties, Harris shot to political fame as the first woman of color to be elected San Francisco district attorney, and then state attorney general. In 2016, she became the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Now, if the results of last week’s presidential election bear out, Harris, 56, will be the first woman and person of color to become U.S. vice president. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she told an elated crowd at her victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7.

Of course, Harris has faced challenges along the way, and will no doubt encounter more. As California’s top cop in a criminal justice system stacked against people of color, her attempts to walk the line between law enforcement and a racial justice movement sparked by police brutality have been wobbly. That said, her criminal justice background has also helped her appeal to moderates.

Below, UC Berkeley faculty, students and staff celebrate Harris’s extraordinary political career and reflect on whether her biracial, multicultural roots have helped, or hindered, her path to the vice presidency.

Tina Sacks, assistant professor of social welfare

Tina Sacks, assistant professor of social welfare

“The child of two immigrants from former British colonies is now the vice president-elect of the United States. The fact that she is a woman, a Black woman, a South Asian woman and a mixed-race woman makes her ascent all the more remarkable. Spending summers in India, living in Canada, and later attending an HBCU (historically black college/university) suggests VP-elect Harris is a citizen of the world, much like the other mixed-race Black person to ascend to the highest office of the U.S., former President Barack Obama. I find it interesting that both of the first Black people in these high positions are mixed-race children of immigrants. This suggests that some white people may perceive Harris to be slightly outside of our original sin, slavery. I do not mean that she is not Black, or that she does not experience virulent anti-Blackness, and misogynoir. Rather, the fact that she is not a direct descendant of American slavery may have made the white establishment feel more comfortable with her and less guilty about our own past.”

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology

“Kamala Harris, it seems to me, is not just biracial. She is multicultural. She has knowledge of at least three very different regions of the world, all with different customs, practices, values and beliefs. I can only imagine that stepping in and out of different cultural spaces has provided Harris with the ability to have what I call ‘perspective on perspective’ — the ability to reflect on the fact that any given worldview is not privileged or unique. The ‘way things are’ to a monocultural person is ‘one way things are’ to a multicultural person. Take mayonnaise. I was in Spain last year and asked for mayonnaise to put on my sandwich, which led to horrified looks from those within earshot. ‘You don’t put mayonnaise on a sandwich,’ I was told. ‘It takes away the flavor of the meat.’ ‘So, what do you put mayonnaise on?’ I asked. The response was unanimous: ‘Pizza!’ As a multicultural individual, Harris probably has the skills and knowledge to be able to navigate multiple spaces comfortably, what psychologists call ‘identity flexibility.’ The territory comes with the potential for greater discrimination, but also benefits for emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility and openness.”

Jessica Williams, Berkeley Law student, senior diversity editor of the California Law Review

Jessica Williams smiling

“Throughout the campaign, Kamala Harris talked about personal experiences as a mixed woman, bringing all of her identities in full. Mixed people are often tasked with bridge-building, and both she and Barack Obama were elected through broad coalition-building. With that said, Harris and Biden acknowledged the people and communities who did the work to build those coalitions, and Harris specifically expressed her gratitude to Black women for their efforts. As we all should. Being a mixed person myself, I would imagine that it has made her feel she had to work harder to find sure footing and assert her position. Being mixed can mean fitting in everywhere and fitting in nowhere in equal measure, so finding that groundedness and strength within yourself is not optional. I’m hopeful that this administration will continue to center the experiences of Black women, and that an intersectional standard will guide policy decisions as we move forward, because this fight is far from over.”

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies

Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies.

“To celebrate the Biden-Harris historic win, my family and I visited Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks Elementary School, which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris attended as a girl. We took photos of the school’s 2019 Persist Mural that features Harris in the center of a group of trailblazing women. In a year of so much loss and grief, it is wonderful to be alive and to experience this historic moment with my daughter, who is Asian American of Filipino, Korean and Chinese heritage. Harris’s mixed-race, Black and South Asian American upbringing in Oakland and Berkeley provides an opportunity to spotlight the multiracial and multiethnic diversity that is fundamental to American history. Mixed-race peoples have historically encountered the challenges of being stereotyped as inauthentic, divided and not whole. Thus, Biden-Harris’s victory is a beacon of light and hope. Hope that we will have more thoughtful conversations that further racial justice and healing. Hope that this is just the beginning of women of color holding the highest offices in the United States.”

Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies

informal portrait of Charles Henry, professor emeritus of African American studies

“Without seeing a detailed breakdown of the voting by race and ethnicity, I can speculate that Kamala Harris’s biracial background will have helped her in the same way that it helped Obama. Yes, ‘colorism’ is still a factor in candidate preference. One concern I have is whether her gender hurt her, and therefore Biden, in acceptance among Black and Latino males, whose support for Trump increased significantly this election. I have to believe progressives were so intent on replacing Trump that her background as a prosecutor was not a factor. Her response that we need people of color and women in those positions of power was right on point.”

Kiran Jain, lecturer in the Goldman School of Public Policy

Kiran Jain, lecturer, Goldman School of Public Policy

“Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris’s win is no doubt historic, yet a quintessential American story. As the daughter of immigrants, she has pursued the power of education and public service to push forth our country’s greatest ideals — consistently speaking truth to the status quo, while blazing a path of ‘firsts’ from San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general to U.S. senator and now to the White House. Her momentous arrival at the White House is deeply rooted in what it means to be from California, especially a Bay Area native. Growing up biracial, her Indian mother ensured she was raised to be a strong Black woman with a synchronous sense of self and family history, attending Black Baptist churches and visiting her maternal grandparents in India during the summer. She is both Black and Asian — holding multiple racial and cultural identities simultaneously — advancing our collective consciousness beyond ‘check-the- box’ politics. Her victory as the first female, Black, South Asian, Caribbean vice president of the U.S. not only highlights the vast diversity undergirding American democracy, but the intersectionality we must now honestly, authentically, confront to truly progress our Republic beyond its imperfect union.”

Savala Trepczynski, executive director of Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice

Savala Trepszynski, exective director of Berkeley Law's Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice“It is often true that mixed people like Kamala Harris, and Barack Obama, have a heightened sense of double consciousness, and are incredibly adept at code switching. This is generally by necessity, as mixed people straddle racial divides in unique ways and therefore have a lot of practice. These abilities are honed even more when mixed people spend a lot of time in primarily white spaces and institutions, like law schools, the U.S. Senate, etc. This rather multi-lingual, dual-citizenship quality ultimately works in their favor, letting them feel familiar and legible to white communities while maintaining their genuine connections to the communities of color that propelled recent and national democratic victories, like Obama’s and Biden’s. Among white voters, there is a wonderful opportunity for soul searching and deep inventory here. There is an opportunity for them to dissect the extent to which a candidate of color must also read as white, or white-ish, before they are willing and able to relate to, trust, and speak up for that candidate en masse. It will be fascinating to see whether this self-analysis becomes part of the racial justice efforts we’re seeing in so many white communities. I hope it does.”

Catherine Gallagher, professor emerita of English

Catherine Gallagher smiling

“Kamala Harris’s election reminds us how important foreign students of color have been to social change, especially when we consider the contributions of those who settled here. Her mother, Shyamala Ghopalan, was a graduate student from India. Arriving in 1959, her choice of graduate program indicates UC’s growing international importance. As The New York Times profile of the vice president-elect’s parents shows, both her mother and her father, Donald Harris from Jamaica, helped introduce anti-imperialist ideas on campus and provided an international perspective from which to view American racial discrimination. Both helped to spark civil rights activism among Berkeley students. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of women’s admission to Berkeley, we are especially proud to honor Shyamala Ghopalan as an alumna and to claim the first woman vice president of the United States as truly a child of UC Berkeley.”

Clothilde Hewlett, executive director of the California Alumni Association

Cloey Hewlett smiling

“When Kamala ran for San Francisco district attorney, I hosted one of her first political fundraisers in my living room. She was part of our tight-knit group of Black women lawyers. Many of the women who were part of our group are now either judges or in other prominent positions. At that time, we were all family. We have all kept in touch throughout the years, and to see Kamala’s rise in politics is like seeing our own sister succeed. Black women lawyers in our community have gone through so much suffering, having been discriminated against, both overtly and covertly, as a result of our gender and race. We were often not taken seriously by our colleagues and experienced many challenges along the way because of that. Many of us have experienced great suffering and were broken along the way. When you look at the number of Black women lawyers of our generation, there are very, very few. Kamala represents hope and victory to all of us. We really identify with the path she has taken to get to where she is now. And what we really love about her is she has stayed optimistic and kept her sense of humor through it all. She is a pioneer that never gave up, who persevered and in the end was victorious. She is our very own sister whose victory is a victory for everything that we, and the Black women who came before us, represent.”

Thomas Orloff, ’69 Berkeley Law alumnus and former Alameda County district attorney

Thomas Orloff, '69 Berkeley Law alum and former Alameda County district attorney“Kamala Harris’s time as an assistant district attorney in Alameda County doesn’t get a lot of attention, but in my opinion, she honed many of her skills here. People talked about what a skillful questioner she is. She really learned the craft here. She was very bright, very personable, quite ambitious and was obviously going somewhere. But who could have predicted this?”

Raka Ray, dean of social sciences

portrait of Raka Ray, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and South Asian studies

“Saturday was a wonderful day for women in the U.S., especially women of color. When Kamala Harris said she would be the first, but not the last, woman to be in the office of vice president, we all heard her with hope and conviction. Harris is intelligent, charismatic and, frankly, hyper-qualified for the position of vice president. But as to the question of her ascension, I would say that her success comes from a combination of race, politics and gender — specifically, her racial ambiguity, her effective yet compromising politics and her ability to appear non-threatening, while being a woman of color — that made her, more so than any other woman in the running, the preferred candidate.”

Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies

portrait of Lawrence Rosenthal

“Kamala Harris is going to be the enduring lightning rod of the American far right for the next four years. The animating emotion of what today has become the Trumpian populist right is culturally based resentment, as opposed to economically based resentment. Among worldwide illiberal movements, it is often called ‘cultural Marxism’ or here in America, ‘political correctness.’ From the right populist point of view, liberal elites are know-it-alls, willing to go to any lengths to impose their way of life (wearing masks!) and their ideology. In the USA, resentment of political correctness stands on two pillars: multiculturalism and feminism. This makes Kamala Harris the twofer incarnation of fears that have hardened into identities, where being white and/or being male is perceived as being society’s new and most egregious victims. These are angry, ferocious fears, the acid anger at feeling that something, yours, a privileged patrimony, is being wrested away. This will make Harris a focus of imagined conspiracies and made-up facts — an industry is well underway in rejecting the Biden-Harris election. The populist narrative, already alive, is that Biden is a cipher and, in a Manchurian Candidate-like fashion, Harris — that monster, that communist, in Donald Trump’s words — will be running the show. The liberal world’s celebration of Kamala Harris’s multiple breakthroughs will be mirrored on the right by a widespread — 70 million Trump votes! — and relentless narrative of her as the point person for stealing away that America that instead was supposed to be on its way to being ‘great again.’”

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics

“The election of Kamala Harris is a victory in which all of us should take pride, not only because Harris is a woman of color and the child of immigrants, nullifying the nastiness we have endured for four years, but also because the election of such a person, one who also happens to be greatly gifted in so many ways, is particularly gratifying after four years of government by a sub-mediocrity. I realize that graciousness is admirable in victory. But because of the president’s vile values, and because he seems unable to cough out even a simulacrum of the normal concession, the rules can be suspended, and someone on the victorious side can properly express an ungracious thought: While I am sure Trump would not be happy with any defeat — any defeat makes him a LOSER — to lose to a candidate who is female, Black, Indian and the child of immigrants has to make him deeply, deeply unhappy. That thought makes me extremely happy.”