Black Women Asked Their Party for What They Wanted. What Happens After the Kamala Harris Pick?

Halliestine Zimmerman, a 71-year-old retired accountant in Mauldin, S.C., has voted in every election since she was 18, having watched her mother work to get more African-Americans to vote in the 1940s and ’50s.

“We are just benefiting from that — from our mothers,” she said on Wednesday, the morning after Kamala Harris was chosen as the first woman of color to run on a national presidential ticket. “It is amazing what I have seen in my lifetime.”

For Ms. Zimmerman, there was joy in the moment, in being able to point to Ms. Harris as a role model, one whom her grandchildren could see themselves in. But there was also pain in remembering the past.

Soon after Ms. Zimmerman graduated from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg in 1971, she went to a department store in Columbia, S.C., to shop for a professional wardrobe — she was about to become the first African-American to work at the local I.R.S. outpost. But when Ms. Zimmerman applied for a credit card, the saleswoman apologetically explained, “We just don’t give credit to women.”

“There was a time when nobody thought this was possible,” she said, of Ms. Harris as the vice-presidential pick. “It was time for the Democrats to recognize who brought them to victory and who brings them to victory every time — it is Black women.”

“Finally,” she added, “they are letting us know they hear us.”

That sense of jubilant vindication is just what a group of activists and strategists imagined hearing when they began a campaign that they hoped would make it impossible for Joseph R. Biden Jr. to choose anyone but a Black woman as his running mate.

They weren’t sure it would work, but they knew why they wanted to try.

In March, Mr. Biden pledged to select a woman as his No. 2 on the ticket. In late April, a group of dozens of Black female activists and strategists, including Minyon Moore and Karen Finney, both longtime Clinton strategists, and Leah D. Daughtry, a minister and Democratic operative, made a pact: They would demand — publicly, without ambiguity or apologetics — that Mr. Biden choose a Black woman.

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As longtime leaders in the Democratic Party, they said they often felt overlooked and taken for granted. In the century since the fight for suffrage won the ratification of the 19th Amendment, they said, the “women’s vote” had often seemed to function as a coded shorthand for the “white women’s vote.”

Aimee Allison, the director of She the People, which advocates women of color becoming involved in politics, remembered feeling angry in 2016 as she watched Hillary Clinton embrace the all-white clothing of suffragists. How, she wondered, could the first female U.S. presidential nominee not be aware of the fact that those suffragists had pushed Black women aside?

For Barbara Lee, the congresswoman from Oakland, Calif., who was a chair for Ms. Harris’s presidential campaign, frustrations over the years came from hearing conversations about equal pay that did not acknowledge that Black and Latina women earned significantly less than white women. “There has been a quantum leap this year,” Ms. Lee said in an interview. “Now we see the many reasons for the respect and importance of African-American women leading.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden made reference to some of those reasons.

“This morning all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities,” he said, in his first public appearance as running mates with Ms. Harris. “But today — just maybe — they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.”

The selection of Ms. Harris represents at least a handful of firsts on a national presidential ticket: the first Black woman, the first Indian-American woman, the first daughter of immigrants, the first graduate of a historically Black college, the first member of an African-American sorority.

Those firsts — wonder at the sheer fact of them — came up repeatedly in the reactions of women like Debi Wood, a retired lawyer and a graduate of the law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Ms. Harris’s alma mater.

“We were always taught that we are change agents and we must go out into the world,” Ms. Wood said. “Take our education from Howard and do something to change the United States and change how society views and treats and embraces the Black community but really people of color in general.”

ImageSupporters gathered outside the venue where the running mates made their first appearance together on Wednesday.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

India Bland, 20, from Los Angeles, will cast her first vote in a presidential election this fall, and she is glad she has the choice to vote for a first. “I would presume that a lot of young, African-American voters like myself want to see someone who looks like them in these areas of power,” she said. Though, she added, “Our support just can’t be, ‘It’s great that she’s the first.’”

Representation isn’t straightforward of course, and no group is a monolith. Some women, like Rhonda Y. Gans, a physician in Chicago, sees Ms. Harris as the “Wonder Woman of the people,” and other Black women voters are approaching the choice with caution. Polls have shown that Black voters themselves were not tied to the idea of Mr. Biden choosing a Black running mate. Younger Black voters say they are more concerned about some of the policies that Ms. Harris supports.

Vanessa Payne, 19, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said she was “disappointed at first,” that Mr. Biden did not choose a more liberal running mate. “But then I realized that some progress is better than no progress,” Ms. Payne said. “All I can do is support her now and hope that whatever she decides to do is for the best.”

The Black women with decades of experience in politics who pushed for this moment know that this milestone for a woman of color in politics is complex.

Even before Ms. Harris’s selection, the same activists who organized the push were readying themselves for the particular brand of racist and sexist attacks likely to be aimed at a Black woman on the presidential ticket.

And within hours of the announcement, they saw examples of what they had been worried about. The Wikipedia page for Ms. Harris was edited to change her name with an offensive reference to female anatomy. From the White House, President Trump repeatedly called her “nasty” and “disrespectful.”

“It is going to be a long road to the White House,” said Moya Bailey, a professor in the department of cultures, societies and global studies at Northeastern University in Boston and who coined the term misogynoir, referring to the way Black women experience both sexism and racism. “I do think that the way our country has shown its disregard for Black women will definitely come up in the weeks and months ahead.”

In March, Mr. Biden said he would pick a woman and in August he put Ms. Harris on the ticket, unleashing moments of both real celebration and real concern for the group of activists who worked for this milestone.

Donna Brazile wasn’t initially sure she wanted to be part of the group to publicly push Mr. Biden to reach this moment.

When Ms. Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, was asked to sign the letter, she initially hesitated. Would it box Mr. Biden in? What if their demand was rejected?

“I went to bed — I prayed on it,” she said. “I don’t know if it was Shirley Chisholm in my dreams, but I woke up thinking: Oh, hell yeah, put my name on the list.”

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