Kamala Harris’s selection as the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential candidate is historic. She is the first woman of color to be nominated for the position. In today’s New York Times, the columnist Frank Bruni captured much of the excitement about Harris claiming, “She represents an America that’s evolving, fitfully, toward equal opportunity and equal justice.” In the same column, Bruni also wrote about Harris’s racial identity and how it contrasted with that of Biden, Trump, and Pence, “Biden is a white guy, like all but four of the major-party presidential or vice-presidential nominees before Harris. She’s not.”
I assume that Bruni’s count of four includes Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Geraldine Ferraro. It is a count that seems to be widely being repeated throughout the news media. It is wrong. There have been at least five major party nominees who were not white men before Harris. Harris is not even the first person of color to be nominated by a major political party as Vice President or hold the position. That distinction belongs to Charles Curtis, the 31st Vice President who served under Herbert Hoover. Curtis was part indigenous, on his mother’s side (Kaw, Osage, and Potawatomi) and grew on Kaw land speaking Kansa and French rather than English. He later went on to represent Kansas in the United States House of Representatives and in the Senate before becoming Senate Majority Leader and ultimately Vice President.*
This does not to erase Harris’s historic nomination. She is certainly the first Black woman and Asian-American to be nominated to the Vice Presidency. It is rather an observation about how, time and time, again, the predominantly White culture of the United States erases people of color and their achievements from history. It is also suggestive of the ways in which progress on race relations, whatever that might mean, is not some linear triumphalist narrative. It has been a constant struggle with many defeats and setbacks and reconsolidations of white supremacist power and institutions along the way. Hopefully, 2020 will prove to shift that pattern and mark the moment when the country’s structures of white supremacy finally begin to get dismantled for good. Whether it is or not, it is important to understand that when the achievements of people of color are erased from history, the logic of white supremacy is once again reasserting itself.
*Curtis’s legislative career is controversial. He was involved in the passage of the 1898 Curtis Act which attempted to abolish the governments and communal landholdings of many indigenous nations. It many instances the Act succeeded in this goal. Curtis introduced the initial version of the Act in hopes of creating legislation that would protect indigenous culture and land. The final Act that was passed bore little resemblance to what he had in mind. He regretted his involvement in the Act that bore his name for the rest of his life.