Witnessing and documenting a historic American vice presidency

Wendy Smooth’s heart was warmed when her 7-year-old daughter watched the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States and came away with the idea that she could become a fashion designer – and run for president, too.

Smooth, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University, sees the power of Harris’ rise to the vice presidency not just through a mother’s lens, but as a scholar who has studied race, gender and American politics for some 20 years.

For the duration of Harris’ tenure, Smooth will be watching closely as part of her longtime research program and as one of eight members appointed to the national advisory board of the Kamala Harris Project. The project, based at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Leadership by Women of Color, is a collective of academics who will track all aspects of Harris’ vice presidency.

Major areas of analysis include media coverage of Harris, her policy leadership within the Biden administration, the influence of her electoral success on girls and women as potential candidates for office, and the international impact of a woman of color holding such a high-profile executive position in the United States.

The project is hosting its first public event Friday – a symposium examining Harris’ first 100 days as vice president.

“We’ve galvanized this conversation among academics,” Smooth said, “as a very broad attempt to say, ‘We are living in the midst of history. How do we both bear witness and help others make sense of the historic significance of Vice President Harris’ service?'”

Smooth says women of color, and particularly Black women, have been the cornerstone of the new American electorate since they showed up in 2008 to support Barack Obama, the first president to win office without overwhelming support from white male voters. Smooth observed in a chapter of the recently published book After Obama that despite the dedication of that critical voting bloc, Obama did not acknowledge the particular policy concerns of African American women until September 2015, during an address to the Congressional Black Caucus, which was quite late in his second term of office.

At the 2016 Democratic Convention, Hillary Clinton placed African American women center-stage during prime-time TV coverage, Smooth wrote in a chapter of the book Gender and Elections: African American Women and Electoral Politics, noting that Clinton needed Black women to turn out in support of her as they had done for Obama in 2008.

By the time Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee for president, Black women involved in politics were not waiting for outside recognition. They conveyed their expectations by sending his campaign a letter signed by thousands of scholars, researchers, activists and elected officials calling for the appointment of a running mate that reflected the power of Black women as voters. Smooth was among the signatories of that letter.

“Biden enjoyed the pressures of African American women … who made the sage argument that the most strategic way to excite and elevate, and to respect the role that African American women have been playing in driving the politics of the Democratic party, was to run with an African American woman,” she said. “And it proved fruitful because Kamala Harris delivered. More than 90% of African American women supported the Biden ticket and continue to be some of the most ardent defenders and supporters of the administration.”

Harris’ selection was not simply about identity politics, Smooth noted: She had been heavily vetted during her own presidential run and rounded out the ticket as an extraordinarily prepared running mate with policy expertise and a depth of experience in critical issues affecting the nation – including criminal justice reform and race and policing. And, Smooth said, Harris proved capable of raising money – a key determinant of whether a political candidate is considered viable.

Though it’s too soon to tell whether Harris’ ascendancy has moved women of color to pursue political office in Congress, statehouses and municipalities, Smooth will be watching for that, too – it’s a question she has been pursuing for some time.

She is currently co-leading a project charting the grassroots work of women of color in the United States whose organizations are deepening political engagement by identifying women of color candidates for office and preparing them for a run. Smooth has also proposed a collaboration with Tina Pierce, program manager of the Glenn College of Public Affairs‘ professional development programs, and the Ohio Unity Coalition to connect civically minded Black women in Ohio to opportunities for political training that could lead to public office candidacy.

“I’m also ecstatic for what Madame Vice President means for young girls,” said Smooth, also associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences. “From a research perspective, we know the power of role models – when girls, and especially girls of color, see women of color leading, they’re more likely to say they, too, can be leaders.

“I am very hopeful that Kamala Harris’ service as vice president normalizes the idea that women of color are strong, formidable candidates, that they can raise the money, that they can speak credibly to the issues and they are capable of representing the complexities of the American citizenry.”

Other members of the Kamala Harris Project advisory board are Nadia Brown of Georgetown University, Pearl K. Dowe of Emory University, Brooklyne Gipson of the University of Illinois, Duchess Harris of Macalester College, Angela Lewis Maddox of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, Sangay Mishra of Drew University and Sara Sadhwani of Pomona College. The project’s conveners are University of Southern California professors Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, Jane Junn, Oneka LaBennett and Francille Wilson.

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