Everyone can finally stop speculating. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has finally made his big decision: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is his pick for vice president. Harris will be the first Black woman and first Asian American to run for vice president, representing a historic choice.
While the vice presidential decision always generates buzz, this year the choice feels particularly consequential. Biden, who is 77, has publicly said he will not run for a second term, which means Harris is better positioned for the presidency than any other woman of color in United States history.
Not everyone is thrilled with the choice. Harris’s own presidential campaign was not a rousing success. While many had high hopes for her 2020 run, the senator dropped out before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the presidential campaign season. Her message failed to resonate particularly with Black voters, said Nadia Brown, a professor at Purdue University who studies Black women in politics. Before she dropped out, she consistently polled third or fourth among Black voters, behind Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and sometimes Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“There is that enthusiasm gap,” said Brown.
As protests continue across the country, more than two months after the death of George Floyd, it was clear that Biden had to choose a Black woman, said Brown. But from a slate of excellent contenders, Brown says, he went for the “safest” choice: a moderate who aligns with him politically and is seen as widely palatable — but who has failed to really excite much of the Black community. I spoke with Brown about what that means for Biden’s campaign.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: How are you feeling about Biden’s pick for vice president?
Nadia Brown: She has all the qualifications. Is she smart? Yes. Is she principled? Yes. If I had no other options, would I be excited to vote for her as VP? Yes.
CK: But you’re not excited.
NB: I’m not. I think Biden is going with what he and other leaders in the party think is the safest choice. They thought, “Any Black woman will do.” But that’s not the case. There were so many other choices.
CK: Do you think Harris will be able to really energize voters, especially Black voters?
NB: I never saw her as someone who is trying to capture the hearts and minds of Black voters. I saw her as, similar to Cory Booker, trying to reach beyond color, to talk about issues that affect all people, but that have disproportionate outcomes on marginalized folks. “I have a dream for all Americans” — that kind of thing.
Some people are saying, Kamala feels like an outsider, talking to voters, particularly Black women voters. It’s like she’s not one of us.
CK: What do you mean by that?
NB: She checks the boxes, right? She is a graduate of Howard University, she’s a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. But similar to Obama, she is something of an interloper on Black culture. Obama readily taught himself: In his biography, he writes that he made a decision, “I want to be part of you.” So he reads books and he listens to music and he plays basketball with the folks on the South Side of Chicago. Kamala doesn’t have that same narrative. She moves to Canada, lives with her Indian mom. Her father is not African American, he’s Jamaican. So she has this different cultural background.
Take my experience. I went to Howard, I belong to a Black sorority. All the things that would make me want to open up my wallet are there, but I’m not giving her one red cent.
CK: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a group of students at an HBCU in South Carolina in October. We watched the debate together — and of all the candidates, she was their least favorite. And when I asked one woman why, she told me about this event where Harris arrived with a marching band from an HBCU. And she said it just felt so fake, like Harris was performing her Blackness for Black voters in the state.
NB: That rings true to me. I have some friends who are now professors at Howard. And they shared offline that they were very disgusted when Kamala came to Howard, because she handled the community like she was an outsider. She took questions that were vetted through her campaign ahead of time. It was very orchestrated.
When Howard welcomed her to campus, the understanding was that people would ask her hard questions, like, we are going to ask these tough questions, which come from a loving place, so you’ll be ready when you leave. Practice on us, we’ll give you feedback, so you’ll be better and stronger when you go out. And she just took soft ball questions, things the campaign wanted to answer.
CK: Why do you think she struggles to connect with Black communities?
NB: There are a lot of cultural things that raise eyebrows within Black communities. The first thing is that she’s married to a White man. Danielle Lemi, [a professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside,] looked at multiracial legislators and interracial marriage. She has seen that this matters to the public. We saw this for Barack Obama, where being married to a descendant of slaves, being married to a woman named Michelle LaVaughn, it gave him street cred for Black folks. People who were like, “I don’t know, your mom was White from Kansas. Your dad is a Kenyan.” But people understood Michelle. She looked like their cousins, their aunts, their sisters. And they thought, if Obama made that choice for his life partner, he must get us. He must understand our experience by being married to a daughter of the Great Migration.
CK: What about Harris’s history as a prosecutor? Has that impacted her popularity among Black voters?
NB: It completely has. She seems very proud of her history on these issues. There is that viral clip of her cackling, talking about locking up the parents of truant children. It seems so tone deaf. You think about single moms doing the best that they can with limited resources to get their children to school. There is a big disconnect with Black communities who understand why a lot of kids are truant. It’s like, how can you not understand that?
CK: Is it particularly risky to pick a prosecutor for a running mate now, as protests continue?
NB: Picking a prosecutor, he really runs the risk of alienating his base.
CK: So why did he do it?
NB: She is a senator, and although they did not serve at the same time, something about her background is familiar. And this is how networks work. Biden looks to his inner circle to say, “Hey, who do you guys like?” The people that Biden trusts are most likely to have worked with her, of all the contenders. Also, because of the pandemic, he didn’t get to sit down with most of the contenders face-to-face. So he is relying on these networks even more.
Let’s be real. This is a problem. There have only been two Black women senators in U.S. history. So it’s a very limited choice.
CK: I’m wondering about the people who will be really, really excited to vote for Harris — the ones who will be knocking on doors with Kamala signs and donating money because she’s on the ticket. Who are those people?
NB: They are my good, White liberal friends. The people who will feel really good about voting for a Black woman. The people who are supportive of Black Lives Matter, who are sending checks, who already have their Biden lawns signs up. They don’t understand how Black people might see [this vice presidential pick] from a different point of view.
CK: Who should Biden have picked?
NB: Well [former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey] Abrams was my personal favorite. She has the grassroot mind-set, door knocking on rural Georgia doors. I was excited about how she built a network of first-time voters, and people who had not voted in several years. That would have been a game changer for this election.
CK: How do you think Harris will shape Biden’s campaign and his policies differently from other women on his shortlist?
NB: I think she will be asked to be this intermediary around Black Lives Matter policy. I think she’ll be asked to move the agenda closer to the center-right in ways that are palatable to voters.
CK: So rather than defund the police, do “X”? That kind of thing?
NB: Exactly. Rather than defund the police, can we add two social workers to every unit? Instead of thinking about ways to curtail the prison population, she might scale back mandatory minimums. It’s not a radical change to the system. It’s incremental. That’s who she is. And I think that’s who Biden is.
CK: Do you think Harris will become the first female president?
NB: I really don’t know. We’ve thought about her for president. But there is that enthusiasm gap. I went to the Iowa caucuses. Harris had dropped out by that point, but there weren’t even signs that said “Harris for Biden” or “Harris for Buttigieg,” the way that there was for other campaigns that had come to an end. There was nothing.
And that says something.