Thistlethwaite: Kamala Harris is a generational choice
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s choice of Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate is historic in many ways. But this history may end up being less important than the generational change she represents.
The historic significance of this choice cannot be denied, however. She is the first woman of color on a major political party ticket for vice president.
But I believe the future she represents is also highly significant. This country will grow stronger and stronger as it becomes more and more diverse, and Kamala Harris is that future. Indeed, that future is already upon us.
Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California, on October 20, 1964, the eldest of two children born to Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher from India, and Donald Harris, an economist from Jamaica. Her mother chose Kamala’s name as a nod both to her Indian roots — Kamala means “lotus” and is another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi — and the empowerment of women.
She grew up with a strong African American identity. In first grade, Harris, as she so famously told Joe Biden in a presidential debate, was bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School, which was in its second year of integration.
Harris went to both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple — embracing both her South Asian and Black identities.
Instead of focusing on her heritage, however, Harris decided “I am who I am. I’m good with it.” She calls herself simply “an American.”
The identity of “American” is decidedly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse as the demographic data shows.
I was reminded of this trajectory in some video conversations with my oldest grandchild who is 14. I have been doing some fiction writing with this grandchild over the summer. The story we have been working on is science fiction, 50 years in the future.
We were doing character development and I asked about the main character. “What race do you want to make her?” I said.
The answer came back quickly: “Well, in the future everybody is going to be a mix of races, right?”
There is insight in this science fiction idea. “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S. — young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.”
The future is also dependent upon the past and what made this country strong. The United States is a nation of immigrants, including my own family and the families of my grandchildren. The anti-immigrant nonsense that has characterized the Trump administration is a complete denial of what actually makes up the dynamism of this nation.
This country would never have achieved the wealth and power it has accumulated without the contributions of African Americans. From the horrors of the unpaid labor wrung from enslaved Africans to the strength and perseverance of the diverse African American community right up until the present, this country would be much poorer in material, intellectual and spiritual matters.
History, philosophy, the arts, sports, religion, politics, the military, foreign policy, economics and much more owe a tremendous debt to the “unusual will and determination in the face of great danger and against the most stubborn odds” of African Americans as Molefe Kete Asante writes in “100 Greatest African Americans”.
There is more of the America of the future on this ticket. Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris also have strong records of supporting LGBTQ rights. “It’s clear the Biden-Harris ticket marks our nation’s most pro-equality ticket in history,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group said in a statement.
Diversities of gender and sexual orientation are increasingly a big part of this country’s future as the majority of Americans support LGBTQ rights and protections.
I do want to conclude, however, with the striking religious diversity this Democratic presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris represents. Vice President Biden is devoutly Catholic and would be only the second Catholic president in American history if elected. Sen. Harris is Baptist and Hindu in her religious affiliations. She is also married to a Jewish lawyer, Douglas Emhoff.
In my “Religion in America” classes that I have taught for many years, I have students write their family religious histories and read them aloud to each other. Students in the classes are normally astonished at the range of religious diversity in each family. “I thought it was only my family” is a constant comment.
It’s not just religion, however. It turns out many American families are lots of everything.
And that, my friends, is as American as it gets.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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