This is the first time a new US administration will be sworn in during a pandemic. The week-long procession of balls, dinners, concerts, and sheer jubilation has been waived under the threat of the virus. Just 2,000 people will be present for the inauguration, a far cry from the 1.8 million who attended Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and even the 1 million who attended his second in 2013. Congressional leadership, the Biden and Harris families, and other dignitaries will be in attendance, but they’ll be socially distanced on the risers — and masks will be a necessary feature.
Then add to those precautions the ones taken since a mob overran the US Capitol on January 6: an urgent “stay home” order from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser; an estimated 25,000 members of the National Guard on site, far outnumbering inauguration attendees; the National Mall remaining closed until January 21; Airbnb canceling all reservations in the District; local hotels housing active-duty military. The inauguration will look like no other in history.
But make no mistake: The significance of the moment can’t be erased. Harris is America’s first woman vice president. The first vice president of Jamaican descent. The first vice president of Indian descent. Harris will bring her experiences as a Black and South Asian American woman to the vice presidency. She’s bringing Howard University and the Alpha Kappa Alphas with her; she’s bringing her large blended family, along with the wisdom imparted to her by her late immigrant mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and late grandfather P.V. Gopalan. Inside the office of the vice president will be Orange Hill, Jamaica; Chennai, India; and Berkeley, California. America will have its first second gentleman: Doug Emhoff, the son of two Jewish parents from Brooklyn.
This is a major moment for America, its opportunity to finally confirm that women, particularly women of color, have helped cultivate the best version of America. This is America’s chance to honor and reward their image, their nonstop toil for opportunity. This is America’s moment to write a chapter that celebrates the diversity that makes it strong.
Kamala Harris’s swearing-in cannot be overshadowed by hate
Harris has a big opportunity to help America confront some of its biggest ills. Her multiracial identity will hopefully force America to, if not confront the racism that’s at the foundation of its division, then at least stretch the public’s understanding of race. Her identity as a woman will unlock possibilities for other women across the country and help young minds imagine new dreams.
Harris’s swearing-in will redefine the power of representation, a power that she acknowledged last summer. At the Black Girls Lead Conference in August, she told the attendees, “There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”
Harris’s swearing-in makes representation in America’s second-highest office visible, tangible, and so much more real.
“We have never had a vice president who was not a white man. By her very presence, Harris will shift the paradigm,” Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to increasing the political power of Black women, and visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Vox. “Biden has stated that he is looking for a real partner in governing. As that governing partner, Harris will draw on her full life experience as a Black woman in America and a law enforcement officer, a prosecutor, a diplomat, a legislator, to inform the decision-making process of the administration. This is a unique opportunity to uplift and draw focus to underrepresented, underresourced, and marginalized sectors of our society to create systemic change.”
Howard University political science professor Niambi Carter agrees that Harris will likely be “more public-facing” than past vice presidents, since both the pandemic and the calls for racial justice have created a new sense of urgency. Harris has “a real opportunity to not only lay the groundwork for bold policymaking in this administration but maybe also in her own administration if she chooses to run. This is a moment where bold leadership will be needed,” Carter told Vox.
America has only had a few examples of Black women in such high positions — there’s never been a Black female governor, and only two Black women have held office in the US Senate, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Harris. Harris made her commitment to improving communities of color clear while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. She advanced a Medicare-for-all plan and plans to help Black mothers, DREAMers, and Black people held back by the homeownership gap. But during a time when activists are calling for prison abolition and the abolishment of the police, many progressives also feel that because of her record as a prosecutor, she has a long way to go on criminal justice reform. It will be up to her to meet that challenge.
Harris is also taking office two weeks after insurrectionists violently scaled the Capitol scaffolding set up for the inauguration, casually replaced American flags with Confederate ones, and forcefully denied the outcome of the presidential election. White supremacy will likely never disappear, but her presence is a marker of defiance, a sign that there’s always been a steady resistance. The new vice president can spearhead the effort to pass anti-racist policies that can help reverse inequality in America.
A depopulated inauguration, surrounded by an armed camp, may be an ominous start to Harris’s vice presidency. Mothers who planned to accompany their daughters to the historic swearing-in will have to stay home. The National Mall, typically the site of smiling faces anticipating the inaugural parade, is instead decorated with flags that represent the millions of people who will be absent. The West side of the Capitol, which has been the site of the swearing-in for 40 years, is one of the few constants this year.
The pandemic has taught America that it can still stay connected — virtually. Years from now, we’ll remember watching, from afar, Howard University’s famed Showtime Marching Band escort Vice President Harris during the inaugural parade. We’ll remember seeing, through our screens, the first Latinx Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, swear in the first Black and South Asian American vice president with a Bible that belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice.
Harris is aware that any joy over the new administration is flanked by anxiety ahead of the inauguration — and she doesn’t want that to ruin the moment.
She addressed the country in a video statement on Monday, saying, “I know this Inauguration Day may look a little different from years past — a lot different. Let’s take a moment to celebrate, and then let’s get to work building the America we know is possible.”
She also noted the hard work ahead for the nation. “Our country is on a path to heal and to rebuild. Of course, that doesn’t mean the road ahead is going to be easy. Our nation continues to face challenges from the coronavirus pandemic to this economic recession, from our climate crisis to a long-overdue reckoning with racial injustice, to healing and strengthening the democracy that we all cherish.”
The pandemic, the Capitol riot, and racial justice are issues she is so far not running away from. She also can’t run away from the communities in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona that ushered in a Biden-Harris victory. The swearing-in of Kamala Harris remains historic, despite the smoke of white supremacy that wishes to blur the country’s groundbreaking win.