To understand the significance of the nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate in this year’s US presidential election, you need to watch Hidden Figures.
The 2016 movie is adapted from young African American author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. It tells the true story of three black women as they struggled to prove themselves while working for Nasa in the early 1950s.
The three women, brilliant mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, were part of Nasa’s team of human ‘computers’ — smart people who were able to calculate complex equations before the time of machine computers. The three women helped American astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong to travel to space and return safely.
These three women suffered a double layer of discrimination on the job: sexism and racism. As a woman and black in 1950s America meant having to put up with all sorts of humiliation. They didn’t exist. They were invisible. For them and their families, it was a daily uphill battle. The three women however were smart, relentless and ambitious. They fought back and were later recognised for their pioneering roles in creating equal opportunities not only for blacks in the US but also for women from all races.
The long walk to racial equality
One of the stunning parts in the film is when Johnson — played by actress Taraji Henson — who worked in the main Nasa building wanted on her first day to relieve herself. But there was no bathroom for ‘coloured people’ in the building. The signs of the bathroom were clear — for whites only. So, she had to run to the West Section of the compound, reserved for the black staff, which is some 800 metres away. Imagine every time you want to wash your hands you have to walk a kilometre, sometimes in the heavy rain.
It has been a very long walk to some sort of racial equality since then. For the past 70 years, America has come a long way. Things have changed. There is no doubt about that. No more racial signs on the bathrooms for sure. But as the recent George Floyd killing and the protests that followed his death showed, there still more yards to walk.
Even Martin Luther King Jr., who devoted his life to the fight for economic justice and racial equality, wouldn’t have dreamed of such a day when an African American woman is able to secure a nomination for the vice-president post.
That is exactly why the nomination of Kamala Harris was widely celebrated and hailed as a milestone in the US history. By picking her as his running mate in the race for the White House, Biden seems to be aiming for the black and liberal votes that have many reasons to shun President Donald Trump, especially for his attitude towards the race issue, which was clearly outdated as he showed during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Kamala Harris certainly is an accomplished woman herself. A competent senator from California, where she worked as attorney general before her election to the Senate. She rose through the bureaucratic and political ranks on the strength of her skills and determination. If Biden wins, Harris will naturally have a realistic shot at the presidency in four years, or even perhaps sooner.
I recently watched some clips of her from the Democratic primaries’ debates. She is a tough talking politician, a fighter who challenged Biden on several issues during those debates. She was confident and seems to know what she was talking about. At 55, Harris also appeals to those who prefer younger and vibrant leaders. Biden is 77 and Trump 74. Both are old and tired. She meanwhile is someone who can bring vigour and energy to the White House.
But I am not quite sure Joe Biden chose her for being that, for being Kamala Harris, rather for what she represents.
The Biden strategy
For Biden, I think, she represents an opportunity to seize on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter. She could very well be his nuclear weapon in the November war. He smelled blood, saw a weakness in his rival on the issue of race and went for the kill.
He wants to look the exact opposite of Donald Trump: Biden the liberal, the inclusive, the believer in America of the future — a multicultural, tolerant and equal opportunity America. Kamala Harris, for him, is the silver bullet.
In other words, Biden has chosen a symbol; a person that represents George Floyd and the thousands of black victims of the system before him. A symbol that represents the sacrifices of millions of African Americans in the past 300 years to be treated as equals in their country, to be seen and recognised beyond the colour of their skin. This is the Biden strategy in this campaign.
That doesn’t in anyway undermine the significance of nomination of Kamala Harris. It is indeed a barrier-breaking moment for not just black America but for all of America. Even Martin Luther King Jr., who devoted his life for the fight for economic justice and racial equality, wouldn’t have dreamed of such a day when an African American woman is able to secure a nomination for the vice-president post.
In Hidden Figures, a black woman was denied the chance to apply for a minor supervising job, to supervise other black women in her team. Today, a black woman has been asked to join the race for the Oval Office.
In the 1950s, pioneering mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson helped America win the race, against the Soviet Union, for space supremacy. Will Kamala Harris help Biden win the race for the presidency? On November 3, we shall see.