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VP Elect Harris will have power. Where do we go from here?

By January 18, 2021January 9th, 2023No Comments

“Black folk have come to understand, thanks to President Obama, that even sitting at the highest levels of power in the United States doesn’t translate into relief for us. There is only so much you can do. And that assumes you want to do it.”

I said that to a colleague recently. She responded with incredulity, “Did all Black folk learn that?”

Well, probably not. Having a Black and Indian woman occupy the vice presidency of the United States of America is an achievement people, women especially, of color can celebrate. Her ability to fundamentally change how the nation operates in relationship to women and people of color is limited. And some of the many troubling choices she has made as a part of the nation’s criminal injustice enterprise continue to do harm. Regardless, we should not underestimate the value of her standpoint.

Her walk through life as a Black and Indian person has shaped how she sees the world. We can tell by how she shows up that she is proud of her identities and feels a kinship with those like her. These truths will matter as she sits in rooms debating national and international policy.

Representation is insufficient, but it matters when those representatives value their identities and reject notions of exceptionalism. It matters when those representatives see the structures at work clearly and acknowledge the many privileges and compromises that allowed them access to power.

Vice President Elect Harris has a history that makes many Black people nervous. She has not always used her power in a way that reflects the kind of self-awareness many of us would like to see. But she is stepping into a new and more powerful crucible. We cannot predict what it will reveal. We can hope that she loves us.

VP Elect Kamala Harris hugging a child and smiling broadly.
Taken from the Vice President Elect website.

My first offering to Sister Harris on Martin Luther King Day 2021 is this:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Where do we go from here?, delivered at the the Southern Christian Leadership Council annual meeting (1967).

These words offer a message for all who aspire to power. A common challenge is how we minimize the idea of love. Again, Dr. King:

In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Loving Your Enemies, Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (1957).
A smiling portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo by Herman Hiller/New York World Telegram & Sun

My second offering to Sister Harris is my hope that she can see herself in all who are suffering under the weight of unjust systems and love them enough to stay laser focused on defeating those systems. I also hope she can love those who seek to diminish and destroy her enough to see their humanity and not be caught up in their machinations.

This kind of love feels impossible to me, and I often resist it, but it is our capacity to see the full humanity in everyone that allows us to pave a pathway to a more just society. When we can hold both our standpoint—our lived experience—and that of those who seek to do us harm at the same time, we can honor their humanity and look past their behaviors to the system that created and supports the harm. Justice requires that we hold them accountable for their behaviors, but individual accountability is insufficient for dismantling systems.

My final offering to Sister Harris is my hope that she doesn’t carry the weight of all our collective woes on her shoulders. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings once said in a graduate seminar that we are participating in the creation of a great masterpiece. Our role is to make the most stunning stroke within our power.

Madame Vice President Elect, I choose to believe that you will step into your role with all that you have lived and learned, that you will honor your ancestors and the struggles that opened your doors, and that you will wield the power you have with love and for justice.