After outlining the atrocities of the Tulsa race massacre in a speech marking its centennial on Tuesday, President Joe Biden deputized Vice President Kamala Harris to lead Democrats’ fight for voting rights, linking it to the country’s broader need to address the legacy of systemic racial inequality.
Harris, who the president had already charged with addressing migration from Central America, now adds to her portfolio another of the most intractable and politically divisive priorities facing the new administration.
“To signify the importance of our efforts, today I’m asking Vice President Harris to help these efforts, to lead them, among her many other responsibilities,” Biden told the audience.
Harris is among the several Black women in Biden’s Cabinet who are tackling some of the most difficult and longstanding challenges in the country. Their roles are an acknowledgment of the leadership of Black women who have always been on the front lines, but who have not always been visible, said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.
“This is what we talked about and fought for in our conversations during the election about the power of this moment for Black women,” Finney said. “This is what happens when Black women are at key decision-making tables: We’re seen. We’re heard.”
The vice president was not in Tulsa, but said in a statement after the speech: “In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift the efforts on voting nationwide,” adding that she will work with Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, which would make voter registration automatic and same-day, expand early voting and mail-in voting, limit voter roll purges and establish independent redistricting commissions.
LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Tuesday that Harris’ office has already reached out to her to begin partnering on expanding voter participation. Brown added that Biden tapping Harris shows that he is prioritizing voting rights legislation, that he believes in her leadership and that he recognizes it will take public pressure to pass either bill.
“This is exactly what we need at this critical moment, both an inside and an outside strategy,” Brown said. “That there is going to be an effort led by the White House, that voters will be a part of the process, that Kamala Harris would reach out to voting rights advocates and groups, is a great sign. I think this is the issue that is going to set the tone for the administration. I trust her leadership … This gives me hope.”
According to exit polls, 90 percent of Black women voted for Biden and Harris in 2020 — more than any other group. Black women were among the most visible and hardest-working members of the party, organizing and galvanizing Black voters against the headwinds of voter suppression and a pandemic that disproportionately impacted their communities.
When Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, heard Biden hand Harris her marching orders during the speech, her initial reaction was, “Well, that makes sense.”
“Passing this legislation requires the highest levels of the executive branch of our government to be deeply engaged,” said
Shropshire, whose organization focuses on Black voter turnout and electing Black lawmakers. “It’s really important that they lean into this fight and not abdicate responsibility to the Senate to get this passed.”
Both pieces of legislation face long odds in the deeply partisan Senate. And across the country, GOP-controlled legislatures have passed or are attempting to pass laws that will likely make it harder for marginalized Americans — including people of color — to vote.
Given the pitfalls and the potential ahead, Harris could find herself in a Catch-22, Shropshire worries. Still, she said having Harris at the table matters.
“I want a Black woman negotiating over what the most important pieces of this bill are, not someone who is removed from the history of the ways in which Black people are intentionally and constantly blocked from our full citizenship,” Shropshire said.
Biden was joined in Tulsa by Director of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice, whose role includes working to achieve racial equity across all federal agencies, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, whose agenda expanded Tuesday to include addressing discrimination in housing appraisals. Additionally, the agency is expected to implement rules to reverse policies from the previous administration now considered discriminatory.
The administration has tapped other Black women to lead in roles where institutional racism has long existed. Among them are Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, who will administer Medicare and Medicaid, and Cecilia Rouse, who in her role as head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers has said she plans to confront racial and gender inequality in the economy.
Black women’s leadership combines their lived experience with resumes that reflect their competence and expertise, which gives them a unique approach to problem solving, said Leah Daughtry, a Democratic strategist.
“We know how to get stuff done, we know how to work hard, we know how to put together winning coalitions, how to get to the heart of a matter,” Daughtry explained. “They know the issues because they face them every day and dealt with them before they were elected officials. We’ve demonstrated this over and over in this country: When you have a tough job, you give it to a Black woman.”
During the election, #trustblackwomen and #winwithblackwomen regularly trended as social media hashtags.
The Biden-Harris era could be a test of whether and how last year’s rallying cries translate into action and policy.
“When you’re a Black woman and you have this kind of responsibility, the stakes are always high,” Daughtry said. “We carry the weight of history, of our ancestors and our future on our shoulders, and we are critically aware that we have to succeed because if we don’t, there may not be another.”