When she was sworn in the first time as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in 2007, Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) famously said, “We have made history; now let us make progress.” The nomination of Senator Kamala Harris for vice president of the United States is another landmark moment in women’s history as well as Black history; but as Speaker Pelosi said so well, making history is only the start, the real goal must be to make progress — and we need progress to happen faster and more pervasively than ever.
Making history is very hard, but making progress is even harder for women and especially for Black Americans. 100 years ago this month, women finally achieved the right to vote in the United States with the certification of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920. The United States was already 131 years old when the country finally recognized women as legitimate citizens. But 100 years later, Harris’s nomination is only the 4th time in history that a woman has made it onto a national party ticket in the presidential race. No woman has yet been elected president or vice president; Speaker Pelosi continues to hold the distinction of being the highest elected woman ever in this nation.
Racial progress is equally slow. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1870, prohibited federal and state governments from denying the right to vote on the basis of race or color, but did not address gender. Even with the 15th Amendment, states and local jurisdictions often created artificial barriers intending to stop African Americans from voting, a situation that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was supposed to correct, but the Supreme Court gutted that law in 2013 (Shelby County v. Holder). The late Congressman John Lewis devoted his final days to restoration of voting rights and the House renamed the restoration bill the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But the U.S. Senate refuses to act on the legislation, and meanwhile, in voting districts around the country, various forms of voter suppression continue to threaten the ability of Black Americans to cast their ballots, or to have the ballots they do cast be counted fairly. The current president of the United States encourages voter suppression with his rhetorical assaults on mail-in votes and shameful lies about voting fraud, claims that are not substantiated by evidence.
In 2008, the United States appeared to make huge progress on racial justice when the people elected President Barack Obama by a substantial margin. Nearly two million people gathered on the national Mall on January 20, 2009 to witness President Obama’s swearing-in (I was there, it was stunning to see the crowd fill the Mall from the US Capital to the Washington Monument). Breathless talk of a “post-racial society” filled the airwaves. But eight years later, that high-flying balloon so full of hope exploded, its remnants crashing to earth in a terrible thud as the first woman ever to gain a presidential nomination won the popular vote but lost the presidential election on Electoral College votes.
Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump was not only a loss for women’s progress in national leadership, in so many ways that we have witnessed in the succeeding four years, it was also a stunning retreat from racial progress. Trump’s election sparked an explosion of noxious gases of white supremacy and racial hatred that were building up during the Obama years. History may see this era as a wild pendulum swing, the progress of 2008-2016 tempered by the rollback on justice during 2016-2020. In so many ways, the presidential election of 2020 will tell us more about whether the current agony of this nation is an aberration that we can move past, or a permanent condition that is likely to worsen. If the latter, then the fear is that the sickness will be terminal for democracy as we have known it.
Kamala Harris steps into the ring as Joe Biden’s running mate at this challenging, fraught, heady moment in American history. We are afflicted by a terrible disease that has disrupted every facet of life on the globe, that begs for leadership that has so far been absent. We are embroiled in a climate of naked white supremacy and racial hatred that demands audacious and courageous responses affirming racial justice for all persons. We are living through a time when any person with an internet connection can spew the most vile, hateful lies across social media and some significant group is likely to believe them and amplify them. We have witnessed a president who leads that vicious parade on Twitter each day. Truth, itself, is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy as bots and trolls invent reality in cyberspace.
God help those who want to step up to the challenge to fix this mess. They will need heroic measures of courage and wisdom and fortitude to move ahead each day. And may all of us with the power to vote use it well; may we have the grace to know that making history will not matter if we don’t make progress faster.