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Friday, February 26, 2021

Explained: Why Kamala Harris and ‘firsts’ matter, and where they fall short

People celebrate firsts because they are momentous, and they signal progress and representation for people who have not had power before. But the presence of a first can do only so much.

By: New York Times |
Updated: January 24, 2021 10:45:30 am
Then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Saturday night, Nov. 7, 2020. Harris is the first woman, the first Black American and the first person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president of the United States. It makes a difference when the first member of a group rises to a position of power, political science shows, but it requires “work to sustain it.” (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Claire Cain Miller

Kamala Harris will forever have “first” attached to her name — the first woman, the first Black American and the first person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president of the United States.

If the Biden administration’s choices for Cabinet members and senior officials are approved, many of them will also be firsts — including the first Black, Latino, Native American, female and openly gay and transgender leaders to serve in various positions.

“This Cabinet will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history,” President Joe Biden has said. “We’ll have a Cabinet of barrier breakers, a Cabinet of firsts.”

People celebrate firsts because they are momentous, and they signal progress and representation for people who have not had power before. But the presence of a first can do only so much. True change, political scientists say, comes when the paths to power allow others to follow and reach a critical mass, making the facts of their identities no longer notable in the first place.

“It’s important to recognize it, acknowledge it, celebrate it,” said J. Jarpa Dawuni, a political scientist at Howard University and director of the women and gender studies collective there. “But as much as it’s seen as an individual achievement, it’s also a collective achievement, because there are many other people who have fought and built the foundation that made this possible. And it’s also very important to recognize that these achievements are always achievements that can be taken away if we don’t work to sustain it.”

Harris acknowledged as much in her acceptance speech after the election. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said. She cited “the generations of Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women who throughout our nation’s history paved the way for this moment.”

Political scientists think about how representation matters in three main ways. The first is symbolic: how a person in a position of power influences attitudes, breaking stereotypes or convincing others that they, too, could be in such a role.

Research from around the world has demonstrated a role model effect. Seeing someone like yourself attain high office can spur you to participate in politics or pursue a leadership position. This effect is most powerful when a leader is the first to hold a position, and it is especially strong for young girls, research shows, though Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, could also become a role model as the first man in such a position, researchers said.

“There’s a lot of empirical evidence that you can’t be what you can’t see,” said Amanda Clayton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. “Citizens get used to seeing women in certain places, and I think once your idea of who can lead changes, there’s more demand for it. My students that grew up in the Obama era can’t imagine two white men on a ticket.”

Political scientists also look at the number of people from various groups who serve in office, a type of representation known as descriptive. Biden seemed to understand that as an older, white, straight man, his administration needed to include people who reflected a broader swath of voters, researchers said.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in the Democratic Party in the last 10 years is this recognition that it has to look like the electorate,” Clayton said. “Choosing a Cabinet that’s gender balanced and that has diversity in other ways — we can celebrate these first historic moments, but this attitude is here to stay.”

The final way political scientists think about representation is substantive: how leaders’ identities shape which issues they pay attention to and how they do their job.

Policymakers bring their own experiences and backgrounds, whether as a woman with children or a Black person who has experienced racism. There is evidence that women tend to govern in a more collaborative and bipartisan way and push for more policies meant to support women, children and social welfare. And research suggests that when policymakers come from different backgrounds, such as when women make up an equal presence of decision-makers, it increases the public’s trust in decisions.

Yet the obligation to represent an entire community — or, in Harris’ case, multiple overlapping communities — can also be an impossible burden. Members of a group never all feel the same way, and any single representative is bound to disappoint some of them. This happened with President Barack Obama and African Americans, Dawuni said, and Harris has come under similar pressure.

“That is why it’s important to have more than one,” she said. “There has to be a certain number of people for change to happen.”

There are other ways that being a first can be a burden, said Carol Moseley Braun, who in 1992 became the first Black woman elected to serve in the Senate. (Harris was the second.)

“When I got to the Senate, I’m telling you, I got my face kicked in,” Moseley Braun said. “There was nobody there who was Black, male or female. My first day, the officer didn’t want to let me in. Someone else had to say, ‘That’s the new senator from Illinois.’

“I hope the sacrifices I went through have made things easier for her,” she said of Harris. “We’ll know she’s arrived, we’ll all have arrived, when it will be so unremarkable, they treat her like Mike Pence.”

The focus on someone’s identity can also overshadow the qualifications that earned the job in the first place.

“There were other things about who I was, what I cared about, how I’d done leadership roles that were much more significant in reality than that I was a woman,” said Barbara Roberts, who in 1990 was elected the first female governor of Oregon. “But when I was running for governor, I had a lot of women in my state who that was the only thing they cared about. We want to recognize the first, but we don’t think that’s all they have to offer.”

These challenges tend to ease with each consecutive person who fills the role, say researchers and leaders who have been in these positions. People get used to seeing different kinds of leaders on stage, and it becomes less remarkable — like when six women ran in the Democratic primary after Hillary Clinton’s run.

“In having this pretty bruising campaign, I think she did forge a path for other women,” said Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote “Rodham,” a novel about Clinton. “There was so much conversation about her gender and firsts, and then all of a sudden there were multiple women onstage at the debate, and it seemed normal.”

Researchers say familiarity, though, is not enough. It still requires work to change institutions and paths to power so that more people from underrepresented groups can follow. Sometimes it happens through big actions, like lawsuits demanding equal treatment. Other times it is smaller, daily actions that together make a more equitable environment, such as mentoring or simply ensuring that an institution has accessible spaces, like women’s bathrooms.

“This sense of one and done — we showed we can do it — doesn’t presume a leader who is committed to advancing other women or people of color,” said Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. “A first changes a lot, but to make a real difference you have to change structures at all sorts of levels.”

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