In this Episode:
On Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States. Vice President-Elect Kamala Devi Harris made history becoming the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian person to ever hold the office. This news resulted in widespread celebrations throughout the country and all across the world. Additionally, a significant number of down-ballot victories also mark historic milestones in U.S. politics—including countless firsts for people of color, LGBTQ+ candidates and women.
But while there is cause for celebration, there is more work to be done and more questions to be asked. Was the election free and fair across the nation? What did we learn from this election? Where and how did democracy flourish? What does the 2020 election mean for our democracy, our courts, and our state and federal agencies?
Have something to share? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “‘Madam Vice President’: Kamala Harris Makes History,” Dr. Amisha Wallia, Deborah D. Douglas, and Dr. Aderonke Pederson, Ms. magazine, November 6, 2020.
- WATCH: Vanita Gupta speaking before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties about Voting Discrimination, CSPAN, September 10, 2019.
- “Will Trump-Appointed Justices Strike Down the Affordable Care Act?” Maya Manian, Ms. magazine, November 11, 2020.
- “How Leading Civil-Rights Attorney Vanita Gupta Gets It Done,” Amanda Arnold, The Cut, November 2, 2020.
Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we pivot to the future. On today’s show, we focus on the question, did we have a fair election, our post-election analysis.
On Saturday, November 7, 2020, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States. Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris made history, becoming the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian-American person to ever hold the office. This news resulted in widespread celebrations throughout the country, and indeed, all over the world, reaching to Paris, France, Berlin, Germany, and London, England. There were even celebrations in India and Jamaica, the homelands of Harris’s parents, and also in Ireland, too.
While this is a cause for celebration, there is more work to be done, and more questions to be asked. Was the election free and fair across the nation? What did we learn from this election, and where and how did democracy flourish? What does the 2020 election mean for our democracy, our courts, and our state and federal agencies? Helping us to sort out these questions, and how we should think about these issues and more is a very special guest.
I am delighted to be joined by Vanita Gupta. She is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She is an experienced leader and litigator, who has devoted her career to civil rights work and equality. She served as acting assistant attorney general, and head of the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 2014 to 2017. Under her leadership, the division engaged in critical work in a number of areas, including advancing constitutional policy and criminal justice reform, prosecuting hate crimes and human trafficking, promoting disability rights, protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals, ensuring voting rights for all, and combating discrimination in education, housing, employment, lending, and religious exercise. I’m also delighted that she is an alumni of the American Civil Liberties Union. I couldn’t be happier than to have Vanita Gupta join us today for “On the Issues.”
Vanita, I’m so delighted that you’re here with us today. I’ve been looking forward to this show for a long time. So, I want to start us off with a more general question, which is, what were your initial thoughts when it was first announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election?
I was elated that, in an election that had record-high voter turnout in this country across the board, that the voters decided the outcome of this election, and that you had somebody who was the child of immigrants becoming the nation’s first woman, first woman of color, first Black, first South Asian vice president, which was a perfect kind of legacy or move after four years of Donald Trump, and that Biden had been elected with such overwhelming support from around the country, and that the election could be called after this record-high voter turnout.
Let’s bring a little bit of that celebration into this program. So, I want to play a couple of clips. The first is Kamala Harris contacting Joe Biden on their win, and then it’s followed by the street music of car horns as people were celebrating in Los Angeles. Let’s take a listen.
Kamala Harris on recording:
We did it, we did it, Joe. You’re going to be the next president of the United States.
Crowd noise on recording:
So, Vanita, that was the sound of uproarious joy, of people breaking out in dance and song, in their cars honking in Los Angeles, but those were the sounds that were heard across the country, in Philadelphia, in Detroit, in Miami, and other parts of the country. There were people who were celebrating Joe Biden’s victory, but also in the wake of that, there’s been the circulation of misinformation, of flat-out lies, that President Trump has won the election.
He himself has said that he is the decided victor in this election, even though there are more than five million votes that separate President Trump and Joe Biden, with Joe Biden being in the lead. So, I want to hear your thoughts about whether we had a free and fair election.
So, I think we are at a deeply dangerous time for our democracy, because the president has been unrelenting in his disinformation campaign, really aimed at sowing chaos and confusion, and delegitimizing a now-settled outcome that the voters decided, but he’s been doing this the entire election season. You know, lambasting and providing disinformation about legitimate voting methods, like voting by mail, to now making allegations without any evidence whatsoever, and refusing to concede.
Do I think it’s going to change the outcome of the election? Absolutely not. There is no path for Donald Trump to change the outcome of this election that voters decided. Do I think that there’s a lot of harm being committed to our democracy, to increasing division and polarization in this country? Absolutely. That is, to me, though, an intentional strategy that the president is using, and I also think that there could be an impact through the efforts to polarize Trump-voters against Biden-voters, to kind of undermine the Biden administration in January 2021.
Vanita, you raise really important issues. And so, that brings me to the question of litigation. The president has launched lawsuits in Arizona, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, in Georgia, just to name a few states, where he has alleged, and his lawyers allege, that there has been fraud associated with the general election, and specifically regarding the vote for the presidency. So, I would love to hear your response to that, because there have been election overseers and auditors that have said they see no sign of fraud, but tell me what you’re thinking.
I feel like we have to be really clear about what’s going on here. All of these, you know, efforts to undo the election results, and Trump tweeting every day, “we will win,” and his litigation around the country, and his legal efforts, these are failing around the country. And these, to me, are much more about kind of creating the narrative of delegitimization, which is the dangerous part, but he will not succeed in overturning the results.
And so, the work that we have to do is to look forward. We’ve got a pandemic that is ravaging Black and brown communities, but also all of America right now, with record-high rates of infection and mortality. There’s an agenda, and a forward-looking agenda, there’s a transition that is underway, regardless of what Trump is trying to do, and what, you know, some agencies are impeding in this moment. That is moving forward, because the American people need it to move forward.
So, it sounds as if what you’re saying, you’re clarifying the question that’s on the minds, certainly, of the millions of people who voted for Donald Trump, when they wonder whether this was a free and fair election. What’s your response to that?
My response is, you don’t need to look to me for that answer. Look to the local and state election officials that really deserve our praise and thanks, for the last many months, but certainly the last several, very stressful weeks, where local and state election officials of both parties have been hard at work, and I should say, state and local election officials are often also nonpartisan, but have been hard at work, staying up all night to deliver fair and accurate counts.
The New York Times yesterday published an incredible report after interviewing state and local election officials in all states, and found no basis for any of Trump’s allegations and lies that the election was anything but fair and free. And so, I think that we have to look to where the evidence is. There’s no evidence to back up any of Trump’s claims, and remember, Michele, that back in 2016, in an election that Trump won, even then, he claimed that three to five million voters voted illegally, and there was never any evidence to back it up.
Vanita, so true, you are truly bringing the receipts to this, as young people say. So, on November 27, 2016, we have the president tweeting out, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” A few minutes later, the president tweeted, “It would’ve been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the electoral college, in that I would only campaign in three or four states, instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would’ve won even more easily and convincingly, but smaller states are forgotten!”
This is a deliberate effort to sow disinformation, and it’s one that many of us predicted would happen. You know, there’s a strong suspicion that Trump will never concede. Concession, and kind of owning results that he doesn’t like, doesn’t seem to be in his past experience or DNA, but the fact of the matter is that our democracy and our systems are set up so that the loser of an election doesn’t get to decide the outcome. The Constitution doesn’t require a concession.
Once the voters decided, that is what is the outcome. He will engage in a variety of strategies and tactics, undoubtedly, for the next many weeks, but come January 20, Vice President Biden will become President Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will become Vice President Harris.
You know, it’s important that you say that, because so many wonder, well, can President-elect Joe Biden come into the White House if Donald Trump has not conceded the election? And as you’ve just said, just to clarify that point, it’s really not necessary.
Yeah, it’s not. I mean, concessions are part of the ceremony of democracy that we have in this country, and you know, it’s not to say they’re unimportant. They are important, they show that we are a democratic nation, that we have leaders who usually, you know, when they lose an election, understand that it is, they’re passing the baton to a leader that has been voted in by the American voters. You know, and in this instance, a record-high number of Americans voted for President-elect Biden.
They voted across the board, certainly, but they voted in the overwhelming majority for President-elect Biden. And so, this is an instance where concession is, because we have a president who, as of now, has refused to concede, and may very well refuse to concede altogether. The decision is not up to him. If on January 20, the person inside the White House doesn’t fit the description of the person who was voted in by an overwhelming majority of Americans, well, then the Secret Service will, you know, escort the occupant out.
Let’s hope that that doesn’t happen. I’m being overly dramatic, but I guess in this day and age, one should be prepared for just about everything.
You know what, you’re not far off from that, in terms of being prepared for anything, because that’s been the nature of the last four years, right? I mean, who would have imagined that this would’ve been an administration that would’ve put children in cages, called for a Muslim ban, been as aggressive as it has been, and dismantling Obama-era policies, doing complete reversals on LGBTQ equality platforms that were put into place by the Obama administration. So, I don’t think that that’s overly dramatic, sadly.
It’s not just reversing Obama-era policies, and the ones that you named are certainly, you know, among the top of the list, but I would say basic, fundamental democratic norms have been eroded and shattered in the Trump administration, norms that were upheld in Republican and Democratic administrations for decades and centuries. It’s not like we had a perfect union before Trump. You and I both know that, I know that, because as a civil rights advocate and fighting racial and structural inequality, you know, every day.
But there is no question that the blows that the Trump administration has dealt to fundamental norms of democracy are really galling, and yesterday I was reading an article about how Trump, kind of what Trump’s posture is right now, and how it compares with dictators that have done the same around the world. The difference here is that Trump isn’t going to succeed because of our systems and structures, but also because of the vigilance that advocates, activists, lawyers, voters, the media are having.
I mean, they are calling his BS at every turn. The danger will be when he starts to win the narrative message, but I do think we have to acknowledge that there are a lot of voters who voted for him, and who may indeed agree with this narrative and what that means for the country moving forward, for the degree of polarization and suspicion of a new administration.
Excellent point, Vanita. So, let me just break in one moment here so that we can play a clip of the president on the night of the election, where he calls it for himself, and more importantly, to the point that you’re raising, raises alarm about the legitimacy of the American election, and claiming that there is fraud, and that he will be taking a case straight up to the United States Supreme Court. Let’s take a quick listen.
Donald Trump on recording:
This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. So, our goal now is to ensure the integrity, for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner, so we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning, and add them to the list, okay?
These are things that aren’t going to go away with Donald Trump on January 20, but actually longer-standing issues that we’re clearly going to need to deal with.
Let’s turn to that, in fact, because there were 70 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. So, some would say that this represents more than just sleeper cells, but that he has robust support for the platforms that he has put forward.
Yeah. So, I think at a very high level, it is really encouraging that there was such high voter turnout across the board for every candidate, in every race, in every state. I think for a very long time, we have taken our democracy for granted. We’ve had low voter turnout compared with other nations, and that if the metric is civic engagement, and the degree to which people see their vote as mattering, and as their kind of path and vehicle to having a voice in our government and in our communities, and to shape the kind of communities we want, that’s all encouraging.
Obviously, though, to me, the 70 million that voted for Donald Trump, and the many-mores millions that voted for Vice President Biden, though, signify just how intensely divided our country is. You know, this is not a new phenomenon. The polarization in this nation has, I think, really become that much more accentuated the last four years, but it’s really embodied in the election. And I think what is really difficult and stunning to those of us that, you know, have been so incredibly outraged by some of the worst instances in the Trump administration, family separation, Trump talking about how there’s this two sides to, in Charlottesville, and the kind of emboldening of white supremacy on his administration’s watch.
It has felt like a kick in the stomach to see that a lot of people either, you know, were okay with having a president and an administration that embodies this and projects this in both policy and personnel, but also, or, I should say, was willing to overlook this, for whatever reason, to have him remain in office. And you know, I’m not going to lie to you. As a lifelong civil rights advocate, it is really hard to get your head around that in a way that feels good, and yet, I think we do ourselves a disservice and delude ourselves into, you know, pitching this as all just us versus them, and writing this off as a non-problem.
I think it’s something that we are going to have to contend with as a country, and there’s a lot of questions about that. You know, my good friend Sherrilyn Ifill, who I look to for so many things, we were talking about this, and there’s this danger, though, that you can kind of rush to a unifying model without actually having the reckoning that you also need to have, or the process to really dig in, to understand what has happened, why it’s happened, and that we can’t brush this under the rug and just speak in platitudes about unity and building a better future.
And so, and reckoning is not always a comfortable process. It’s rarely a comfortable process, and there needs to be, I think, reckoning kind of across the board for understanding the moment we find ourselves in, and why Americans are so deeply divided.
You’re so right, and I’ve seen Sherrilyn Ifill tweeting about that, and speaking about that, and it’s true. You look at South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was put together in order to address the legacies of racial divide and oppression that had taken place in that country. In Germany, we’ve seen similar efforts that took place after the Holocaust, and it seems that we’ve not had that, not just seems, that we haven’t had that in the United States.
I want to digress for just a moment, because you have such an incredible background that has been filled with a diverse set of experiences, both in the civil society, in the White House, and so much more. Why do you do what you do? What is it about your own background and experience that now makes you at the sort of, puts you right at the center of trying to protect our democracy?
I have been a lifelong civil rights advocate, fueled by, but also fueling an intense sense of hope. I don’t think you can be a civil rights advocate without a profound well of hope for what this country can be, but I grew up as a daughter of Indian immigrants. We moved around a lot because of my father’s job, and when I was four, we moved to England right after Margaret Thatcher had been elected, and there was the rise of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in Britain at the time.
And being South Asian in Britain at the time, being South Asian, or Black, or being a minority, you were just thought of, everyone was lumped as Black. And being there, and arriving as this four-year-old, I very distinctly remember an episode at McDonald’s. We had just picked up my grandmother from the airport, and it was her first visit outside of India, and we, my sister, my mother, and I picked her up at Heathrow Airport. We went to a McDonald’s because none of us had eaten.
And we sat down, and at the table over, a group of skinheads started throwing French fries at us, and yelling pejoratives at us, go home, and then there was blank word for what South Asians are derogatorily called in Britain.
How did that make you feel? I mean, you were a child.
And I just remember just feeling, at that time, really embarrassed, and scared, and kind of ashamed, but more scared. And for some reason, that memory kind of has seared, it was one of, you know, many other instances of understanding and being very cognizant of being a minority in a country. And I grew up just feeling very acutely aware of racial dynamics in restaurants, in institutions. You know, everywhere I would go, I’d be like, am I the only brown person here, or are there other folks of color here?
It was reassuring to me to be able to be in mixed, diverse, you know, environments, and I have an older sister who is lesbian, who came out when I was in high school, and that a whole fascinating process for my family. And I have these incredible parents, who I don’t think came to this country and left India knowing what their daughters would do, and how we would challenge them, but they have shown such resilience, and have really, really kind of underscored, to me, the resilience of immigrants kind of leaving their home countries, wanting to build a better future, but also recognizing in their children that building this is not a fait accompli, that you don’t actually create a more perfect union just by arriving on the shores, but actually that it takes daily and constant work and struggle.
And I am inspired by all of the forebears before me, on whose shoulders I stand in the Civil Rights Movement, that really opened the door, in many ways, for expanded immigration policies that let my parents come in. And so, just looking at the kind of intertwining of these histories, this is why I do what I do, and I am really grateful to be able, even on the hardest days, and the Trump administration presented a lot of hard days, but to know that, you know, I’m not sitting on the sidelines, that I am working with incredible people, who are giving their all to save and protect our democracy, even against the greatest of odds.
Does it ever get exhausting, though, because you see these histories repeated over and over, and during the Trump administration, the virulent anti-immigration policies defined not only by the Muslim ban, but anti-Mexican, Mexico policies, anti-Mexican policies in that the president articulating stereotypes, racial stereotypes and stigmas about Mexican men being rapist, and that stirring up even more kind of anti-immigration groundswell in the United States, does that all just become exhausting? How do you keep it up, the energy to combat these things?
Yeah, I mean, I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not superhuman at all. It has been totally exhausting. You know, even right now, to have to be in a situation where the Leadership Conference worked so hard to protect voting rights, we were working in the states to expand voting options amid the pandemic, we were pressing Congress to fund states to have the resources to do it. We have staff in eight states, we get through it. You know, we fight voter intimidation.
We do all this organizing in our coalition, and that’s after four years of feeling like all of the issues and communities that we represent and have fought for have been, you know, harmed or have had a target on their backs. And now, to be in the situation where, okay, well, even after the election is done, we have to fight to make sure that the count is respected, and that our democracy is protected, it just feels like it never ends. But you know, the work is, the reality is that this work has always required vigilance.
Whenever there’s a major civil rights win, it’s attacked almost immediately. It is exhausting, but the thing, honestly, Michele, what has sustained me through the last several years is the community in the coalition that is the Leadership Conference. We are kind of unique in the ecosystem of organizations. We were founded 70 years ago by African-American, Jewish, and labor leaders who had this profound insight that the work of civil rights couldn’t be achieved by one group alone, but needed to be waged in coalition.
And today, we are a coalition of over 220 national civil and human rights organizations, the goal of which is to make us that much more strategic across our organizations and communities, to be a force-multiplier, and to be able to strategize, to win, deploying our respective power and platform. And the level of energy and focus and love and solidarity that is represented by the men, women, young people that are in this coalition has really been the driving, sustaining force for so many of us the last several years.
None of us are doing this alone. None of us holds all of these burdens and worries alone, and it’s really in that community that we have sustained ourselves enough to kind of keep moving forward, and to keep our eye on the prize.
And in fact, in thinking about keeping your eyes on the prize, I’m sure you all are having to pivot, now that there are challenges, litigation in the very states in which Joe Biden has won, and where the president is actually challenging the election. So, what’s the next step for you?
Yeah, there’s a lot of things happening right now. So, one is, you know, protecting the results and the will of the voters. And so, you know, that’s a strategy that involves litigation. It involves, you know, mobilization, communications, outreach to state and local and other electeds. There’s a whole kind of ecosystem that the Leadership Conference is very involved with on that, but then there’s this whole other area, which is the forward-looking, which is being very deeply engaged in the transition to a new administration.
We do this every four years, regardless of who wins the election. The Leadership Conference is nonpartisan, and we have to prepare and martial the civil rights community’s priorities on a range of different issues, and as you can imagine, given the battering that we, our issues have faced the last several years, there’s a lot, not only to rebuild, but to actually advance as bold a vision as possible in this moment.
What would you see as some of those top issues?
So, one of them is democracy reform, and voting rights reform. That is a major, major issue that we have to keep pressing forward on. Nobody knows the outcome of the Senate right now, given the Georgia runoffs, but this is a moment where the nation is really focused on the incredible obstacles and real voter suppression. People used to think that we were conspiracy theorists, as voting rights experts and advocates, but I think more and more Americans understand just how voting rights and voting has been weaponized for partisan gain in really unhealthy ways, that has rigged our democracy.
Another is, obviously, COVID. COVID, you know, there’s going to be COVID relief. I think it is absolutely shameful that the Senate has failed to take up the House-passed HEROES Act back in May, to provide Americans, essential workers, with the relief that they need and deserve in this moment of incredible suffering. And there is a real opportunity, through COVID relief, to deal with long-term inequality, lack of access to healthcare in certain communities, Black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted, the housing impact, jobs impact.
So, this bucket of issues around COVID relief are a major priority for the Leadership Conference, and there’s a lot of, you know, concerns, real-life concerns for our communities that we have to contend with in this relief package. But you know, we’ve got a priorities document that we are going to be sharing out, that has been culled and devised through our coalition, issues like educational equity, criminal justice and police reform, democracy and voting issues.
So, we have prioritized this list, and there’s a lot to do, and it doesn’t help, of course, to have a president who is refusing to concede, but we all know what the outcome is going to be. And so, therefore, we have to kind of keep marching forward, given the needs of our communities.
In fact, in thinking about priorities, one of the critiques of the Democrats is that there has been less attention to the courts than amongst Republicans, and that perhaps that’s the reason why we get to a moment where President Trump is able to nominate and get confirmed more federal judges than any other president save George Washington. And interesting to note, that at least as of July, of all of those on the appeals court, none were African-American, one person who is Latino.
And so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are with regard to the growing mistrust of the Supreme Court, and concerns about its commitment to protecting fundamental civil liberties, and civil rights, and perhaps the federal bench, more going forward, given the number of Trump-appointed judges, who, typically shouldn’t matter that they were nominated by President Trump, but it has been worth noting that many of those judges have not necessarily articulated a commitment to Brown v. Board of Education as being a precedent worth upholding, or Roe v. Wade. So, what’s your sense about the courts going forward?
I’m so glad that you’re uplifting this, because the courts has been an area focus for the Leadership Conference for a long time, and I have to say, though, that I think for too long, progressives have taken the courts for granted, while conservatives have been launching and then implementing a longer-term plan to fill the nation’s federal courts, lifetime appointments, with anti-civil rights judges, who, and our kids and grandkids are going to be bearing that legacy.
Senator McConnell has a legislative graveyard of close to 500 bills that passed the House of Representatives in 2019 and 2020, but has been single-mindedly focused on confirming judges, some of whom have been really extreme, the most extreme that we have seen. And you’ve mentioned some that were refusing to say that Brown vs. Board of Education was correctly decided, judges who have expressed in writings, you know, anti-LGBTQ, anti-civil rights sentiments, and the like.
And so, we have, and you know, I will also be honest with you, that I think that the Obama administration in its initial years really failed to make judges and courts a priority. Every policy issue that a civil rights advocate may care about plays itself out in some way in the courts. The courts touch every part of our lives. They seem like this abstract institution, but where our kids go to school, what kind of healthcare our families have, what kind of justice system or arrest policies a police department may have, and that are constitutional, courts touch these issues all the time, every day.
And so, we can’t just fight single issues anymore. We have to recognize the ways in which courts, I would add the census to this, voting rights, really help shape the degree to which we can actually benefit or enjoy or protect or advance these rights to begin with. And so, in this moment, and obviously the Senate is a crucial institution in shaping the courts, and we are in a little bit of a limbo with the Georgia runoffs, but you know, the civil rights community is much more prepared to push on this.
I think the American public, including on the more progressive side, is much more educated today than we were four years ago on the importance of the courts. The courts, for the last four years, have been the most important backstop to some of the most egregious excesses of the Trump administration. And then, we’ve had some very difficult, divided Supreme Court battles that have really educated, again, progressives about what’s at stake with the courts.
And so, we’re in this moment where it’s about both, you know, the pipeline of people to, in a Biden administration, for judges. It’s about, there are important questions about court reform, whether the courts should be expanded, term limits, and all of that. And I think that these are conversations that need to happen, and regardless of where anyone falls on the spectrum or where any institution falls on what they’re recommending, there is zero question that a Biden administration, and that progressives in the civil rights community writ large, need to keep the courts as a top, top priority moving forward.
And so, before we wrap up, I’ve got just a couple more questions for you, because I know that you’ve got to, you know, get out and continue on the battlefront. But I’m wondering what you think about this moment, and what it represents for women. So, for the first time, we have a woman in the White House as vice president, or coming into the White House as vice president, and you’ve been articulating about how forceful Harris’s political journey has been, and what this represents for all women, particularly Black women and South Asian women…
Kamala Harris on recording:
And to the woman most responsible for my presence here today, my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts. When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment, but she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible. And so, I am thinking about her, and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women, who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight, women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, and liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women who are often, too often overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.
You’ve said that it is also an “important beginning for my young sons.” Can you talk a little bit more about what this means for your young sons, and more broadly what this moment represents for women?
You know, my young sons are so thrilled to have somebody who is biracial like they are, who is part South Asian like they are, who is a fierce, strong woman. You know, they actually were surprised…
Like their mom.
They were surprised that this hasn’t happened before, and why are we all surprised about it? And I love that they’re growing up in a completely different kind of cultural moment on this. I think it really matters. I think girls everywhere are seeing this, growing up, and saying, wait a minute, like, I can do this. I can reach for this. There’s this great, this really kind of stark representation, and you probably saw it on the day that the election was called for Biden and Harris, of the photos or paintings of all of the people who have served as vice president in the past, all white men, and then, Kamala Harris.
It’s just, like, it’s amazing. You know, I got to serve in a justice department at the end of the Obama administration that was led predominantly by women, a woman attorney general, deputy attorney general, heads of a number of components, and it was remarkable for an institution like the Justice Department to have that many women in leadership. And you know, it is both, on the one hand, dispiriting and shocking that we’re in 2020, and that we’re still making a lot of firsts for women.
And yet, I also think it is such an important moment for women to own our leadership, to recognize and have a national conversation, you know, post-MeToo, about what’s acceptable, what isn’t acceptable, the kind of internalized misogyny that I think not only men have, but women ourselves can have, and that we, understanding the both kind of macro limitations that are imposed on women reaching the levels that they reach, but also all the microaggressions that we put up with on a daily basis.
So, to me, this is a really important moment for women leadership, and I think, you know, what I love about Vice President-elect Harris is she recognizes the kind of importance of this moment, but also that she is not going to be the last, and part of her job is to bring other people, other women with her, other girls with her, and I just love that. I think we all feel this sense of responsibility to, you know, be the first, assume the first…you know, the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, Michele, has never had a Senate-confirmed head, the Civil Rights Division.
I mean, you know, so, we’ve still got a lot of firsts to go, and we have to recognize, and you know this, and I know this. You can have the first Black president of the United States. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole bunch of work to do, during and in the wake of, on racial equality, and structural racism, and you know. And so, I think we put this for what it is, it is deeply inspiring. It really matters, and yet, we still have a lot of work to do.
Vanita, so well said, how important it is that we see this moment as not only pivotal for women, but also what it means for boys and men to see a woman in the White House, and also the point that you make about how women can detract from the transformative futures of other women. I’m thinking about a true woman hero right now, and that is Ms. Lucille Bridges, who also fits in this conversation, as there’s been an image depicted of Kamala Harris walking outside the shadow of Ruby Bridges, and how powerful and profound that is.
And Ms. Lucille Bridges, the mother of Ruby Bridges and four other children, just passed away one week after this nation’s election, and I think our country has lost a true hero there. But how profound it is, the light that she cast for so many others, which includes both of us, and Kamala Harris, too. So, one of the things that we do before our show closes is that we ask each of our guests, and I want you back on the show, by the way, we ask about what’s the silver lining in these times. And so, I want to put that question to you.
The silver lining, to me, is the degree to which people in this country feel engaged and active in producing our democracy, that democracy, as Congressman John Lewis said, is not a state, but is an act. And I really feel like, if there’s a silver lining about all of the last several years and this election, it is really that we can’t take that for granted, and that we make our democracy. It doesn’t just kind of happen to us. Our institutions don’t protect themselves, and I love that there is this sense of voter empowerment and engagement, but also the need to stay engaged, for accountability, to press forward on the issues that matter to us and our communities.
I always say, voting alone isn’t going to solve people’s problems, but without it, you can’t make change, and I do think that this heightened level of engagement is something that is really important and promising for this country. And you know, as I said, I’m a civil rights lawyer, Michele, so I’m a deeply and eternally hopeful person, even in the hardest of times. We’re going to get through this. It has been brutal.
I’m not going to lie to you, but we’re going to get through it, and I do think that we will be stronger for it, because we have learned what happens when we take things for granted.
So true. Vanita, thank you so much for being on the show with me today. I could not have had a better guest. I so appreciate the wisdom and insight that you shared, and also giving us a peek into your personal life, too, and what has inspired you to be who you are and to do what it is that you do.
Thank you so much for having me, Michele. It was great to be here.
So, as we close out, just want to take a listen to Joe Biden and his acceptance speech, after AP News calls the election for President-elect Joe Biden.
Joe Biden on recording:
I’ll have the honor of serving with a fantastic vice president, who you just heard from, Kamala Harris, who makes history as the first woman, first Black woman, the first woman from South Asian descent, the first daughter of an immigrant’s, ever elected to this country. Don’t tell me it’s not possible in the United States. It’s long overdue.
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guest, Vanita Gupta, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode, where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is, with very special guests tackling important issues related to rebuilding America and a woman’s economy.
For more information on what we’ve discussed today, head to MsMagazine.com. If you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple Podcast. Look for us at MsMagazine.com for new content and special episode updates. Rate and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show and support independent feminist media.
Our producers for this episode are Maddy Pontz, Roxy Szal, and Mariah Lindsey. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Alan, and music by Chris J Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.
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