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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

'A voice for the voiceless'
Kiley O’Brien ’25, Assistant Features Editor • July 18, 2024
Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

No celebration without representation


Holding our leaders accountable

After the frightening, depressing days following the insurrection at the Capitol, it was a relief to see a sunny, normal-as-possible Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. 

Inaugurations are always beautiful, joyful ceremonies, but this one was especially emotional for many as it was not only the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, but of the first woman, first Black and first Asian-American U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris. While she has made controversial decisions in her career, for women and girls, especially of color, seeing Harris be sworn in was a monumental moment.

It has been said that Harris’ vice presidency offers representation to all women, all people of color and all women of color, but that is not completely true. To understand Harris’ position, we must look at both descriptive and substantive representation. Descriptive representation is the extent to which an elected representative shares identities with their constituents, in this case, all Americans. 

There is no doubt that this is important; when citizens see that the most powerful people in the country look like them, it can inspire them to picture themselves in positions of power and work towards them. 

However, in their book “Women and Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence,” Julie Dolan, Ph.D., Melissa M. Deckman, Ph.D. and Michele L. Swers, Ph.D. argue, “having women in bureaucratic positions of power is oftentimes helpful to women in the population but is no guarantee that the diversity of women’s voices will be heard or acted upon.” 

This is where substantive representation comes into play. Substantive representation is determined by how representatives fight for policies that help their constituents, and someone sharing the same identities as a community does not guarantee that their position will always benefit the community. 

While Harris has only been vice president for less than a month, she has been in public service for three decades. This included being attorney general of California, when an attempt to keep children in school backfired. 

She helped pass a law making it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow their children to miss more than 10% of school days without an excuse, making them face a $2,000 fine or up to one year in jail. Harris said in her 2011 inaugural address, “if you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.” 

This ended up punishing parents with circumstances outside their control, especially Black and Indigenous parents, whose children make up a disproportionate share of truant students. Harris has since stated her regret of the policy. 

As attorney general of California, Harris also worked to deny gender-affirming surgeries for incarcerated people. While she may not have an LGBTQIA+ identity, representing all women should include representing transgender women, and representing Black people should include representing Black people that identify as trans. However, as attorney general, she also fought against the “trans panic” defense, which legitimizes violent and deadly behavior against members of the LGBT community. This goes to show how politicians should not be idolized and thought of as perfect, no matter how tempting it may be when they are a “first,” like the first woman or first person of color. 

There should still be optimism that Harris can offer substantive representation in her time as vice president. In her first weeks in office, she used the vice presidential power to break a tie in the Senate to pass a COVID-19 relief package. While this will help millions of Americans of all identities, it will especially help Black Americans. While the U.S. unemployment rate is currently 6.3%, the Black unemployment rate is 9.2%. 

This piece is not meant to diminish the gravity of Harris’ victory in any way. Rather, it is meant to remind us of the hard-earned lesson of the 2020 election cycle: politicians must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their identity, background or personality. Too often, we begin to treat politicians as celebrities rather than public servants, complacent and distracted by a funny joke or flashy outfit. While it is perfectly okay to look up to a particular representative, or to be fond of one, this does not mean that they should be exempt from critique or accountability.  

Though Harris has an imperfect track record, the young girls watching her inauguration did not know that—they only knew that they could one day be like her. Social media was filled with pictures of young girls of all races captivated by their televisions as the vice president was being sworn in. Even for women, both young and old, who are aware of her history, there is hope that they can be in positions of power and make decisions that they think will be best for Americans of all identities. 

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