Noah Bierman and Melanie Mason
Los Angeles Times
Kamala Devi Harris, born to immigrants from India and Jamaica amid the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, was sworn in as the 49th vice president of the United States on Wednesday, making history for her race and gender in a country that is again torn apart over fulfilling its promise of equality.
Harris, who as a toddler was pushed in her stroller through civil rights marches in the Berkeley Hills, is the first Californian in the White House since Ronald Reagan and only the second person from the state to hold the vice presidency, joining Richard Nixon.
None of the 48 vice presidents to serve before her has been Black, Asian or female, and only one of 46 presidents in American history, Barack Obama, has been Black.
Harris, 56, was sworn in on a lightly snowy and breezy day by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the high court’s first Latina, with Bibles owned by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, its first African American, and Regina Shelton, a childhood neighbor whom Harris regarded as a second mother.
Her husband Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, held the Bibles and hugged her afterward as she exchanged fist bumps with the new president, Joe Biden. Sotomayor mispronounced her first name, a problem that has dogged Harris throughout her career.
“Little girls and boys across the world will know that anything is possible,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who competed with Harris for the presidential nomination, said from the podium minutes before Harris was sworn in.
In his first address to the nation as president, Biden pointed to Harris’ place in the arc of history, noting that women demonstrating for the right to vote at Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural 108 years ago were beaten for their efforts.
“Today, we mark the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office — Kamala Harris,” Biden said. “Don’t tell me things can’t change.”
Among a small group watching from the VIP section were fellow trailblazers, including Obama and his wife Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. Harris’ family, including her two adult stepchildren and her sister Maya, stood nearby, the most diverse family ever to reach the national political stage.
Eugene Goodman, a Black Capitol Police officer who was touted as a hero for shielding lawmakers from the angry mob that stormed the Capitol this month, escorted Harris — dressed in a purple ensemble designed by Black designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson — to the platform.
“Watching this with my 6-year-old daughter who has known Kamala her whole life, is more moving than I thought it would be,” said Laphonza Butler, a former senior aide to Harris. “To see Maya in the background, to see Doug standing with pride, makes me think of the sacrifices of so many, past and present, on whose shoulders she stands.”
After the inauguration, Harris walked an abbreviated parade route with a procession that included Howard University’s Showtime Marching Band, a nod to her education at the country’s most prominent historically Black university.
Her ascent as a multicultural, multiracial daughter of immigrants is seen by many of her supporters as a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric, and the nativists who were attracted to his movement.
Yet for all the barriers Harris is breaking, the celebration was muted. She and Biden kept it deliberately so, to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 400,000 people, and to avoid the violence that ravaged the Capitol this month when a pro-Trump mob sought to overturn the election.
Donna Brazile, the first Black woman to lead a major presidential campaign in 2000, said the inability to share the glee in breaking the metaphorical glass ceiling adds a glum note.
“The glass is now all around us, but we can’t walk on it,” Brazile said. “We can’t celebrate.”
She contrasted the divisive mood in the country with the sense she felt in 2009, when even many of Obama’s opponents seemed proud and hopeful that the country had turned a page.
“This is a moment to celebrate the history we all made, but it’s also a moment that we should be cautiously optimistic about the work that lies ahead,” she said.
Still, there were celebrations for Harris both in homes around the country and, in a limited way, the nation’s capital.
“I’m in tears and this is one of the most emotional days of my life!” said Derreck Johnson, a friend of Harris’ since their teenage years. Johnson, who owns the Oakland, California, restaurant Home of Chicken and Waffles, attended the swearing in with about 30 friends and family who traveled to Washington.
Yvette Best, 53, bought new clothes in her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority colors — green pants and a jacket with green, pink and white stripes and a matching hat — and made it through the labyrinth of security near the Capitol to get as close as she could when her sorority sister made history.
“I’m energized,” Best said as she stood with her daughter Jianna, 20, and niece Brandi, 31.
“There’s younger kids that are growing up thinking this was automatically possible, and I think that’s where we’re going to really see the beauty in this in the long run,” said Kylie Burke, a junior at Howard University who serves in the student government. She watched the inauguration on TV from her downtown apartment, the Washington Monument visible out her window.
Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, a longtime friend, wore pearls in solidarity with women around the country as an homage to Harris, who has worn them at significant events throughout her career.
Lee’s string of pearls were given to her by her mentor, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black woman to run for president for a major party.
“I know Shirley Chisholm is saying ‘long overdue,’” Lee said.
But Lee, one of the most liberal members of Congress, wants more than symbolism. She said she plans to press her friend on “my agenda,” underscoring the pressure Harris will be under to balance her party’s progressive base with the new administration’s promise to unite the fractured country.
Harris’ supporters hope she will not only advocate for their issues, but also have power within the administration, which is stocked with Biden’s longtime advisers, to enact them. Biden, who served eight years as Obama’s vice president, has promised to treat her as a partner, the last person to advise him on critical decisions.
A Pew poll conducted this month found that 55% of American adults believe Harris will have the right amount of influence within the administration, while 36% said she would have too much clout. The responses, not surprisingly, were split sharply along partisan lines.
Her biggest power may come in the evenly divided Senate, where she will be able to cast the tiebreaking vote on 50-50 ties.
That power was to become official later Wednesday, when Harris is scheduled to swear in three new Democratic members: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace her; and the winners of two runoffs in Georgia held earlier this month, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Harris plans to officially preside over the chamber after that, fulfilling a ceremonial right to lead the Senate, though she will spend most of her time as vice president in the executive branch.
Harris was a relative unknown when she became San Francisco district attorney in 2003, her first elected office. She steadily rose in rank and prominence, becoming California attorney general in 2010 and the state’s junior U.S. senator six years later. She had not lost a political race until her unsuccessful bid for president, which she ended in 2019 before a single primary vote was cast. Nine months later, she was selected to be Biden’s running mate.