History professor and noted author weighs in on the historic, cultural, and political ramifications of the first woman of color becoming vice president of the United States.

Gunja SenGupta is a professor and former chair of the History Department at Brooklyn College. Also a past director of the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, her expertise lies in 19th-century United States and slavery/abolition in the Indian Ocean; sectional conflict; and African-American and women’s history. She is the author of, among other works, two books, For God and Mammon: Evangelicals and Entrepreneurs, Masters and Slaves in Territorial Kansas (University of Georgia Press, 1996) and From Slavery to Poverty: The Racial Origins of Welfare in New York, 1840–1918 (NYU Press, 2009).

BC: What does Vice President Kamala Harris symbolize in light of this nation’s contests over multiracial democracy and women’s roles?

GSG: Inauguration Day 2021 gave new meaning to the foundational phrase defining our civic identity, “We the People.” The world watched as the Puerto Rican–descended Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore in as vice president a Black woman of South Asian heritage named Kamala Devi Harris. This image distilled a tantalizing promise of democratic pluralism, kept alive by centuries of struggle for equal rights.

In the new republic forged by the American Revolution, democracy unfolded in tandem with the expansion of racial slavery within the framework of a rigid patriarchy. Rights-bearing citizenship was in most states a closed club limited in membership to free White men. The central theme of the U.S. Civil War was its transformation from a battle for union into a movement for emancipation and, eventually, the civil and political rights that anchor a multiracial democracy. That conflict triggered the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished chattel slavery, established color-blind birthright citizenship and equal protection of the laws, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting rights. They unleashed furious contests over the meaning of freedom, and over who qualified as “American”—contests that resonate in our own times.

Vice President Harris stands on the shoulders of all those who fought on the right side of that history: from Black and indigenous maroon communities to multiracial abolitionists; a slave-born senator from Mississippi who fought against the Oriental Exclusion Act; African-American women who envisioned a racially egalitarian sisterhood of suffragists; and the legions of civil, labor, immigrant, and human rights activists who have toiled on to refashion the meaning of American democracy ever since.

Moreover, Harris’ immigrant parents came together out of shared solidarities between movements for Afro-Asian decolonization and American civil rights. In this way, the vice president’s personal history ties the United States to the rest of the world.

BC: What challenges do you think Harris will face?

GSG: I see Vice President Harris facing linked challenges in the realms of policy and symbolism. First, she will have to share the Biden administration’s responsibility to move us farther along the road to true freedom—a freedom that does not stop with legal and political rights, but grapples meaningfully with the stubborn problems of poverty, public health and education, criminal justice, gender equality, war and climate change, and the rights of workers and migrants across national borders. She might leverage her rhetorical and political skills in pushing along an agenda on these issues.

But as a trailblazer, she also bears the burden of turning symbolism into substance, of facilitating structural reforms that smooth the ascent to power of others who look like her and share some of her life experiences. And as many commentators have noted, living up to the diverse expectations of myriad groups that see you as a role model can be hard to do.

BC: How do you use your own scholarship to make sense of events that happened in the last couple of weeks?

GSG: My scholarship and teaching have focused on sectional conflict and race relations in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These themes—especially during the Civil War era—offer useful prisms through which to understand the polarized politics of our day. On January 6, the same day that Georgia overcame the burden of its Confederate history and its tradition of voter suppression to send two progressives—one African American and the other Jewish—to represent it in the U.S. Senate, pro-Trump insurrectionists besieged Capitol Hill. The armed mob’s attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the legitimate results of an election through violence represented the most serious crisis of democracy since South Carolina broke away from the Union following the presidential election of 1860. That secession was prompted by the fear that Abraham Lincoln’s triumph would threaten slavery, which secured the economic power and political leverage of the slave states. Lincoln was talking about this crisis of democracy when he called the Civil War a “People’s Contest” before Congress on July 4, 1861.

Again when he resolved in his Gettysburg Address that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was linking the fate of democracy—a very new and fragile experiment in the Western Hemisphere—with the preservation of the Union. He was saying that you cannot just leave the Union or take up arms against it because an election did not go your way. Seek political change through ballots, not bullets.

BC: President Biden became the first to make reference to “White supremacy” in an inaugural address. What lessons can we draw from history to contextualize his remarks?

GSG: When President Biden talked about “White supremacy,” he did what the wonderful young poet Amanda Gorman urged: Be American by stepping into our shared past. And that past is irrevocably tied to hierarchies of race. Historians define race as a trope of difference that signifies power relations between different groups. In North America, race developed on account of the institution of a self-reproducing African-descended workforce to meet the labor demands of colonial North America. African slavery produced White identity as a privilege and a relation of difference from blackness. This privilege was institutionalized in language, law, economic arrangements, etiquette of social relations, cultural values, gender norms, expectations, etc.

In the Civil War era, slaveholders even justified slavery by arguing that “White” freedoms depended on black bondage, which made possible an aristocracy based on color rather than class. Scholars have noted that “whiteness” became a sort of property that translated into not only political rights but the qualification to practice professions or, say, buy cheap western lands. Confederate leaders like Alexander Stephens said quite explicitly that the cornerstone of their new republic would rest on the eternal subordination of Black people.

Thus, when the January 6 insurrectionists hoisted Confederate flags (together with racist symbols from other ages and places), they were staging a counterrevolution against the progress of a multiracial democracy. Biden’s inaugural address, delivered on the heels of this horror, named the malaise it symbolized: White supremacy. Trump’s second impeachment for inciting sedition may be seen as a move to affirm our commitment to not simply democracy, but the sort of inclusive democracy that became possible to imagine only with the defeat of the slaveholders’ Confederacy.