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Harris VP Pick Is Historic Beyond Race and Gender. She's Breaking The Hemispheric Ceiling Too

Kamala Harris (left) during her presidential campaign last year and (right) as a toddler with her father Donald Harris.

COMMENTARY As the first person of Caribbean descent on a major U.S. presidential ticket, Kamala Harris challenges a key Trump tactic.

It’s hard to overstate how hugely historic a Black woman on a major-party U.S. presidential ticket is, especially during an epochal racial and gender awakening in this country. But there’s something else that makes California Senator Kamala Harris’ pick as Joe Biden’s running mate a landmark – and a special irritant to President Trump.

If you study the 232-year-old list of POTUS and VP candidates, it looks like none could claim parents or even ancestors born in Latin America and the Caribbean. Harris’ father, economist Donald Harris, is from Jamaica. That means for the first time, a descendant of this country’s neighboring region – which this country has always treated with unneighborly scorn and condescension – could be a heartbeat away from running this country in January.

Why does that matter? For two big reasons, historical and political.

READ MORE: Tit for Tat for Trump in the Bahamas: Now Americans Are the 'Very Bad People'

First, it announces that a barrier I’d call America’s hemispheric ceiling has finally been broken. Most non-white immigrants in the U.S. hail from Next Door South, from Chihuahua to Chile and all the islands like Jamaica in between. They’re also among the most disparaged, the folks most likely to be branded “illegal aliens” or worse, even though they do most of America’s produce harvesting and meat packing, landscaping and homebuilding, house cleaning and dishwashing.

They’re the people who underpin much of the U.S. economy. The long, nagging failure of U.S. immigration policy to acknowledge that – its refusal to forge more sensible and humane means of letting Guatemalan or Haitian workers enter the country and eventually enter the system to become U.S. stakeholders – has been one of America’s largest national failures, period.

So has U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean – which has never really grasped the simple idea that if you do more to stop illegal immigration at its source, by helping the countries closest to you develop, you’ll have less of it to stop at your border.

Trump staked his 2016 campaign on demonizing the denizens of Latin America and the Caribbean. Harris now threatens that malicious MAGA magic.

Whether Biden wins or loses in November, having a Caribbean daughter like the charismatic Harris as his V.P. selection could improve how America views and treats the Americas. Some might suggest a Latino on the ticket would be more effective in that regard. But while Harris is making Jamaica, Queens more aware of Kingston, Jamaica, she’s likely to make Lima, Ohio more conscious of Lima, Peru as well.

And that’s precisely what rattles Trump. He launched and staked his 2016 campaign on demonizing the denizens of Latin America and the Caribbean – scapegoating its immigrants for white America’s daytime economic woes and its nighttime security fears. Two years ago he labeled the region a slum of “shithole countries” to be locked out of America’s country club.


The day after Trump made that remark, Booker Prize-winning and Jamaican-born author Marlon James (“A Brief History of Seven Killings”) told me the President’s barrage of racist rhetoric aimed at Latin America and the Caribbean “is something we can only reference from the fantastical novels about the dictators we grew up with in the region.”

Indeed, it’s that sweeping, epic quality of Trump’s hemispheric race-baiting – they’re not just bothersome “illegals,” they’re menacing “rapists” – that’s kept his MAGA supporters so entranced these past five years while keeping Latinos and Caribbean-Americans feeling cowed.

Harris now threatens that malicious magic. The Trump camp knows that, because it’s tried unsuccessfully in the past to use her Caribbean roots (and the heritage of her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a scientist born in India) to discredit her.

Harris as a toddler with her grandmother Irene Finegan in Jamaica.

Last year Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., shared a tweet that declared, “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican.” He later deleted it, but the intent was clear – to remind white Americans that the U.S.-born Harris, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is not only Black but somehow less than American.

Meanwhile, right-wing social media tried to paint Harris as a ganja fiend last year when her father, an emeritus Stanford University professor, publicly objected to her joking and admittedly stereotypical association of Jamaica and marijuana use in a radio interview.

None of it has had its intended effect. And now that Harris could be a heartbeat away from the White House, it could have just the opposite effect.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.