Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and me

Chris Game

If only Birmingham weren’t in Tier 3 … I could prop up bars in city centre pubs, casually conversing with fascinated fellow-drinkers: “You know that Kamala Harris, the American Vice-President-elect – yeah, the one wearing the Elvis-style white trouser ‘power suit’ for her victory speech.

“Well, I was a professorial contemporary of her Dad, Donald, at California’s prestigious Stanford University, don’t you know?  Thanks, mine’s another Plum Porter.”

Sadly, with Plum Porter purveyors currently closed, I’m driven to search for alternative captive audiences.  However, in contrast to bits of the current series of The Crown, this boast, while it may not ‘ring true’, actually IS true.  Before coming to INLOGOV in 1979 my employers for the previous five years were indeed Stanford – the posh, private, but definitely prestigious university north-westish of Silicon Valley.  

At least, that was Kamala’s Dad’s main workplace – I said ‘contemporary’ not ‘colleague’!  Mine was Stanford’s British Studies Center – note the spelling – at the also posh but less sunshiny Cliveden House on a National Trust estate near Maidenhead, where some hundred or so American students would come to spend two or three semesters of their undergrad years.

And the ‘Professor’ bit?  Well, as everyone knows, almost all US university academics have that generic title. ‘Full’ Professors are the real deal, while my Cliveden colleagues and I were ‘academic personnel’ – but on envelopes from HQ ‘Assistant Professors’.

It’s been mildly disquieting to see some UK universities going down the ‘Assistant Professor’ route – Warwick, for instance – but I’m not in the least bitter. I just regret not saving at least a few of those envelopes, because in four subsequent Birmingham decades I never managed even that.

Jamaican-born former economics Professor Donald Harris is/was at the distant other end of the scale: an Emeritus Professor since retiring early from Stanford after an exceptionally distinguished career and numerous international academic awards.

Here’s the thing, though.  Harris joined Stanford in 1972, yet in my creepily retained 600-page 1974/5 Stanford University Bulletin we Clivedenites and our taught courses all get several individual mentions, yet Donald not one.  Which, for apparently “the first Black person to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department”, seemed rather odd.

Still, it provides a link to his elder daughter’s string of ‘firsts’ that actually prompted this blog: the first major personal career choice made by the first woman, first African American, and first Asian-American US Vice-President-elect.  California-born – for those, like President Trump, still questioning her Presidential eligibility; and her name, incidentally, pronounced not at all like ‘Pamela’, but ‘Comma-lah’ – from the Sanscrit for lotus flower.

Which is also relevant, because Kamala’s parents divorced when she was just seven, meaning she and her sister, Maya, were brought up largely by their Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan – a bio-medical scientist, whose career in breast cancer research was every bit as outstanding as her husband’s, but who in 2009 would die of cancer herself.

It was her mother’s acceptance of a research post at McGill University Hospital in French-speaking Montreal that chiefly determined that Kamala went first to a French-speaking elementary school.  Then her mother moved the family again, so Kamala could attend Westmount High School, Quebec’s only public school offering so-called Advanced Placement courses for potentially university/college credit.

That university/college choice in by now the early 1980s, though, was definitely Kamala’s. After several majority-white schools, and her parents working in eminent but predominantly white institutions, she sought a wholly different experience. Young, gifted and black, she would live, learn, socialise, and at times protest against South African apartheid, with black students in a black university in a black city.

She would therefore attend one of the hundred or so HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and arguably the most renowned: Howard University in Washington DC, the African American community’s ‘Chocolate City’. And a short subway ride to both her current Capitol Hill workplace in the Senate and her future one in the White House. Back then it was no part of any life plan, but it can serve as a useful putdown today to those who accuse her of being ‘not really black’ or ‘not black enough’.

In the early 1970s Stanford University – students and staff – was unmistakeably Californian and white.  But I remember quite early learning of and being fascinated by the whole HBCU concept – partly because of the then still relatively recent appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court judge.

The HBCU initialism itself – not technically an acronym – is comparatively recent, a product of the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Higher Education Acts. But the Black Colleges themselves date back in some cases 170+ years to before the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

Even following abolition, certainly in the Southern states, there was a century of institutionalised racial segregation of housing, medical care, employment, transportation and, of course, education.  And even universities and colleges that didn’t completely bar African Americans usually applied tight quotas, with all the other manifestations of discrimination.

One of those barred was future Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had applied to the University of Maryland Law School and been rejected through its segregation policy effectively banning blacks studying with whites.  He therefore attended and graduated with distinction from, yes, Howard University Law School – and later successfully sued Maryland for its discriminatory admissions policy.

Quite a role model, had Kamala been looking for one at the time – just as she surely will be to this and future generations of aspiring university students, female and male.

 

A version of this article appeared in The Birmingham Post on 26th November 2020.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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