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Visibility politics and the case of Kamala Harris

“Visibility politics is killing my people.” Those are the words I spoke out loud to myself after scrolling past countless photographs of Kamala Harris on my Instagram feed. Posts celebrating Harris as the first female and woman of colour to be elected as vice president as well as the first one of Indian descent—and the list of many other firsts went on.

After what felt like an endless cry to get Donald Trump out of office for four years, the common feeling across my more left-leaning social media bubble was that any decision that wasn’t Trump would have been the lesser of two evils. And although Joe Biden was to become the 46th President of the United States, I had never seen such a reaction, both emotional and of happiness for a vice president before. Visibility politics had taken over my people.

This time, ‘my people’ included white women who self-described as ‘allies’ (in their Instagram and Twitter bios, of course) who were crying out for Kamala Harris too. This was the change before our eyes, the good news we needed during a second lockdown and hope in a relentless pandemic. The reaction was almost 2008 Obama-esque. Our feminist activism was clearly working.

Still, everyone kept talking about the same thing. And it is of importance, of course—the topic of Harris’ blackness and South Asian heritage. For an American majority to usher in a black and South Asian woman into power, over their previous cabinet, is telling indeed. We have to remember that the Civil Rights Act was signed only 57 years ago. Less than a decade ago, many wanted to lynch Obama. In the US, racism isn’t as covert as in the UK, the blood shed by innocent protestors is still fresh. Once the presidential election’s result was (somewhat) set, I almost wanted to look past the most blatant thing.

But I couldn’t let it go, especially after Harris’ past had been constantly questioned during the electoral process. In 2016, while speaking to The New York Times, Harris mentioned that she sees herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” a “top cop” who is working “at the table where the decisions are made.”

On the one hand, she created an anti-truancy programme to push the parents of chronically truant kids to get them to school—which quickly backfired, but that’s another story. On the other hand, Harris released a criminal justice reform plan, after fighting to keep people like Daniel Larsen in prison, who was shown to be innocent. When federal judges ordered California for the second time to launch a new parole programme, Harris stated: “prisons would lose an important labour pool.”

She was against the death penalty when a man killed a police officer but defended California’s death penalty system in court. She supported the dismissal of a trans woman’s right for surgery while writing a letter to President Trump alongside 19 senators condemning the removal of LGBTQ+ health-related information from federal websites.

Harris also said she was going to handle America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria “responsibly,” although neglecting to state a clear stance on future wars in the Middle East. This was after her 2017 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when she shared why she was pro-Israel and anti-Palestine.

“I stand with Israel, because of our shared values that are so fundamental for both our nations. I believe the bonds between the US and Israel are unbreakable and we can never let anyone drive a wedge between us.” Harris’ past, just like Biden’s voting record on criminal justice issues, is messy, multi-layered and frankly, contradictory.

Yet now it’s 2020, and when you look her up, you’ll find a video of her dancing with African American children in schools and at a Des Moines steak fry among other places. To get people to vote, she had the likes of Jaden Smith, Selena Gomez, Padma Lakshmi, Curly Velasquez, Becky G involved in her campaign. Creators such as Lilly Singh produced sketch music videos reeling off all the ways Harris is liberal and the right choice to eventually be president—or vice president for now.

Furthermore, Harris’ team has shared images of her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris holding her as a child in a salwar kameez, a traditional combination dress worn by women in South Asia. On her own YouTube channel, Harris is cooking dosas with Mindy Kahling.

Harris and her team have ticked off the BIPOC, queer, millennial, girl boss box. She looks like just the right digestible balance of new and traditional values American liberals dream of—she’s ‘one of us’ so she will also work for us. Let me reiterate it, visibility politics is killing my people.

As if by way of hope, women of colour, South Asian women, women in general and anyone who’s tired of waiting for the world to be a more equal place, settle for any kind of representation in order to be seen and fit in. Mere visibility is what we settled for.

Our world leaders know that it’s all they have to provide, so consequently, that’s all they provide. As Shahed Ezaydi writes in gal-dem, “It feels as though she’s being perceived as progressive because she’s a biracial woman, and not because of her politics. Yet we all know that not all Black and brown people are liberal by nature—look at Priti Patel.”

This isn’t to say that we can’t be happy about the election’s result (if that’s who we voted to win) and enjoy this moment of somewhat progress, but we cannot be disillusioned by what’s on the surface. How one’s policies in office affects the people they’re supposed to be standing up for. And to put it plainly, bombs are bombs at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman of colour who sends the orders to detonate them or a white (orange) man in a red cap.

What about the women in the Middle East? Do we not stand up for their rights or does our feminism not stretch further enough? As Harris said in her first speech as vice president, while she may be the first woman in the office, she will not be the last. This is the bare minimum and the very beginning.

What a Biden presidency will mean for the tech industry

Throughout his campaign to win the White House, President-elect Joe Biden made it clear that the technology industry was not at the top of his list. He mentioned COVID-19 and climate change endlessly (and for good reasons) but somewhat seemed to barely address the fact that he thought the Obama administration had been too friendly with Silicon Valley. What will a Biden presidency mean for Big Tech and the rest of the technology industry?

In January 2020, during an interview for the New York Times, Biden admitted that he wanted to revoke Section 230 and referred to tech executives as “little creeps” who displayed an “overwhelming arrogance.” Section 230 is a piece of Internet legislation in the US, which provides immunity for website publishers from third-party content. In other words, it provides (with some exceptions) big internet companies with immunity from liability for hosting problematic content if it was published there by someone else, also known as ‘third-party users’.

But those same internet companies who Biden criticised have also been among his campaign’s top 10 donors. As technology industry insiders joined his campaign, incoming vice president Kamala Harris showed long-standing ties to Silicon Valley as a former district attorney in San Francisco.

Yet, speaking to the MIT Technology Review, Gigi Sohn, who served as counsellor to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration, assured that technology isn’t high on Biden’s list of priorities. Sohn explained that the President-elect would first have to focus on other major issues that will take up his administration’s early focus. “We could talk about the evils of the internet, but you still need it,” she said. “I think making sure that every American has access to affordable broadband is more important [than regulating the Internet], because they need that to live right now, to work, to learn, and to see a doctor.”

On Biden’s transition website detailing his administration’s agenda, he highlighted four priority areas: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Technology was also mentioned but only briefly and with a focus on expanding broadband internet rather than regulation of Big Tech companies. So what can we expect from the Biden administration when it comes to tech regulation? While even Biden’s opinion remains unclear, here’s what is worth paying attention to.

Biden might revoke Section 230

Or at least, he might refocus the debate on the section. While Biden’s stance on it is perhaps more nuanced than what he suggested when speaking to the New York Times, Section 230 will continue to be an area of debate. Rather than being driven by the Republican-led discourse charging anti-conservative bias at social media companies that we saw during the Trump presidency, which was not founded on any evidence by the way, the conversation might instead shift to how these companies are too big, too powerful. This sounds like a good place to start.

As the Technology Review highlighted, this prediction was “reflected in a series of tweets by Biden campaign deputy communications director Bill Russo, who said Facebook’s inability to deal with disinformation was ‘shredding the fabric of our democracy.’”

The Google lawsuit will continue as planned

The Department of Justice filed a long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google in October 2020. While it can’t be assured just yet, experts agree that the lawsuit will continue under a Biden presidency if not strengthened, especially with several states expected to file their own lawsuits against Google very soon.

Stay pals with Big Tech (no matter what Biden said)

Yes, the Obama administration had a publicly friendly relationship with Silicon Valley, and yes, Biden disapproved of it and called tech executives “little creeps.” But the plain facts seem to indicate that those same relationships have greatly helped his efforts to get elected. In April 2019, Biden launched his presidential bid at a fundraiser hosted by Comcast executive David Cohen, which raised over $25 million from internet companies, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

On top of this, a number of Silicon Valley insiders joined his team, including Cynthia C. Hogan, a former government affairs executive at Apple. Of course, it remains unclear exactly how these political donations will affect the Biden administration’s approach to Big Tech, but the ties are as obvious as can be.

Either way, tech won’t be a priority

The need to create a coronavirus plan and a stimulus package will be Biden’s primary focus. Then comes the idea of potentially halting climate change—the list goes on. My point is, don’t expect Biden to come to the White House in January promising a ban on harmful surveillance capitalist business models. Not yet at least.