As America reckons with racism, Kamala Harris puts her identity as the first Black VP front and center

As America reckons with racism, Kamala Harris puts her identity as the first Black VP front and center

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about the Biden administration’s decision to release $39 billion from the American Rescue Plan. – Washington, DC – April 15, 2021 (Shutterstock)

By Maureen Groppe and Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY

Shagara Bradshaw wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary last month when she dropped into a vaccination site in Jacksonville, Florida, for her second COVID-19 shot.

Bradshaw hadn’t heard that Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting the tented facility to encourage people to get vaccinated. But when she was pulled out of the registration line to meet Harris, Bradshaw knew how she wanted to introduce herself.

“Good afternoon, soror,” Bradshaw, 38, said to her delighted fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister and fellow graduate of a historically Black university.

As Navy troops wearing military fatigues prepared doses, Bradshaw and Harris chatted about being a role model by getting vaccinated and about Bradshaw’s job at a Jacksonville school where she is teacher of the year – an honor that was the highlight of her year until she met Harris.

“I felt like I was speaking to someone that understood me,” Bradshaw said. “She knows what it’s like, the struggles of African American women, what we have to go through.”

Identity front and center

Harris, the first woman – and first woman of color – to hold the second-highest national office, has embraced that identity at a time when the country is facing a racial reckoning – and when race remains a deeply sensitive and politically volatile issue.

As Democrats applaud the spotlight that Harris and others in the administration have put on equity, Republicans accuse the administration of deepening the racial divide by ignoring gains in the fight against racism.

“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, said in the GOP’s response to President Joe Biden’s joint address to Congress Wednesday.

Harris, the next morning, responded that she does not believe America is a racist country.

“But we also do have to speak truth about racism in this country, and its existence today,” Harris said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Harris’ willingness to dive right into the topic is evident in a USA TODAY review of her public schedule, which shows how much she has emphasized issues important to people of color, and to women, in her first 100 days.

Other than administering the oath of office to fellow Cabinet members or interacting with foreign leaders, most of the more than 40 other solo activities on her public schedule through late April have had at least some connection to her identity and those who share it.

Harris traveled to the majority minority cities of Oakland, California, to discuss “water equity”; New Haven, Connecticut, to talk about child poverty and education, and Greensboro, North Carolina, to talk about jobs. In Greensboro, she sat at the former Woolworth’s lunch counter where a peaceful sit-in became a defining moment in the civil rights movement.

While emphasizing the need to “speak truth” even if it “may make folks uncomfortable,” Harris has met with Black mayors, members of local Black Chambers of Commerce, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, women’s leadership groups, female labor leaders and faith leaders from minority communities.

“The truth is,” she told the House Democratic Caucus in March, “inequity has become the norm.”

In an interview with USA TODAY in March, Harris said the coronavirus pandemic “has exposed the failures, the fractures, the fissures that have long existed in our society, and it has made them bigger and more obvious.”

Harris noted that longstanding inequities in health care have put Black people at higher risk of dying from the virus. She added that many frontline workers face inequities around pay, family leave and child care affordability.

“These are all issues that have disproportionately impacted Black women in the workforce,” she said.

Harris also has put a spotlight on the successes and contributions of women and people of color. In the Washington area, she visited a women-owned knitting store, where one of the yarn colors was named after her. And at a stop at a local Veterans Affairs hospital, she delivered Valentine’s Day treats to about two dozen workers of color.

At the National Institutes of Health, she lauded the work of Black women in science during and met Dr. Kizzy Corbett, who worked on the Moderna vaccine.

“For people to know that a Black woman helped develop the Moderna vaccine, and for the vice president, who is a Black woman, to highlight the work of Black women in science, that’s critical,” said Duchess Harris, professor of political science and American studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul.

On International Women’s Day, Harris was on hand when Biden praised the promotion of two female generals to four-star commands. She recounted roles women have played in defending the nation, including transporting sensitive military information through enemy territory during the American Revolution and disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.

Even a virtual visit with the prime minister of Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day emphasized the familiar theme. The two leaders celebrated the first group of Ireland-bound Frederick Douglass Global Fellows, participants of a summer study abroad program for students of color.

“Together, may we build on the legacies of Frederick Douglass … and all of those who have fought for freedom,” Harris said after showing off the sculpture of the abolitionist in her office that’s on loan from her alma mater, Howard University, a historically Black university.

‘My VP looks like me’

Many Americans who haven’t felt fully represented in Washington have been thrilled to see themselves and their experiences reflected through Harris, akin to how a young Black boy wanted to touch President Barack Obama’s hair to find out if it felt like his.

“My VP looks like me!!” read the chalkboard held up by 6-year-old Maya Cedor when Harris went to Connecticut.

During Harris’ Jacksonville visit, a 9-year-old Black girl waved a sign painted in pink and purple letters that read “Girls can change the world.”

Obama, however, found he paid a price when he answered a question at a 2009 news conference about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor. The arrest occurred at the professor’s own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts after police responded to the report of a possible break-in as Gates was trying to force his door open.

After Obama criticized Cambridge police for acting “stupidly,” he saw a huge drop in support from white voters.

“It was support that I’d never completely get back,” he wrote in his memoir. 

Niambi Carter, associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, said Obama didn’t have “the space or the room” to address his identity the way that Harris does just a decade later.

Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who is helping to organize a scholarly convention on Harris, dismissed the risk that Harris could become too narrowly defined.

“I don’t think that she would be pigeon holed so much as I think that there’s a calculation being made that a certain part of the population will never agree that structural racism exists,’’ she said.

‘Mandate from the base’

Aimee Allison, head of the advocacy group She the People, which pushed Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate, said Harris and Biden have a “mandate from the base” to directly address racial, economic and gender issues.

“It’s demonstrated she is proof positive that who she is, and her experience, makes her more qualified, not less, makes her more able to speak to America and lead America, not less,” Allison said.

After a record number of women ran for – and failed to win – the 2020 presidential nomination, Biden committed to picking a woman as his running mate.  He faced tremendous pressure to choose a woman of color because of the large role African Americans – and particularly Black women – have played in the Democratic Party and because of the racial issues thrust into the foreground through the coronavirus pandemic and the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police.

Partnering with Biden

Biden seems to make a point of having her by his side at public events like bill signings as well as private meetings, including his daily security briefings and updates on the pandemic.

The significant amount of time she’s spent with Biden so far is important not only for developing their relationship, said vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein. It also “credentializes” her.

“The fact that she’s in the room makes her important to everybody else,” he said.

Harris has had more than 120 joint public or private events with Biden, compared with more than 80 solo activities, according to a USA TODAY review of the daily schedules released by the White House and announcements of calls with foreign leaders through April 28. (The publicly released schedules include only a fraction of the president’s and vice president’s activities.)

“She’s not been a VP that you don’t see or hear from,’’ said Melanie Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. Harris addressed the group at its virtual conference last month.

“Whether we’re in the room or not, we know she’s in the room,” Campbell said.

Biden speaks out too

While most of Harris’ solo events – outside of swearing-in Cabinet officials or talking with foreign leaders – have had a connection to her identity, Biden hasn’t relegated the equity issue to Harris. He’s vowed to “make equity and justice part of what we do every day.”

And when Biden speaks on the issue, as he did when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, his words naturally carry more import.

But, as president, Biden’s task is also to try to appeal to everyone, regardless of color, race and ethnic origin, said Nina Rees, who was a domestic policy aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

And it’s smart to put Harris forward when the issues of diversity, inclusion and equity have played such a large role in the public conversation.

“The right messages matters,” Rees said, “but having the right messenger matters just as much.”

‘Picking up that mantle’

Outlining Harris’ early activities, a senior White House official said Harris raised in every meeting about the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package the particular problems faced by women workers who have lost jobs at higher rates and had to leave the workforce to care for children.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said Harris is “really picking up that mantle” on gender wage gaps, healthcare disparities and childcare concerns “in a way that I just don’t think would happen in the same way, or have the same resonance or the same impact, if there weren’t a woman and a woman of color in that position.”

The day after Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ducked into the vice president’s office just off the Senate floor to strategize advancing the police reform bill they’d introduced after Floyd’s death last year when Harris was in the Senate.

“We had a good talk about not just the urgency of the bill, but she had some really practical thoughts,’’ Booker said, noting Harris’ experience as California’s attorney general.

‘Do they see themselves?’

Another early priority was the Paycheck Protection Program, federal loans to help businesses survive the pandemic that the new administration believed were not getting to those most in need, including the smallest businesses and those in rural or minority communities.

Harris got on the phone with bank CEOs, according to an administration official, but wanted to make business owners themselves aware that things had changed. That’s why Harris met with members of the Black Chamber of Commerce and with people like Wendy Garcia, an Arizona woman who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 17 and now has her own restaurant. In fact, all of the small business owners she met with on one of her first days in office were either women, people of color, or both.

Harris tells her aides to think about the fact that when someone looks at a wedding album of a friend, they’re most interested in the photos in which they appear.

“And that’s how we’re thinking about the American people,” said Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’ chief domestic policy adviser. “When they see these plans, do they see themselves in the plan?” 

Tackling migration

Harris’ most high profile – and potentially trickiest – assignment is working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to try to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S. border.

The administration has struggled to handle the record number of unaccompanied children crossing the border as Biden tries to deliver on a promise of creating a more humane and equitable system for immigrants and refugees.

Republicans have hammered Harris for not going to the southern border, bringing to a recent news conference a milk carton with her picture on the side along with the words “missing at the border.”

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said Harris “needs to go down to the border and see this for herself.”

When Harris traveled to New Hampshire last week, a protestor held up a sign with an arrow and the directions: “Mexico – 2,254 mi.”

Harris and her team have emphasized that she is working on the root causes, and not the symptoms, of the problem.

“It is something that is going to require diplomatic work,” Harris said this month, a few days after announcing she will travel to Mexico and Guatemala.

She met virtually Monday with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and plans to talk soon with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

High rewards and high risks

The University of Southern California’s Hancock Alfaro said the assignment could have high rewards and risks. It raises Harris’ foreign policy profile and Biden will be grateful if she comes up with solutions. But it also puts her “right square in the middle of one of our country’s most controversial subjects.”

California Rep. Barbara Lee, who is working on the issue with Harris through a House subcommittee Lee chairs that funds international activities, said Harris brings to the task the perspective of being the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica.

“It’s not going to be easy, but she’s going to do it,” Lee said. “Have you ever had a Black woman and South Asian woman deal with it?”

Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, said Harris should welcome such a meaty task with both international and domestic consequences.

“Guess what?” he said. “You’re not an effective vice president if you’re not willing to take on the tough problems.”

Future presidential bid?

Speculation on her own presidential ambitions is a topic Harris avoids for now. But if she were to run, rallying the base – which is dominated by women and people of color – would be essential.

Booker, a close friend of Harris, said she is “ 100% focused on the now.”

“She knows we are in a national crisis.”

One person who hopes to see Harris in the top job one day is Gayathri Cedor, the mother of 6-year-old Maya who held up the “My VP looks like me!!” sign in New Haven, Connecticut.

When Cedor heard Harris was coming, she wanted her daughter and son to get a glimpse, even if it was only of the vice president’s motorcade leaving the airport.

Like Harris, Cedor’s children’s are half Indian and half Black, a fact she noted on the other side of the chalkboard. Their families even share some of the same first names, like Maya and Meena.

“We were waving to her and she gave a thumbs up,” said Cedor, a 42-year-old mechanical engineer. “It’s just so exciting to see that background represented at such a high level.”

Outside of the vice president’s trip to her city, Cedor hasn’t been closely following Harris’ activities or the new administration generally but is pleased with the overall vibe.

“It just feels like it reflects America,” she said. “It reflects us.”

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