It became something of a refrain during the 2020 vice presidential debate: Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.
Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris’ very presence on the acrylic-glass-partitioned stage on Wednesday night was historic: In August, she became the first Black and South Asian woman, as well as the first graduate of a historically Black college or university, to be chosen as a major party candidate’s running mate.
Once again, Black Americans weren’t just the backbone of the Democratic Party. They were the face of it, too. Harris served as a bookend to the first Black president in Barack Obama, who was followed by one of the country’s most racially divisive presidents, Donald Trump.
But the momentousness of the night didn’t obscure the pressures that Harris nimbly contended with whenever Vice President Mike Pence attempted to talk over or interrupt her or downplay her expertise. She was firm without falling into any of the traps that could associate her with labels – emotional, angry, nasty – reserved for women, especially Black women.
Almost predictably, Trump denigrated Harris during a rambling Fox Business interview the next morning by referring to her as a “monster” who was on stage with Pence.
Early on in the debate, as Harris rebutted the Trump administration’s comic assertion that its disastrously slow response to the novel coronavirus pandemic was out of a desire to keep Americans calm, the Vice President tried to cut her off.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” Harris said. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, granted the senator an additional 15 seconds to talk.
“I want to ask the American people: How calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper?” Harris asked, turning her gaze directly to the camera. “How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back? How calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?”
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Later, Harris repeated her memorable line.
Pence claimed that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would raise taxes immediately upon assuming office. As Harris launched into her rejoinder – “I thought we saw enough of it in last week’s debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth,” she said – Pence attempted to butt in.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Harris said, as she smiled and shook her head. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation, OK?”
Pence bowed: “Please,” he responded.
It was an unenviable position that Harris nonetheless nailed. She was, to borrow part of Shirley Chisholm’s widely known campaign slogan, “unbossed” in a country that always finds ways to punish powerful women.
Or as the senator recently put it to Elle magazine: “That’s why I’ve run for most offices I have run for, because I’m not so good sometimes at asking for permission.”
The racial and gender dynamics were again on display when the debate turned to police brutality.
When Page asked Harris and Pence whether justice was done in the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed during a flawed police raid in March, the Vice President stuck to the GOP script. He characterized protests for racial justice as episodes of violence and scoffed at the reality of systemic racism in a country where police disproportionately kill Black Americans.
Without irony, Pence sought to distort and dismiss racial caste to someone whose lived experiences and expertise have taught her otherwise.
“We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors,” Pence said.
But Harris wasn’t having it.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” the former career prosecutor said. “I’m the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.”
Notably, Harris knew when to move on.
“(She) went into (the debate) aware of the various dynamics and to thread the needle on balancing being assertive and letting it go at points,” a source close to the senator’s campaign told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Women are judged differently. It’s a needle we have to thread all the time, and of course she has been the only woman and the only Black woman in many spaces.”
According to a CNN Instant Poll of registered voters who watched the debate, Harris came out on top – 59% said that she won, while 38% thought that Pence triumphed.
On Wednesday night, Harris spoke. And apparently, America listened.