At the end of a busy day in Georgia, Vice President Harris walked up the steps to Air Force Two — the government plane that would ferry her back to Washington. She was alone as she moved briskly in her dark pantsuit and heels. When she reached the top, she strode directly through the doorway and disappeared. The entire scene took less than 20 seconds.
For many folks, seeing Harris inhabit those few seconds of mundane ceremony was an extended moment of pride, because at long last a woman was stepping inside the plane, her plane — one emblazoned with the words “United States of America.” And on this particular Friday evening, the power of Harris’s identity as an Asian American and Black woman in a time of heightened racial animus and unabashed violence was especially bountiful and profoundly needed.
This solitary figure under the night sky was the embodiment of America. She had just laid bare its long-standing woes with neither apology nor sentimentality. And she had done it all from a different vantage point.
Harris was traveling with the president last week for what had been billed as a victory lap to mark the passage of the American Rescue Plan and to thank Georgia and its two Democratic senators, who had played such a determinative role in getting it passed. Harris and President Biden were also there to highlight the glories of science during a stop at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They did all of those things, but at the heart of their day trip was their intention to speak to the killings, just days before, of eight people — six of whom were Asian women.
Harris’s words were blunt and unembellished, as they so often were when she was a senator interrogating a witness. She didn’t mention thoughts and prayers, because as much as the vice president might sit and ponder the pain of those who lost loved ones and aim to lift these survivors up to God, the government is not church, and it will not be there to hold anyone’s hand in the lonely quiet of extended mourning. Thoughts and prayers have been given and received — year after year after year — and nothing much has changed.
Instead, when Harris stepped to the lectern at Emory University, she did so with a tone that sounded often angry, sometimes sad and occasionally exasperated. She laid out what happened in Atlanta and the surrounding community with clear-eyed specificity.
“Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear: Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian Americans,” Harris said. “The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans has risen dramatically over the last year and more.”
Later, the president would be the one to lament that this wretched violence doesn’t represent what it means to be American. But Harris would make it clear that the violence very much represents what it means to live in America — and specifically what it means to be a citizen of Asian descent.
Harris didn’t approach the microphone with coldness. But she didn’t let a warm bath of reassuring this-is-not-who-we-are overrun the truth. The best of this country — the hopes, the dreams — doesn’t negate the worst of it. Sometimes, depending on where one stands, the scales of justice never even balance out, let alone tip in one’s favor. The shooting of these Asian and Asian American women was a particular tragedy that could have been foreseen if only the country was willing to look at what was directly in front of it, to hear what was being said from the loftiest perches, and read what was written in both recent history and its yellowed pages.
In her brief remarks, Harris recalled the racism and violence suffered by Chinese immigrants who came here to work on the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, the Japanese Americans who were locked away during World War II and the eternal questioning of Asian Americans’ Americanness. With tireless fervor, this country excels at the simultaneous erasure of individuality and cynical spotlighting of differences.
“Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” Harris said. “Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism, too.”
This is the America that so often goes undiscussed in mixed company. It’s the America that people of color see and lament — often with wry, self-protective humor — to others who look like them. It’s the America that women know intimately, the one about which they educate and warn their daughters. It’s the America of recent immigrants whose hardship and halting English may belie their tenacity, intelligence and courage — traits for which they are hailed by their loved ones even as they are barely visible to others.
“Everyone has the right to go to work, to go to school, to walk down the street and be safe, and also the right to be recognized as an American — not as the other, not as them, but as us,” Harris said. “A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us.”
When the vice president finished her remarks, she introduced Biden, and the lectern surface was dutifully wiped down, and the small platform on which she was standing was pushed out of the way. Biden took his place and removed his mask and began to speak in a voice that was just above a whisper and with a bit of a rasp. The effect was that of a man weighed down with emotions. And surely Biden felt the pain of a community that has been smothered by a myth of communal excellence and pummeled by the realities of poverty, racism and misogyny.
Feeling someone’s pain is a beginning. It means recognizing and acknowledging a truth. But Harris’s flinty-eyed assessment made it clear that the truth has always been self-evident.