Kamala Harris’s tightrope act as vice president has been a sight to behold. But this week, she was more than a little wobbly on the subject of race.

It all started Wednesday night, with the words of another Black political figure. While delivering the GOP response to President Biden’s address to Congress, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said flatly that “America is not a racist country.” The predictable backlash sent Scott rushing to Fox News to whine that Black people and the “radical left” were being mean to him because of the color of his skin.

Considering his openness about experiencing racism in America as a Black man, Scott’s contortions were particularly laughable. But there was nothing amusing about his denial of the existence of systemic racism. Just as mold thrives in dark places, willful ignorance allows racism in all its forms to flourish.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on April 28 said it is “backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination.” (The Washington Post)

But Republican denial is a familiar story. The plot twist came when Harris seconded Scott — “No, I don’t think America is a racist country,” she said on “Good Morning America” the next day.

Let’s stipulate that as a Black and South Asian woman, Harris has to perform a delicate dance as vice president. And the past few years have certainly seen the proliferation of weird word salads to avoid the word “racist” in media and politics. (Yes, “racially tinged,” “racially charged” and “implicitly biased,” I’m looking at y’all.) Harris didn’t get where she is by not knowing where our traps and tripwires lie.

Still, did she have to take a cue from Scott’s tap-dancing on race? Let me venture out on an extremely sturdy limb here: Harris absolutely knows that America remains a racist country. More than that, her denial of it is harmful.

Harris’s political rise invited obvious racist attacks, from the deliberate mispronunciation of her Indian first name to birther conspiracies questioning her eligibility to run. Police killings of Black and Latino people occur over and over. And wasn’t it just a few weeks ago, after a White gunman killed a number of Asian women, that Harris spoke about anti-Asian hate?

Telling in Harris’s response to Scott’s speech was her fast pivot to Biden, praising him for “always having the ability and the courage, frankly, to speak the truth about it." There was something so familiar in that deflection. How many Black people and other people of color have felt pressure to assure the White people around us that they are getting things right on race — to pat them on the back for being a good ally?

As the Biden-Harris administration hits their 100-day mark, The Post’s Sean Sullivan and a presidential historian analyze how Vice President Harris is doing. (Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Harris is right, I want to note: Biden speaks truth when he says that America needs to root out white supremacy and systemic racism, words I never thought I would hear a White male president say. But her “always” in that sentence is just wrong, and you don’t have to go back to Biden’s harmful actions in the Senate to see it. For all of Biden’s rhetoric about doing what is necessary to root out racism, he has focused attention on instances of rioting at what have been overwhelmingly peaceful anti-racism protests after incidents of police violence.. He also, by the way, failed to nominate any Asian Americans to his Cabinet. (When Biden’s aides reportedly pointed to Harris herself, the “one Asian is enough” defense predictably did not go over well with advocates.)

Harris’s vice presidency is historic, yes, but that brings with it complex constraints. Given fears that her star power could outshine Biden, Politico’s Eugene Daniels and Christopher Cadelago report, her primary focus has been on earning the president’s trust. A Politico source summarized Harris’s prevailing ethos this way: “Make sure everyone in that White House complex knows I have only one priority and that is covering Joe Biden’s back.”

Maybe that’s the smart political play: How far Harris’s political career goes in the future is highly dependent on how much authority Biden gives her now. But still, it’s a touch depressing if the first multiracial vice president thinks she has to make herself smaller, and distort the truth about racism in America, so that she doesn’t steal the limelight from her White male boss.

Whatever the reason for Harris’s circumspection, imagine a different approach. Imagine if Harris felt free to plainly share her own thoughts and experiences about racism in America, particularly in a national moment when racist attacks and police brutality dominate so many news cycles. The critics will let their arrows fly, but history demands that leaders like Harris speak the truth about the ugliness of racism.

Harris got closer to the mark as she continued on in that interview Thursday. “We also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today,” she said. “It does not help to heal our country, to unify us as a people, to ignore the realities of that.”

No, it doesn’t. And especially for women of color, it is exhausting to watch Harris have to walk on the all-too-familiar tightrope of race and gender. Perhaps, in time, Harris will get more space to shine as the administration progresses. Until then, we are all holding our breath.

Read more: