A day later, after a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, the nation’s first Black woman to be elected vice president took a step toward marking her own place in the struggle for a more equitable country.
“America has a long history of systemic racism,” Harris told the nation in a televised speech at the White House. “Black Americans, and Black men in particular, have been treated through the course of our history as less than human. Black men are fathers and brothers and sons and uncles and grandfathers and friends and neighbors.”
For Harris, who in January became the first Black and Asian American woman to hold a nationally elected office, it was an effort to meet a particularly emotional and complex moment in her nascent vice presidency. The country had been on edge for days, worried that another acquittal of another White officer accused of killing a Black man would spark a sequel to the incendiary protests that followed Floyd’s death in May.
Yet for many activists, Chauvin’s conviction was a relief but not a panacea, particularly because one court case could not address the systemic inequities at the heart of the outrage.
In her remarks Tuesday night, Harris tried to thread the needle between marking the progress represented by the guilty verdict and the progress the nation still needs to make. It was the most charged moment of her tenure — a nationally televised speech at a moment of national reckoning — and she struck a sweeping tone that seemed to resonate.
Black men’s “lives must be valued in our education system, in our health-care system, in our housing system, in our economic system, in our criminal justice system — in our nation, full stop,” she said.
Over the past three months, Harris has flashed an ability to channel the hopes and aspirations, but also the frustration and worries, of people who have been on the wrong side of a political and economic system tilted in favor of White men.
Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, is widely viewed as a potential heir to President Biden in eight years — or four, if the oldest president in history opts not to seek reelection. But her own presidential campaign fizzled before the first Democratic caucus last year, in part because she was unable to forge a political identity to complement the inspirational nature of her bid.
As she nears the 100-day mark, that political identity remains a work in progress, and she has yet to craft a distinct message. But she has made a strong effort to speak for those who feel left out of the nation’s aspirations, and she is the first vice president who can use words such as “me” and “our” and “my” in empathizing with the struggles facing people of color — and women.
“When we feel we are alone, it tends to make us feel that we don’t have power or agency,” Harris said last week at a roundtable event on Black maternal health. “And so when you are in that doctor’s office or that clinic or that hospital or that emergency room, know you are not alone — that you carry the voice and the support of so many women you may not meet who want you to be heard in that room.”
A few weeks earlier, she expressed a similar sentiment about the isolation of people of Asian and Pacific Island descent after a man killed eight people in the Atlanta area, including six Asian women.
“She obviously spoke about how she herself, as a South Asian woman, is certainly part of the community,” said Rep. Marvin Lim (D), a Filipino immigrant who was elected to the Georgia House last year. He was part of a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders who met with Biden and Harris after the mass shooting.
Harris “used her identity to remind us that we’re not alone,” Lim said. “In fact, I wrote down what she said: ‘Remember, you’re not alone. Don’t stop what you’re doing, and remind people we represent who they are, that they are not alone.’ ”
Chauvin’s conviction — which seemed to proclaim simultaneously that the nation had changed, and that enormous work remains — was perhaps the most resonant moment yet for Harris.
Still, one looming question is whether she can deliver concrete action as well as soaring words. On Tuesday, Harris said she and Biden would continue to press Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which she co-sponsored last year when she was still in the Senate. The legislation would ban chokeholds like the one used to kill Floyd, and would create a national police misconduct registry aimed at preventing problem officers from transferring to other departments.
But Harris also stressed that the importance of the moment was not limited to one community, and that the country’s inequity was not just a problem for those who are subjected to racial bias.
“Here’s the truth about racial injustice,” she said. “It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American. It is keeping us from fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all. And it is holding our nation back from realizing our full potential.”