Before last night’s vice-presidential debate, the hype, at least among Democrats, was that Kamala Harris was going to knock Mike Pence out. You might have thought it was 1988 again, and the debate was that year’s most anticipated prizefight, with the senator from California playing the role of Mike Tyson and the sitting vice president cast as Michael Spinks.
Tyson knocked out Spinks in 91 seconds. The brevity of the bout became one more piece of evidence for Tyson’s breathtaking power, and it cemented his reputation as one of the most intimidating fighters in boxing history.
For Harris, expectations were so high that, in the run-up to the debate, numerous memes circulated about how she was going to fillet Pence on the stage. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a friend of Harris’s, retweeted a video collage of some of her best moments in committee hearings—including that time she rattled then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions by interrogating him about whether he had communicated with any Russian officials during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Booker wrote, “I’ve watched her do it on the Senate Judiciary Committee and absolutely cannot wait to watch her do it again on the debate stage. Kamala Harris is ready to hold this administration accountable.”
Of course, Harris couldn’t really give Pence the Spinks treatment. She hit hard right at the start, calling Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” But the debate went on, as scheduled, for another hour and a half, during which Harris delivered more jabs than haymakers against Pence. Still, as the first woman of color to represent a major party’s presidential ticket, the most powerful statement she could make in the debate was to claim her own power—and she did it.
A telling dynamic of the debate was the way Harris repeatedly confronted Pence for interrupting her. She drew a chorus of amens from women on Twitter, since most of them could relate to being put in the awkward position of having to maintain their poise as someone tried to undermine them.
From that perspective, the degree of difficulty was far higher for Harris than for her debate opponent. Any woman in Harris’s position, regardless of her race, would be heavily scrutinized. But as a Black woman, the stakes for Harris were greater still, and the margin of error thinner. Predictably, some pundits criticized her for her demeanor and declared Pence the winner. And today on Fox News, Trump referred to Harris as “this monster,” because one of his favorite pastimes is dismissing, insulting, and dehumanizing Black women. Despite the attacks, a CNN poll found that most debate viewers thought Harris had won, and the sentiment on social media among Black women was even more enthusiastic.
Like many other Black women, I felt a rush of pride watching Harris make history, but also a sense of irritation. I was familiar with the game she had to play: striking a balance, at every moment, between being herself and trying to win over those who see Black women only through a stereotypical lens. It meant that Harris would have to exhaust a lot of energy on trying not to be too much—too unapologetic, too demonstrative, and even too Black. For instance, when Pence insisted that a Kentucky grand jury’s failure to hold Louisville police officers accountable for Breonna Taylor’s death had served the cause of justice, and when he insinuated that viewing the American system of policing as fundamentally racist is somehow offensive, Harris, a former prosecutor, first let out a dismissive laugh. Then she had to remind Pence that she knows far more about how the justice system works than he ever will.
The debate only reinforced the reasons Harris is such a model for Black women, whose influence is growing academically and politically even as we still earn 63 cents for every dollar that white men earn. Seeing Harris claim her place will give other women of color more confidence that, without sacrificing their ambition, they can navigate the complicated pressures placed upon them because of their race and gender.
Harris’s success will help a lot of Black girls and women feel seen. She has a long history of breaking barriers—as the first Black woman elected as a district attorney, and then later attorney general, in California. But a lot of Black women, probably including Harris, are well past the point of feeling any special distinction for being a first or an only. Harris’s impressive political rise and her acceptance of her place in history are simply a matter of claiming what’s due.