Kamala Harris knows how to fight.
When The Root solicited the California senator (for now...hint, hint) for our series on how the novel strain of the coronavirus could impact the not-so-novel strain of white supremacy that has infected this nation for centuries, she didn’t bother discussing how American ingenuity could defeat the deadly disease. Unlike most people, myself included, Harris didn’t spiel off aphorisms about “attacking” the virus, putting it in a headlock and forcing it to submit to the “great American way.” Instead, the former presidential candidate has an entirely different plan.
She wants to use it.
While we could not independently verify Sen. Harris’ martial arts credentials, she did explain her approach to addressing the global pandemic that is wreaking havoc on black and brown communities. Referencing the ancient art of judo, Harris suggested that she and her fellow legislators could use the coronavirus crisis to address the persistent racial and economic divides that plague the country by implementing the lesson of judo founder Jigoro Kano, who said:
In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
There is nothing in Kano’s book about chopping coronaviruses in the throat.
But after seeing the data on how COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed non-white Americans, Harris views the disease as a powerful, skilled combatant that is currently getting the best of its unprepared, untrained opponent—America. And, according to the senator, as the coronavirus exposes some of America’s previously ignored weaknesses, the only way we can hope to defeat the disease is by eliminating the deficiencies such as structural racism and institutional inequality.
“If I were to list the disparities, I would put them into buckets,” Harris explained. “I would put it into the public health bucket, the economic justice bucket, the educational justice piece, and environmental justice. But those aren’t exclusive, right? There are definitely others.”
Although I thought I was speaking clearly, Harris either didn’t hear or intentionally ignored my suggestive hints when I repeatedly referred to her as “Vice President Harris.” Maybe this quarantine has robbed me of my “outside voice.” Or perhaps she was social distancing from my joke.
Hopefully, Joe Biden heard me.
Instead, the former California attorney general went on to explain how the murderous microorganism presents an opportunity to tackle the issues that disproportionately impact black America. She rattled off a list of specific policy plans and legislative goals that she hopes will use the pandemic’s rapid momentum against itself, in turn, creating a stronger and more equal country.
Noting that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, Harris related it to the climate crisis, which she called an “existential threat to us as human beings.” She illustrated how health disparities are inextricably intertwined with environmental policy and air quality, condemning Donald Trump for cowering to the wishes of the oil industry by lowering Obama-era automobile admissions standards.
“Vulnerable communities are always going to pay the price,” Harris told The Root. “You look at the fact that African Americans are 20 percent more likely to have asthma, um, and, and all of the other respiratory illnesses. Environmental justice is very connected to that. We have to focus on the need to have smart environmental laws because the most vulnerable are going to be most affected by environmental policy.”
Harris’ climate plan, outlined during her past presidential campaign, focuses on the parallel policies of environmental justice, healthcare and economic opportunity. She proposes a mandate for car manufacturers to produce a certain percentage of electric vehicles and figures that investing in renewable energy will not only eliminate pollutants and improve air quality but will also create jobs that would have a positive economic impact on the communities that were disproportionately affected by environmental toxins.
Which brings us to the second bucket…
“We can look at what this, this, this pandemic has done, meaning that we already had the fact that almost half of American families couldn’t afford $400 unexpected expense, right,” said the former prosecutor, just before she rattled off a list of facts. “We already had the fact that in 99 percent of the counties in the United States, a minimum-wage worker working 40 hours cannot afford market rate for a one-bedroom apartment. We already know that black households are twice as likely to rent as white households, right? Not to mention, you just look at the overall wealth disparities.”
“Black folks are 13 percent of the population of the United States but only own 3 percent of American wealth,” she continued. “Black homeownership is at 45 percent whereas white homeownership is 73 percent. And Latinos aren’t doing much better than black folks—they’re at 47 percent.”
But instead of just pointing out the disparities highlighted by the disease, Harris suggests that coronavirus offers both sides of the political aisle to embrace long-term progressive solutions. Along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), she has already proposed the Rent Relief Act which will create a “refundable tax credit for households whose housing costs exceed 30 percent of their income, including rent and utilities.”
Unlike already existing legislation, Harris’ bill offers benefits to needy families on a monthly basis. Combined with her campaign’s agenda aimed at closing the homeownership gap, Harris doesn’t see her ideas as short-term solutions only meant for this current predicament. She thinks they could address housing affordability and the homeownership gap for years to come.
“People are on the verge of becoming evicted or losing their homes, which is why I’ve been pushing like so many others for a moratorium on evictions, for a pause on foreclosures,” she explained. “I have a history of working on this. I worked on the foreclosure crisis back when I was attorney general, California where black families and Latino families and immigrant families were disproportionately targeted, but those predatory loans and disproportionately impacted by the foreclosure crisis. So all of that is connected.”
“This issue of homeownership and housing security is highlighted in a profound way during this pandemic,” she continued.
Harris is also crafting legislation that would force credit card companies to suspend penalties, interest and late fees during the pandemic. She is pushing a proposal that would press pause on home foreclosures, one that would increase SNAP benefits as well as legislation that would offer funds and support to black and minority-owned businesses.
“Did you know that black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America?” Harris asked.
It was not a rhetorical question. She waited for an answer.
I did not know that.
Harris was most animated when she arrived at the idea of voting rights. She will soon present a Senate bill that hopes to explore and promote pathways for people to vote by mail. She believes it is a secure and effective way of casting ballots while ensuring the safety of citizens.
I was just, for the second time, in Selma and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis. There is a proud tradition of going to the polls on election day...bringing the children of taking a picture...There are ceremonies associated with it. We have “Souls to the Polls and places where everybody after the church service gets on a bus and goes to vote and then goes back to the church for fellowship.
Part of what I’m saying again to use the pulpit is: ‘Guess what? You can honor the ancestors by voting by mail but we need to get people ready for that...You can still create a ceremony around it and have the kids around and maybe you know, have asked them questions and let them fill in the fill-in with you.
The senator acknowledged that some people don’t have the ability to vote by mail, noting as an example, that 26 percent of Native Americans in Arizona don’t have a postal address. To solve that problem, Harris presented an idea that might make voting more accessible to historically suppressed voters.
“What I’m pushing for in terms of solutions is that we put money into ensuring that elections are accessible to people with disabilities that we promote, She began. “You wanna hear my idea? Now here you go. Ready...Drumroll…”
Y’all, she actually did the drumroll.
“Curbside voting,” she excitedly revealed. “I’m talking about, like, drive-thru voting like a restaurant drive-thru. Part of my bill would say that there needs to be, we need to have a maximum wait time standard. Right? And, and, and that we need to do that in a way that we can use technology. Google already has ways they can tell you if a store is going to be busy when you get there. Why not use that for voting?”
On Thursday, Harris introduced VoteSafe Act of 2020, legislation to ensure safety and protect voting rights, not just during the pandemic, but for the future.
This was the part where I introduced an idea I’ve been pondering for more than a decade. If we can pay taxes, bank and register to vote online, then why can’t we vote online?
“Let me just be very clear about something,” said Harris before crushing my plan to smithereens. “I do not trust, nor am I ever gonna say to you, we should have voting online. Because the bottom line is, Russia can not hack a piece of paper.”
For a second I had almost forgotten that Harris was on the Senate Intelligence Committee and, therefore, knew more about what she was talking about.
“It’s just that I don’t trust that we can create a secure system,” she elaborated.”There are too many foreign actors who clearly want to interfere with who might be the next president of the United States. But certainly, technology can help make it easier for people to figure out when is a good time to go and all everything you said.”
Welp…Let’s move on.
According to my research, no one in America has ever talked to a Howard University graduate who didn’t mention their alma mater at least once. And, in this specific instance, Harris didn’t break tradition.
“Then there is the issue of educational justice,” she said, as I felt the “you-know-I-went-to-Howard” percolating. “And, as you know, I’ve been fighting for Howard University, my alma mater, and other minority-serving institutions because so many of those kids who are first in their family to go to college, they, they were living in the dorms and they had to leave. Where were they going to live? So a big part of our push was to get, um, extra assistance to HBCU and minority-serving institutions because so many of those kids are first-generation.”
Again, she came with receipts.
“40 percent of African Americans age 25 to 55 have student loan debt as compared to 30 percent of whites. So when you look at that and you combine that with what we know around the digital divide. That’s why I’m proposing that we have $2 billion to start making sure that we deal with internet equity because all of these kids who are at home supposedly being homeschooled, but you can’t, you can’t teach a child without access to the internet.”
You’re probably wondering what all of these statistical realities have to do with coronavirus in black communities. That’s when Harris dumped all the “buckets” on the floor.
“See, the educational disparities create the income disparities, and the income disparities create wealth disparities and the wealth disparities create voter suppression and politically underrepresented communities and the lack of political power allows for environmental injustice, which then creates the healthcare disparities,” she said without taking a breath. “And the healthcare disparity is what exacerbates the disproportionate rates of infection and death with coronavirus.”
And the thigh bone connects to the hip bone.
They are all interconnected.
The senator explained that it is impossible to address the coronavirus or the communities it affects without fixing the underlying issues. And that is precisely what she is trying to do right now.
But how can one person—even a senator—fight such a formidable foe?
Harris says she adheres to a personal principle that there are three elements of power that arms her with the ability and the responsibility to affect change:
- Policy: “For me, as a senator, that includes pushing for legislation that will have impact.”
- The bully pulpit: “Every day, before we were social distancing, I had a bouquet of microphones in front of me. With it comes the opportunity to elevate public discourse and, educate people about issues they may not consider or think of or have a perspective on.”
- The power to convene: “Like today, I had a Zoom meeting with seventy-something black women from around the country talking about maternal mortality. And I had these physicians of color talking about their experience with their patients and the need for solutions but first of all, for a recognition of the issues.”
And, as daunting a threat as COVID-19 might be for black America, the swashbuckling legislator insists that the invisible pathogen may make it possible for black America to beat its 400-year-old opponent—white supremacy. Now that the coronapocalypse has made the pervasiveness of rampant inequality impossible to ignore, legislators and regular Americans might be willing to set aside their political differences for a common goal.
“I come from a perspective that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” Harris said. “And with that spirit, we could actually do a lot to not only repair what’s broken but also to heal. And that’s how I approach it.”
Asked if she sees the coronavirus as a weaker opponent or a stronger one, Harris simply responded:
“I see it as an opportunity...The opportunity to restructure a broken system.”
That’s probably the best solution for black America.
I would’ve just tried chopping it in the throat.