Once again, Black Americans weren’t just the backbone of the Democratic Party. They were the face of it, too. Harris served as a bookend to the first Black president in Barack Obama, who was followed by one of the country’s most racially divisive presidents, Donald Trump.
But the momentousness of the night didn’t obscure the tightrope that Harris nimbly walked whenever Vice President Mike Pence attempted to talk over or interrupt her or downplay her expertise. She held her ground, was firm without falling into any of the traps that could tack her to labels — emotional, angry, nasty — reserved for women, especially Black women.
Almost predictably, Trump denigrated Harris during a rambling Fox Business interview the next morning by referring to her as “a monster” who was on stage with Pence.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” Harris said. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, granted the senator an additional 15 seconds to talk.
“I want to ask the American people: How calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper?” Harris asked, turning her gaze directly to the camera. “How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back? How calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?”
Later, Harris repeated her memorable line.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Harris said, as she smiled and shook her head. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation, OK?”
Pence bowed: “Please,” he responded.
The racial and gender dynamics were again on display when the debate turned to police brutality.
Without irony, Pence sought to distort and dismiss racial caste to someone whose lived experiences and expertise have taught her otherwise.
“We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors,” Pence said.
But Harris wasn’t having it.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” the former career prosecutor said. “I’m the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.”
Notably, Harris knew when to move on.
“(She) went into (the debate) aware of the various dynamics and to thread the needle on balancing being assertive and letting it go at points,” a source close to the senator’s campaign told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Women are judged differently. It’s a needle we have to thread all the time, and of course she has been the only woman and the only Black woman in many spaces.”
On Wednesday night, Harris spoke. And apparently, America listened.