Column: Republican racism has finally weaponized Kamala Harris

A smiling woman in a blue jacket and pearls in front of microphones
Vice President Kamala Harris attacked the erasure of Black history in three speeches this week and last.
(Tony Avelar / Associated Press)
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Republicans are doing their damnedest to make Vice President Kamala Harris a liability for President Biden’s reelection, not without plenty of help from her over time.

But as they keep doing stupid stuff underscoring their racial insensitivity — the latest being Florida’s and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ claim of a silver lining to slavery — Republicans have handed Harris an apt role: The Democrats’ weapon for calling them on their callousness, and for shoring up the Democratic base while she’s at it.

Harris — the first woman, Black American and person of South Asian descent to be vice president — has had a pretty good week, turning the Republicans’ charge that Democrats are trying to politically indoctrinate America’s youth back onto the Republican Party itself. And she’s put the lie to the claim that the left is forcing a guilt trip on white children simply by fully teaching them about the nation’s sins as well as its triumphs.


Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

It helps that Harris is right: One of America’s triumphs is the progress made to expunge the country’s original sin, the racism inherent in the long enslavement of Black people.

DeSantis has given her an easy target. His insistence that Democrats are indoctrinating students on racial and sexual matters is central to his bumbling presidential campaign; rotely, ad nauseam, he promises to take his “war on woke” in Florida nationwide.

DeSantis is so wedded to his theme that he offered something of a defense for the indefensible at an event Friday when reporters challenged him about passages in Florida’s new 216-page academic standards for teaching social studies. The curriculum bows to a 2022 state law DeSantis signed called the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act. Get it? The Stop WOKE Act.

Page 6 has this on how to teach about slavery: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” And Page 17 tells teachers that educating kids about the race massacres of Black Americans will include “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” — the emphasis is mine — raising both-sidesism to an obscene level.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants us to know how slaves learned their trades in bondage, but he gets everything dead wrong.

July 25, 2023

DeSantis, flanked almost entirely by white supporters, elaborated on the “personal benefit” of enslavement for Black “folks”: “I think that they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”

What, you weren’t taught that the atrocity sanctioned for nearly a century in the U.S. Constitution doubled as vocational education? Or that those in bondage could “parlay” skills to their own profit, rather than solely for their enslavers’ gain?

Of course, DeSantis isn’t alone in trafficking in such perilous ignorance, as he appeals to voters in a party that’s become increasingly open to racism, nationalism and homophobia. Other Republican “leaders” are complicit by their silence, just as they have been for years by declining to unite in condemning Donald Trump for his obscenities.


When a prominent party figure challenges the fact that slavery was an unqualified horror, and foists that view onto children in the third-most populous state, it demands censure.

That is Harris’ point. She didn’t even name DeSantis, not that she had to, when she rushed to Jacksonville, Fla., Friday to attack not only the architects of the state’s revised academic standards, but also others “who want to be talked about as American leaders.”

“Let’s be clear — I do believe this is not only about the state of Florida. There is a national agenda afoot,” she said to a diverse audience. An agenda, as she described it, that encompasses book bans and don’t-say-gay laws, as well as the soft-pedaling or even erasure of the nation’s racial history.

Harris was most impassioned on the history of slavery and racism: “Come on — adults know what slavery really involved. It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother. It involved some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world.”

“How is it,” she asked, “that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to be subjected to this level of dehumanization?”

On Monday, Harris was in Chicago delivering a similar message at separate conventions of the Latino group UnidosUS and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition founded by the just-retired Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. And on Tuesday, she joined Biden at a White House event to establish a national monument to the murdered Black teenager Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who by showing her son’s mutilated corpse to the world in 1955 exposed the inhumanity of white supremacy.


“Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget,” Harris said at the Till commemoration. “We will be better if we remember.”

The vice president — call her Biden’s attack dog, as some accounts have, or simply a truth-teller — is not going to dissuade Republicans from their attempt to rewrite history. Yet even if she’s preaching to the choir, hers is a message that must go out.

Maybe she’s finally found her niche.