VP Kamala Harris says the Supreme Court took rights from the people of America
On stage this weekend, there was Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Megan Thee Stallion. And there was Kamala Harris.
"Coretta Scott King famously said that the fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation. We are that generation she spoke of," said the vice president on stage Friday at the 29th Essence Festival of Culture. "So, fight we must."
Tens of thousands of people showed up this past weekend for the Essence festival in New Orleans, La., where Vice President Kamala Harris headlined panel conversations about economic opportunity and maternal health and reproductive rights. On both days she spoke, the U.S. Supreme Court issued monumental decisions that ended the use of race as a factor in college admissions and blocked the Biden administration's attempt to forgive student loan debt. It also ruled that businesses could refuse LGBTQ customers.
"This is a serious moment and fundamental issues are at stake," Vice President Harris told NPR's Michel Martin in her first interview after the court decisions at the Essence Festival. "And I do believe that there is a national movement afoot to attack hard won and hard fought freedoms."
The annual music festival engages Black and African American women focusing on culture, empowerment and societal issues. This year many of the conversations were dominated by the decisions the Supreme Court had made in the hours before.
"I have three degrees. I come from a home where I did not have $500,000. I did not have parents paying for my education" Tomayia Colvin of Houston, TX to NPR at the festival. Colvin said she graduated with a doctorate in educational leadership, a hefty investment. "We took out these loans, right, with the idea that having a college degree would give us a better life." Now she worries about what comes next.
Festival attendees, like Jame Jackson of Brooklyn, New York wanted to know what the Biden-Harris administration is doing to protect marginalized groups. "We've had a lot of attacks," she said in anticipation of hearing Vice President Harris speak. "First of all, this is like one of the worst Pride months on record as far as, like, attacks against the LGBTQIA+ community. So I'm really interested to see what her thoughts are and how we can continue to cultivate and also support marginalized voices."
"I like her because I feel like she's getting out there," said Dwayne and Camille Hodges who host a show in Davenport, Iowa called Wake Up in Praise. "She's not sitting behind a desk. She's getting out in the communities, and you know, finding out what's going on and meeting people and talking to them," said Camille. Her spouse believes Harris is starting to address various thorny issues, which impresses him. "She's not shying away and not talking about them," said Dwayne Hodges.
Vanessa Rice is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, like the vice president. Rice describes herself as an independent voter but said she leans conservative. While she supports the vice president, Rice said the Biden-Harris administration hasn't done enough for a population that put the two of them into office. "It just seems like other groups' matters get handled faster than ours," she said.
Last year at this time, the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. Since then, Harris has taken on the task of addressing reproductive rights and maternal healthcare from her side of the political spectrum. As she has traveled the country, Harris said she's heard countless stories. "The stories are, women having miscarriages in toilets. The stories are women who are in the process of a miscarriage, who are being denied care at an emergency room and going back to the emergency room and being denied again," Harris said.
NPR's Michel Martin sat down with Vice President Kamala Harris in New Orleans after her appearance at Essence Fest to talk about her work, her thoughts on the high court's ruling and the 2024 election. This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
Michel Martin: Given that the range of action possible for the administration is fairly narrow in this area, one could make the argument that the administration has done what it can do through executive action; and, that also speaks to the question of the student loan debt issue. As we are speaking today, the president has spoken about this, back in Washington, and he's laid out what steps the administration's prepared to take. But, the range of things that you can do is fairly narrow. Given all that, what's your message?
Vice President Kamala Harris: Well, the message is, it's not a slogan. The message is, first on an issue like student loan debt – to first speak to the issue, itself and the importance of understanding the issue – which is so many of our young people, in particular, are experiencing debt that is out of proportion; that it is weighing them down to the extent that they are wondering if they can ever have a family, if they can ever buy a home. We are looking at a policy that we believe in; that if implemented, if the court hadn't acted as it did, would have meant that 90% of the recipients of student loan debt relief, make under $75,000 a year and are barely able to make it through the month with the other bills that they have. And so, we are going to be creative in the way that we can provide some relief to this population that we have front of mind on this issue.
On the issue of reproductive care and access to reproductive care – through not only the Department of Justice where litigation is happening, where it is appropriate – through Health and Human Services, what we are doing to make clear that no one should be denied access to emergency care – there is a law in that regard, and doing what we need to do to enforce that law, doing what we can and need to do to inform people of their privacy rights on an issue like abortion. So there is work that we can do. But ultimately, for a lot of these issues, look, we have three branches of government. The court took rights from the people of America. Congress can put those rights back in place. We cannot through executive action. Congress can. So part of the point, including when I was talking on the stage here in New Orleans, is reminding people of the power of their vote to elect people into the United States Congress who care about the importance of putting back in place in law the protections of Roe v. Wade.
Martin: So your job in part, is to tell people you need to vote for Democrats, because Democrats will restore these rights, defend these rights, and will expand the range of options that are available to people in policy. That's basically, sort of the message. So here's my question...
Harris: Well, no, but let me just say that it's because Democrats are the ones standing for these rights. So I'm saying, if you care about these rights, then these are the folks who are going to deliver them.
Martin: The question I have for you, Madam Vice President, is, is that enough for you, for you, as a sort of a political actor to establish yourself in the minds of the American people as a credible successor, if need be, to President Biden. I mean, the fact is, it's not a secret – maybe it's hard to talk about – but the fact of the matter is the president's age puts you into play. The Republicans already sort of made it clear that's a topic for them; that that's an issue that they are going to fully exploit to the degree that they can. So, the question is your role big enough to establish you as a worthy successor to President Biden should the need arise.
Harris: Right now, we are focused on doing everything we can, and we will continue to focus on doing everything we can to deliver for the American people, including we are running for reelection. The president is running for reelection as president, I am running for re-election with him as vice president. And that is my focus. I'm traveling around the country to make sure that people know not only what they have received because they stood in line for hours during the height of a pandemic in 2020 demanding these things. But also what is yet to come.
And that includes what we will do to continue to fight, to make sure that people's freedoms and rights are protected. And we will do the work of continuing to deliver, whether it be continuing to bring down the cost of healthcare, as it relates to, for example, capping insulin at $35 a month for seniors, which we have done; people have demanded that for years. We have delivered over 13 million new jobs; we're going to continue to do that. We have dropped almost a trillion dollars over the next 10 years in a clean energy economy to finally address the climate crisis in a substantial way, and this is the work that we will continue to do.
Martin: Before we let you go ... we talked to a number of people in the audience; they were glad to see. Some of them waited for quite some time to see you. For people who haven't had a chance to see you, is there something that you would wish them to know that they don't know?
Harris: I love to cook!
Martin: But you're in New Orleans, you don't have to cook.
Harris: Oh, not but I'm actually going to be stopping by the butcher to get some andouille and some tasso on my way home!
The audio story was produced by Ben Abrams and edited by Reena Advani. The digital story was edited by Erika Aguilar. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.