Vice President Kamala Harris joined GBH News' Paris Alston and Jim Braude for an exclusive interview at the 2023 NAACP National Convention in Boston. Harris discussed recent Supreme Court rulings, Boston’s complex history in the legacy of civil rights, challenges to our democracy, the power of Black women voters, and her love for hop-hop music and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Paris Alston: We caught up with Vice President Kamala Harris at the 2023 NAACP convention. We talked about Boston busing and the issues facing Black Americans today. Well, Madam Vice President, thank you so much for joining us here at the 114th NAACP Convention. We know that you could have been anywhere in the country, in the world today. So we appreciate you making time to be here.
Now, I want to go ahead and set the tone here to let you know that we all have at least one thing in common, and that is love for Tupac Shakur. I know that's true for you because you are a Bay Area girl.
Harris: It is true.
Alston: And Jim in fact babysat him.
Harris: You're kidding me.
Braude: His mother was my paralegal when I was a young legal services lawyer. I can't believe she's bringing this up.
Harris: Oh my goodness. Wow.
Braude: We can talk after.
Alston: Yeah, you have to hear that story. And I'm just a big hip hop lover, so that's for me, too.
Harris: Me, too. And 50th anniversary, right?
Harris: Although it's so funny, because people are now, you know, younger hip hop lovers are now talking about, Oh, you like the classic hip hop, right?
Alston: Hey, listen, it's all relevant. It all builds on one way or another, right. So why was it important for you to be here at the convention today?
Harris: Well, first of all, I am a lifetime member of the NAACP, and so we can start with that. And for a number of reasons, I am. But also Boston's relationship to the work of this organization is historic. Boston was the first chartered chapter of the NAACP. This is the I'm told, the first time in 40 years that the convention has been held in Boston.
And, you know, you combine all of that with this moment in time.
Alston: Yeah. I mean, let's talk about that, because we know that part of the reason it took so long for the convention to come back to Boston is because the last time that it was here in 1982 was right in the aftermath of the 1970s’ busing crises which helped earn Boston the racist reputation that it has around the rest of the country.
Now, you're familiar with busing. You are a product of that. We know that from that moment that happened between you and the president during the 2020 presidential debates. But where does Boston, a changing Boston fit into the current landscape of civil rights?
Harris: Well, let's first talk about the moment we're in and then put it in that context and the moment that we are in and our country is that I believe there is a full on attack against hard won, hard fought rights and freedoms. And this is a moment in time that we need to recognize that that is, in fact, taking place.
And then do what we must to renew ourselves to the work that took place here in Boston those many years ago. That was about coalition building. It was about fighting for the foundational principles of our country. It was a fight that was fueled and in so many ways based on love of country and our true and earnest belief in the promise of our country.
And so when I think about us being here in Boston, in the midst of the highest court in our land, taking a fundamental constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, from the women of America. When I look at the attack on an educational system where there are those who would dare to suggest that enslaved people benefited from slavery.
When I look at those who would suggest that it is a bad, if not horrendous idea to focus on issues like diversity and equity and inclusion. And I contrast that with the fight that originated here in Boston around education, around desegregation, around fairness, around justice. I think that it's a very good coincidence that we are here in Boston at this moment in time.
Braude: We talk about the tsunami of rights reversal, Madam Vice President. We have a Supreme Court. Three of the Trump selections are in their fifties. Could be there 30 years, not just affirmative action, reproductive freedom. We've spoken about loss, climate justice, voting rights. The president [of the] United States has said no to what a lot of Democrats are calling for, expansion of the courts.
If that's off the table in terms of the administration, what is on the table to stop, as I said, this tsunami that could go on for decades?
Harris: Well, first of all, you know, the issue of the court has been a long standing priority for those of us who attempt to get people to vote. And often for many election cycles, the most important and the least persuasive is, I think, now because of these recent decisions by the court in the last couple of years — well, you could argue since 2013 — shall be the holder which gutted the Voting Rights Act, that there is a renewed understanding of the importance of that court and the connection between that and elections.
Harris: So part of it is we have to remind people that elections matter and not only elections that are about the United States Supreme Court, but the federal judiciary as a whole, which is the feeder for the Supreme Court, local elections, and in particular things that are happening that affect the rights and justice for people at a local level as much as at a federal level.
Braude: And you might argue that there's no greater segment of the population to whom it matters more than Black Americans. I think you would agree there wouldn't be a Biden-Harris administration had it not been particularly for Black women, but Black voters in general.
Harris: There's no question about that.
Braude: But the numbers are down there. The support is weaker. There was a poll in the Washington Post not too long ago where how have the Biden-Harris policies affected your life? 49% of Black Americans said they've made no difference at all. Are you worried about that? I mean, where's the disconnect?
Harris: Well, that tells me that we have more work to do, which we are doing, which is to inform people about what we have achieved and to also thank them by reminding them that it was because they voted in historic numbers, Black Americans voted in historic numbers. Young voters are off the charts. It's historic numbers in the height of a pandemic in 2020.
And here's what happened when they voted. They changed the whole terrain on the issues, for example, like what we are doing around the medical debt issue. Now, for the first time, we are capping the cost of insulin for seniors [at] $35 a month. For the first time, we are allowing Medicare to negotiate against the pharmaceutical companies for drug prices.
We are finally addressing medical debt as a whole and capping prescription medication to $2,000 a year for seniors. We are dealing with issues like gun safety. For the first time in 30 years, we've been able to pass legislation that gets us closer to where we need to be about reasonable gun safety laws as it relates to background checks and things of that nature.
We have done the work that has been about one of my passion projects, which is dealing and highlighting with the issue of maternal mortality. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world and we have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality. Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in connection with childbirth.
And we have elevated this issue to the stage of the White House, so much so that I issued a challenge over a year ago that states would expand postpartum care from two months to 12 months. When I started, three states were doing it, now 35 are doing it. These are some of the many examples and the challenges.
But it is it is absolutely a challenge. We will meet to let folks know that when they voted, it made a difference. There is a nexus between them standing in line and achieving this goal.
Alston: Madam Vice President, you're listing all of these accomplishments that the administration has made so far. But we also know you mentioned young voters. I mean, that's my age group, 18 to 34. Right. But we know that patriotism is declining among that age group right now. So how do you make people confident about casting a reelection vote for the Biden-Harris administration in 2024, getting all of that?
Harris: Listen, first of all, let's agree, folks got a lot going on. They are trying to get their kids to school. They are trying to get to work. They are trying to just get through the day. So I fully and our administration fully recognizes that we have to be able to talk to them where they are, which is why I'm traveling around the country, which is why today I'm in Boston and I was in Iowa yesterday.
I'll be I'll be in Florida next week and talking with folks where they are and letting them know that we heard them and we continue to hear them about their highest priorities. So you look at, for example, young voters. I've been traveling the country, meeting with our young leaders who in particular are talking to me about the climate crisis.
They turn me on to a term I've not heard before as to tell me how you all are thinking about the climate crisis. And they shared with me a term “climate anxiety.” They're concerned about their future in almost a doomsday fear about what might be within a couple of decades of now. They are concerned about whether they should have children, whether they should even try to buy a home, because what does the future hold for that prospect?
So what did we do as an administration? First of all, we put ourselves back into international cooperation around things like the Paris Agreement. But more importantly, what we have also done is we have, by my calculation, invested $1 trillion over the next ten years in a clean energy economy that is about resilience, adaptation and what we need to do to get in front of this issue and for America to be a global leader on this issue.
That is one example of an issue that is impacting young people who will be young voters when they see the connection between their vote and outcomes.
Braude: Madam Vice President, you talked about fear. When you look at the numbers, tens of millions of people in this country, roughly 75% of Republicans, support a guy who's been adjudicated a sexual abuser, likely an insurrectionist. The number two man in the race is somebody, as you referenced, [who] believes apparently that slavery was a job training program. I mean, I know the goal is to get one more vote than the opposition, but isn't it dangerous, horribly dangerous, for this country when maybe 70, 80 million people support people who believe those kinds of things?
Harris: I would not pretend to offer you a full and concise explanation for why people support the person you are referring to. I think there are a myriad of reasons. I also believe this, and I truly do. I have traveled our country back and forth, and when I'm sitting down with folks, whether it is in red states and blue states, and I will tell you, I've been in just about as many red states as I have blue states.
As vice president, when you're sitting down in a one-on-one conversation with, for example, seniors, whoever they voted for or will vote for. Capping insulin at $35 a month, big deal to them. Student loan debt. That's not about a red state blue state thing. We're fighting to relieve student loan debt that. So I do believe that the American people as a whole recognize that true leadership is about lifting people up, not beating them down.
And I'm not giving up.
Braude: Before you go, one very quick thing. We were talking to somebody yesterday who says he's a close friend of yours, local guy. He said he visited you last week. So, on behalf of the people of Boston, we have a question: what do you actually see in Marty Walsh? What is that about?
Harris: I love Marty. I love Marty.
Harris: You know why? I will tell you why. He is a Bostonian to his core in that, in my long experience with people from Boston, you don't take any B.S. You shoot straight. You call it for what it is. You've got heart, you've got soul and you love our country and you care about working people.
Alston: And you started in the trenches. As a union laborer.
Harris: Yeah. We started from the bottom.
Alston: And now we're here!
Braude: We'll tell Marty what you said. Madam Vice President, we really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
Harris: Thank you both. I appreciate it.