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Debate 2020: 5 Lessons Kamala Harris Taught Us About Bossing Up

Step your game up with these tips on taking up space and owning the room.

Politics

The presidential debates have been a spectacle to watch to say the least, with the first one between President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden sparking ridicule, outrage, confusion, and contention. (With all of the spewing of snide remarks, off-topic rebuttals, outright lies, and deflections from the issues, you would have thought you were watching an old episode of Jerry Springer or a Real Housewives reunion special.)

For the second debate, which brought vice presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence head-to-head (with a plexiglass barrier between them, of course), the vibe of the night was the total opposite---one of composure and actual dialogue even remotely related to the questions posed.

Notably, Harris brought to the debate table what many Black women bring to corporate boardrooms, offices, classrooms, and Zoom meetings every day: a respectable poise and poignant intelligent eloquence to combat the constant gaslighting, informed ignorance, outright misstatements, and dangerous apathy that we all have faced at some point in our careers.

If you need a reminder on how you can continue to thrive and shine despite the challenges, Harris gave us five during the debate:

Own your look and slay.

Sen. Harris' understated but classy attire and hairstyle showed the room who she was before she even opened her mouth. The monochromatic navy suit, pearl earrings and necklace, and perfectly coiffed press-and-curl didn't distract from her points or their seriousness, and gave the warning that she didn't come to play. Whatever your look is---conservative, chic, sexy, casual or quirky---cultivate it, own it, and use it to your advantage as a tool for branding yourself as a standout leader or expert in your field.

Take up space unapologetically.

Being a pioneer is a feat within itself, and Harris is boldly taking on the challenges of being under an international microscope. During the debate, she did not cower or resort to insults. Whether you agree with what she said or not, there's little doubt that she indeed held her own, confidently stating her opinions and talking points. This is something we all must do when tasked with a job whether as a manager, supervisor or team member.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Use your words strategically and with tact. 

When presenting her points, Harris chose her words carefully, made sure her tone was respectful but authoritative, and did not back down. When you're trying to drive a point and get buy-in on an idea, present a new concept, or propose an improvement, it's a good idea to use tact and be conscious of your delivery when doing so.

Lean on facts.

Pence came at Harris with fears that Democrats would pack the Supreme Court so that there are more liberal-minded justices added. Harris countered with facts: "Do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black? This is what they've been doing. You want to talk about packing a court, let's have that discussion." Pence said it was a "great insult" to law enforcement in reference to the notion that implicit bias against people of color is a prevalent problem. He even denied the existence of systemic racism.

Harris countered with facts about Trump's ban affecting Muslim-majority nations and his calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. (And we all know that research supports that systemic racism is more than real. Just check here, here and here.) In the same way, let the facts lead when communicating in professional settings, especially when you're negotiating a raise, asking for a promotion, or even defending yourself against a misunderstanding or workplace snafu. Performance insights, protocol, and results don't lie.

Keep your composure, especially when someone tries you.

When taken to task about her record in prosecuting cases involving people of color, she respectfully chin-checked Pence (though some might question the context and strength of her counterpoint), and throughout the debate, she sternly reminded Pence to respect her turn to speak a la Auntie Maxine Waters with the now-viral phrase, "I'm speaking." It's OK to be passionate about something or even disagree, but in a professional setting, it's best to keep your cool, show grace to others, and use your words, not your emotions, to make an impact.

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Featured image via Giphy

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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