Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in Boston to address the annual NAACP national convention, surprised a town hall-style meeting Saturday afternoon at Roxbury Community College.
The unannounced visit came at the end of an event organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and included Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and Steven Horsford of Nevada. Horsford is the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“There is so much at stake in our country,” Harris told the crowd of about 100 people, who gave her a standing ovation. “And the future of America has always relied on the folks who are in this room and others like this around our country who are the conscience of our country.”
She is the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person to be elected vice president.
Harris spoke for about 12 minutes, touching upon US Supreme Court decisions that overturned Roe v. Wade, ended affirmative action in college admissions, and threw out President Biden’s plan for student debt relief.
“When we look at the issues we are facing today, a truth among many is that we are looking at a full-on attack on the hard-fought, hard-won freedoms and rights that have been achieved by the people in this room and so many who were here before us and upon whose shoulders we stand,” she said.
Harris also addressed comments from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, who has defended his state’s public school history curriculum from accusations of racism by claiming that some Black people benefited from slavery.
(DeSantis was in Massachusetts on Saturday for a fund-raiser at a private home in Cotuit that drew protesters, the Cape Cod Times reported.)
Without naming DeSantis, Harris said the country faces “extremist so-called leaders” who are “denying America’s clear history on the issue of slavery, who would dare to say that enslaved people benefited from being enslaved.”
“They insult us while they try to gaslight us and we’re not having it,” she said.
The US is contending with some “bold-faced hypocrisy” that must be defeated, Harris said.
“We work to make sure that they don’t win with that foolishness,” she said.
Harris urged the crowd to focus on the 2024 election and register people to vote. She said Biden’s victory with her in 2020 paved the way for the administration to cap the out-of-pocket price of insulin at $35 monthly, limit out-of-pocket prescription expenses to $2,000 annually for Medicare Part D recipients, and plan to replace lead service lines.
Democracy is possessed with “an incredible strength,” Harris said, but is also “very fragile.”
“It’s only as strong as our willingness to fight for it so that is our charge and our duty,” Harris said. “And when I look around this room, I know what we are up to it.”
Before Harris arrived, the crowd heard from five members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a conversation moderated by the Rev. Dr. Willie Bodrick II of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.
Pressley said the greatest threat to democracy is white supremacy. She recalled watching Black custodians clean the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 after it was attacked by a mob that was loyal to former president Donald J. Trump.
“Black folks have always been the patriots,” she said. “Black people both literally and metaphorically have been cleaning up the mess left behind by white supremacy for centuries.”
Clyburn said the Jan. 6 attack didn’t take place in a vacuum. He said there have been challenges to advancements for Black people in America since the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in which justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
“This has been in the works,” said Clyburn. “We have now gone from a 9 to 0 decision in favor of democracy to a 6 to 3 decision against democracy,” an apparent reference to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to end affirmative action in college admissions.
“And they do not plan to stop there. Their goal is to continue. So what does that say to us?” Clyburn asked. “That says we must be vigilant.”
He urged the audience to not fall for the “okey-doke,” meaning a trick, game, or scam. Harris used the same term when she addressed the gathering.
Clyburn said to brace for the presidential campaign ahead of next year’s election to produce more misinformation than what was unleashed in 2020.
“They are planning to permeate our communities with as much misinformation as they possibly can,” he said.
A part of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of the housing crisis in Massachusetts and its impact on Black people.
Nicole Obi, president and chief executive of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Anne Rousseau, chief financial officer at Metro Housing Boston, gave an overview of the challenges Black people face in finding affordable homes to rent or buy.
When it comes to housing, Obi said Massachusetts is more segregated now than it was 30 years ago.
“We simply cannot maintain our status as a highly competitive state if we don’t address the state’s housing shortage,” she said. “We can’t effectively build and maintain wealth if we don’t give all of our citizens the opportunity for adequate and affordable housing.”