By Shivaji Sengupta
Now that Senator Kamala Harris has been chosen by Joe Biden as his running mate, the media is consumed with discussions on how this partnership is going to benefit the presidential hopeful in his attempt to dethrone Donald Trump. I want to extend that discussion to how Ms. Harris’s selection is going to benefit America as a whole, and specifically, American politics.
We all know the basics by now. Kamala Harris is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, an Indian Brahmin from Chennai who studied science in University of Delhi and at 19 came to pursue a PhD in University of California, Berkeley. Perhaps because of the influence of her father’s liberal attitude, Shyamala was attracted to the human rights issues America was steeped in, particularly to those concerning the social conditions of the Black people. She regularly participated in marches protesting oppression of the Blacks. Dark skinned herself, she had no doubt experienced the Indian prejudice for complexion. Another reason may have been loneliness. Marches were a good way to meet others of the same political ilk. Soon she met Donald Harris, a handsome Jamaican student at Berkeley studying leftist economics and political science. They fell in love, got married, and Kamala and Maya were born. According to Kamala’s autobiography, The Truths We Hold, the Harrises divorced when she was five years old. The daughters stayed with him part of most summers through high school, but it was their mother who brought them up. He is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.
According to Kamala, their mother realized – and decided – that her daughters were going to be viewed as Black, so she made a conscious effort to bring them up as Black. She took them to the Baptist Church her husband attended. There, the Harrises made many Black friends, some of which turned out to be lifelong. They learned to appreciate soul food, the two daughters sang in choirs, in short, grew up “Black.”
But do African Americans support Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris? Polls have shown that initially they were not as enthusiastic as they were for, say, Stacy Abrams or even Susan Rice. Harris has been branded “a cop” by some Black voters in California because of her tenure as D.A. and Attorney General in California. As A.G., she has taken some tough decisions, like imprisoning parents of truant children because, by law, every child in America is required to go to school. She pushed criminals and jailed them for hard and heinous criminal activities. But Kamala Harris also opposes the death penalty, has refused to convict people for possessing small quantities of marijuana. Since last Tuesday, Black support for her has risen from 34% to 48%, and counting. By the same token, most Democrats are enthusiastic about Kamala. Even some Republicans have admitted that she has brought excitement to the ticket, and that she will bring a toughness to the campaign. She is a feared debater and cross-examiner. Most people have appreciated her multicultural background: African, Indian, Jewish by marriage, steeped in the sanctuary city culture and politics.
It is important to mention here that Shyamala Gopalan also did whatever she could to maintain her children’s Indian culture. She cooked South Indian food at home; Kamala and Maya grew up liking idli and dosa. Alongside church, they went to an Indian temple to see their mother worship and heard her sing Hindu devotional songs in mellifluous voice. At home they heard mythical stories about Hindu gods and goddesses. Moreover, the three of them visited Shyamala’s parents every few years, and the grandparents visited them in San Francisco. One of Kamala’s fond memories was to go to Marina Beach in Chennai with her grandfather and his retired friends, who discussed India’s future, politics, corruption, always from a liberal framework. Kamala must have paid attention. “I remember the stories that they would tell and the passion with which they spoke about the importance of democracy,” Ms. Harris said in 2018. “As I reflect on those moments in my life that have had the most impact on who I am today — I wasn’t conscious of it at the time — but it was those walks on the beach with my grandfather…that had a profound impact on who I am today.”
Since last Tuesday, when Biden announced her as his running mate there has been much opposition to regard Kamala as Black. Some Republicans and those on the far right are claiming that, born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, she is no more an American Black than Barack Obama was with a Kenyan father and mother from Kansas. This argument, genetically correct, completely ignores the Harris sisters’ socio-cultural upbringing. Genetic composition almost does not matter. What matters is how you live your life. Sonia Gandhi, the Italian wife of the prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, is regarded as an Indian because she has lived in India like an Indian for almost 50 years. Kamala and Maya were born in the USA. Although, here too, there have been ludicrous suggestions that Kamala, being born of parents with student-visas, is not natural born US citizen. This claim is in complete contradiction of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
The fact is America is changing multiculturally. According to an article in The New York Times, over 50% of Americans under 16 are multiracial. It is common knowledge that by 2050 or even before, white people in America will be in the statistical minority. The trend is irrevocably toward the U.S. becoming a vast multicultural nation.
Kamala Harris’s appeal to Indians does not seem to be universal. The initial response from Indian Americans was very enthusiastic. “Emotional”, “She does us proud!” were some of the joyous outcries heard around America. In India too she hit headlines. However, there are those who have taken umbrage at the Senator’s criticism of Indian government’s action of reneging Article 370 which has deprived Kashmir of statehood and has radically changed some laws affecting Kashmiri Muslims’ human rights. Moreover, Harris has criticized the Indian foreign minister for having refused to meet Rep Pramila Jayapal, who was also critical of 370.
What we Indian Americans and Indians from India should remember is that, despite her origin, Kamala Harris is not Indian. She has little allegiance to India politically, and she will, and should, follow American foreign policies regarding India that she and her party deem fair. Most Indians in India support the Modi government’s action on Kashmir. Many of my relatives do. But I don’t and stand with Arundhati Roy and other Indian progressives on Kashmir. I happen to be on Kamala’s side. But if she had taken a pro-Trump stand on Kashmir, if she enthusiastically supported the Modi-Trump alliance, I’d still want her to be our Vice President because of her untiring efforts to help Blacks, Latinos and other “little guys” (to quote Biden).
Kamala Harris may have an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. But she is an American first.
An academic, Shivaji Sengupta contributes opeds to The South Asian Times.