In a choice where race and gender are the most crucial parameters, US Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris — the first Asian American and first Black woman in American history on a major party ticket — as his vice presidential pick, and a potential White House successor.
Like many Indian-Americans, Harris is often written about with phonetic symbols. Harris was the first South Asian American to become a US senator.
Although Harris was raised mostly by her mother from Chennai who had separated from her Jamaican father, “she seldom delves into her Indian heritage, reflecting a broader reticence to share personal stories beyond a handful of well-worn anecdotes”, The LA Times wrote in October 2019, also discounting Harris’s account of her grandfather having been a freedom fighter in India.
Harris has spoken of her Indian roots and her summers in Chennai with her civil servant grandfather. Her mother graduated from University of Delhi and went to the University of Berkeley. She joined the civil rights movement and met her future husband there.
In Harris’ 2019 memoir, her description of okra exemplified her mixed identity: “I loved that okra could be soul food or Indian food, depending on the spices you chose.” In fact, Indian food was a symbolic rope for her to pull on. Just before the end of her campaign for President, she made a masala dosa with actress Mindy Kaling.
In reality, Harris’ upbringing was closer to the field of black studies, leaders, and culture (she studied at what is known as an “Historically Black College and University”). Her identity as a black woman is front stage on the heels of a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — over three months of some of the largest protests about race in the US since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Asian Americans only account for 5% of the electorate, compared to 13% black voters. The foundations of race in the US remain fixated on black and white politics; Asian-Americans have only recently been marking a presence.
It says a lot about how American politics has shifted this year to note that a black, Indian-American female was the safe choice for Biden. The VP vetting process received extra limelight given Biden’s age (77) and his signals that he may not seek a second term, opening the door for his Vice President to take the helm.
Initially, Biden’s array of choices were almost entirely women. After the movement erupted in May, a clamour began for Biden to pick a person of colour. Black voters, especially older ones and those in the South, were key to his primary success.
He announced in June that he intended to pick a woman of colour. His choice of Harris fits into his moderate and establishment ideology, labelled as a “do no harm” pick. In fact, pundits had predicted the choice as early as March.
While only serving less than four years in the Senate, Harris is firmly placed within the mainstream lines of the Democratic Party. She isn’t seen as far left as other former Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but is not as centrist as Biden.
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Those farther left focus on her career as a prosecutor. She was the first black woman to be the San Francisco district attorney and the first Asian American and black woman attorney general of California. Younger liberals found her too aggressive in cases with minor crimes and too weak against police officers who had killed civilians. When Black Lives Matter first took off in 2014, Harris as Attorney General was seen to have been inactive.
Her recent campaign attempted to convince voters that only someone who understands the criminal justice system from the inside could know how to reconstruct it.
Interestingly, however, black voters did not seem particularly drawn to Harris; young ones went to Sanders and Warren while older ones went to Biden. Since the George Floyd protests, she has been vocal about police reform legislation. But still, she is seen as an incremental reformer by those who want faster overhauls.
In another reason underlining the choice’s racial importance, Harris comes from a staunchly blue state, California. Biden’s choice valued race over geography, outweighing the usual swing state pandering often required in American politics and leaving opening the possibility to her being labelled as not representative of the rest of America.
With her campaign’s own steep climb and fast crash in the polls, pundits later analysed that Harris has had trouble defining her platform. Five months in, she told The New Yorker: “The challenge is, I think, people rightly want to have a sense of who somebody is. I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, ’cause I know I need to frame it.”
Her identity directly squares against President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant stance. It also allows a broader electorate identification with the party ticket, even if her own embrace of her immigrant identity may come off as a gimmick to some.
Biden is also inclined to focus more on foreign policy, which means Harris could be more engaged with domestic politics. Harris also brings a youthful energy to an ageing party leadership. If the Democrats win, Harris, 55, would be the only person under 70 among Democratic leaders in the legislative and executive branches, according to The New York Times.
Similar to Harris’s rocky connections to law enforcement, Biden’s historical voting record has been a major blight for progressives. In 1994, Biden voted in favour of the Crime Bill, which is symbolic of a period known as the “War on Drugs” — a major crackdown in mostly black neighbourhoods that led to crowding of prisons and a new phase of racial disparity.
On other topics — healthcare and the economy — Biden and Harris share a centrist alignment. For example, Harris has not been as aggressive about breaking up Big Tech or about a wealth tax to combat class inequality — two pillars of Warren’s campaign. Harris initially agreed with Sanders’ “Medicare for All” Bill but then changed her stance during her presidential campaign.
In one viral moment in a Democratic debate in June 2019, Harris said: “I know you’re not a racist” but went on to accuse Biden of pandering to segregationists and took on his opposition to “busing”. In the 1970s, when the US searched for ways to fulfill the Supreme Court mandate to allow black children into white schools, a debate took hold about transporting black children by bus into white neighbourhoods (busing). “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” she said. “That little girl was me” was branded on T-shirts during the campaign against Biden.
Later, Harris eventually accepted that busing (a controversial policy that did not ultimately solve the fundamental problem) wasn’t the only option for equality, and she was unable to present a concrete plan to currently desegregate schools in the US.
The bad blood between the two led many to try and persuade Biden against her, finding her to be over-ambitious with an inclination to outshine him in office. However, a photograph of Biden’s notes at a press conference in July showed the words “Do not hold grudges” under Harris’s name.
Now, in an election with far less pageantry than usual, a mostly virtual Democratic National Convention will be held in a week. Harris will face Vice President Mike Pence in a vice-presidential debate on October 7 in a race that has begun to look more and more unique.