Biden Picks Kamala Harris, First Black Woman & Indian-American With Serious Shot at Vice-Presidency

If Biden defeats Trump in November, Senator Harris will make history as the first woman to be vice president of the United States.

Boston: On August 12, Democratic nominee for president of the United States, Joe Biden, announced he had chosen Kamala Harris, US senator from California, as his running mate for the November 2020 presidential election.

Biden’s announcement came a year and a half after Harris, now 55,  entered what was then a wide open race for the Democratic party’s nomination for president.

She ended her campaign in December, and later endorsed Biden’s candidature despite having fiercely opposed him in the primaries.

Soon after Biden made his announcement, Harris tweeted, “Joe Biden can unify the American people because he’s spent his life fighting for us. And as president, he’ll build an America that lives up to our ideals. I’m honoured to join him as our party’s nominee for Vice President, and do what it takes to make him our Commander-in-Chief.”

Last year, Kamala Harris spoke out against Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s decision to cancel a planned meeting with US legislators when members of Congress refused to accede to his demand that Pramila Jayapal – an Indian-origin Congresswoman from Washington state and a critic of the Modi government’s handling of Kashmir – be excluded from the interaction.

Senator Harris – whose parents were immigrants from Jamaica and India – is a woman of many firsts. She is the first Indian-American woman in the US Senate. Not only is she the sole black woman in the Senate, but she is also the only South Asian. Harris was the first California attorney general with African American or South Asian ancestry.

While the Democrats and Republicans have nominated women before for the vice-presidency – Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 (with Walter Mondale as the presidential hopeful) and Sarah Palin in 2008 (as John McCain’s running mate) – Harris is the first Black woman and Indian-American to be on the White House ticket of one of the two major parties. (Smaller parties like the Communist Party of the USA ran a Black woman, Charlene Mitchel, for president back in 1968).

But Harris doesn’t believe in being just the first.

“You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last,” Harris writes in her memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, which she said was a crucial lesson she learnt from her Tamil mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris. It was to her mother that Harris credited her desire to run for president last January.

Shyamala Gopalan, the daughter of Indian freedom fighter P.V. Gopalan, left Tamil Nadu at the age of 19 to pursue endocrinology at Berkeley. This is where she met the Donald Harris, an economist from Jamaica,  and joined the civil rights movement. Kamala’s parents got a divorce when she was seven and she and her sister were raised by their mother.

In her memoir, Harris writes, “there is no title or honour on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all.” Harris adds that her mother instilled in her that she should fight “systems in a way that causes them to be fairer, and don’t be limited by what has always been.”

Harris’s book details how her own experiences, particularly her upbringing by her single mother, have influenced her policymaking and political career. For instance, it was her mother’s struggle with cancer that pushed Harris to shine a light on the greater healthcare crisis in the US.

“As I continue the battle for a better healthcare system, I do so in her name,” Harris wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2018.

Also read: Tulsi Gabbard, the First Hindu in a US Presidential Race, Unlikely to Succeed

As a senator, she has advocated for and signed on numerous progressive policies, like Medicare-for-all, reforming the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and legalising marijuana. She rose to prominence among liberal activists and netizens with her sharp questioning during Senate hearings of Trump appointees like the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, US secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Senator Harris has also been an early and outspoken critic of President Trump, most recently calling his wall on the Mexican border his “vanity project.”

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting with and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 1, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Senator Harris has been an early and outspoken critic of President Trump. Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

In her own campaign, Harris refused to focus on just one particular issue, just like the voters who do not live their lives “through the lens of one issue.”

“On the issue of climate change: Every parent wants to know that their child can drink clean water and breathe clean air. And that same parent wants to know that they’re able to bring home enough money with one job to pay their bills and pay their rent and put food on the table, instead of having to work two or three jobs,” said Harris at a press conference she held at her alma mater Howard University after her announcement.

Despite emerging as an early favourite for the Democratic nomination, Harris soon faced an uphill battle as the number of contenders grew.

The question of identity

As a biracial candidate, there have been several questions surrounding whether the senator identifies as an African-American or an Indian-American. At Howard University, a reporter asked, “You’re an African-American woman, but you are also Indian American. How do you describe yourself?”

Harris pithily responded that she describes herself “as a proud American.”

It came as little surprise that Harris announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, given the historic nature of her campaign. Harris was the third black woman in American history to make a bid for the presidency.

She told ‘Good Morning America’ that she was inspired by Dr King and his aspirations for America and “honoured” to make an announcement on MLK Day. Harris has been outspoken about her parent’s activism in the civil rights movement and her black roots.

Senator Harris also paid tribute to the first black woman to run for president, Shirley Chisholm, by using a similar red-and-yellow colour scheme and typography in her campaign video, just like her predecessor. Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972, eventually lost the Democratic nomination to Senator George McGovern.

Nevertheless, Chisholm, also a woman of many firsts, was the first black woman elected to the US Congress and went on to inspire numerous women of colour like Barbara Jean Lee and Harris through her seven terms in Congress.

Harris writes in her memoir that she and her sister were raised as black girls.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she writes. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Credit: Reuters

There is no denying that Harris is politically much better recognised as the second African-American woman elected to the US Senate than the first Indian-American woman. While she has repeatedly acknowledged the influence of her Tamil mother on her political career and life, there remains wariness among American Indians over Harris’s acceptance of her Indian-American identity.

A 2018 survey by the Asian American Voter Survey polling around 1,300 registered Asian American voters found that only 52% of Indian-Americans had a favourable opinion of Senator Harris. Furthermore, 20% had never heard of her and 16% held an unfavourable view of the California junior senator.

In contrast, other Democratic candidates and potential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, performed better with 56%, 80% and 68% favourability respectively.

Another major contender for the Indian-American vote was the Hindu Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who also declared her own presidential ambitions last year. While not of Indian origin, Gabbard, who became the first Hindu member of the US Congress, remains close to the Indian diaspora, a majority of whom are Hindu and maintains warm relations with the Narendra Modi government.

Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist from India. She specialises in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues. 

An earlier version of this profile was first published on January 27, 2019 with the headline, ‘Next Stop in Indian-Origin Kamala Harris’ ‘American Journey’ May Be the White House’, on the eve of Harris’s bid for Democratic nomination for US president.