When presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden picked Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate Tuesday, Indian American family WhatsApp groups exploded with joy that one of their own might make history as the first woman vice president.
Indian Americans forwarded the New York Post’s front page calling Harris “President-in-Waiting.” They sent photos of Harris with her sari-clad relatives, along with videos of the senator from California cooking South India’s dish of choice – masala dosa.
“Was there ever more of an exciting day?” Indian American actress Mindy Kaling wrote on Twitter.
The nomination of Harris, 55, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, comes at a time when Indian Americans are a rising political force in America, with both political parties courting their nearly 2 million eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
“In terms of Indian Americans, Kamala is a trailblazer,” said Neil Makhija, the executive director of IMPACT, an Indian American advocacy and fundraising group. “She is paving a path in terms of telling our story and telling her story. If it wasn’t for this nomination, millions of people would not be learning about what it means to be Indian American and what it means for her.”
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil from sun-drenched Chennai in southern India, immigrated to the United States in 1959, an unusual trek at the time for a single woman. She earned a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.
It was there that she met and fell in love with Harris’s father, Donald Harris, now an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University. The couple later divorced.
Kamala Harris wrote in her 2019 autobiography “The Truths We Hold” that she was strongly influenced by her mother, a cancer researcher who died in 2009, as well as her civically minded Indian grandparents – one a community organizer, the other a diplomat who helped resettle refugees during India’s violent post-Independence Partition period.
Harris’s name – Kamala – means “lotus” in Sanskrit. Harris also attended Black churches as a child in the Bay Area, and she earned her bachelor’s degree at historically Black Howard University. Political opponents have sometimes accused her of minimizing her Indian heritage, a notion that she has bristled at.
In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Harris pushed back on the perception that she had not spoken enough about her Indian background, adding that she had been a defender of the South Asian community since as early as 2001, when South Asians were targeted for abuse after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“I grew up with a great deal of pride and understanding about my Indian heritage and culture,” she said. She also said in that interview that she had not spent a lot of time thinking about how to categorize her identity.
“When I first ran for office, that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created,” she said. “My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
In a speech in Delaware with Biden on Wednesday evening, Harris told voters that her parents came “from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America – one from India and the other from Jamaica in search of a world-class education,” and that they were brought together by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
She recognized Biden as a fighter in that ongoing movement and as the only person “who has served alongside the first Black president and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.”
Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, 77% to 16%, according to the National Asian American Survey, which was conducted soon after the election.
But as president, Trump has avidly courted the Indian American vote, often boasting about the many Indian friends he has living in his various properties. He flew to India on a high-profile visit in February, his last trip abroad before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Last year, he was the opening act for India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, at a rally of 50,000 in Houston dubbed “Howdy Modi.”
“Trump knows this is an important, wealthy group, and I’m sure that’s why he’s seeking their support,” said Prema Kurien, a sociology professor and founding director of the Asian/Asian American Studies Program at Syracuse University.
As a voting bloc, Kurien said, Indian Americans are more fluid than other immigrant groups. Their concerns can be generational, with older immigrant parents focused on visas and other issues while second-generation Indian Americans may be compelled by the current moment of racial reckoning, she noted.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, who directs the Asian American Voters Survey, said he expects Harris to help increase the number of votes Biden receives from Indian Americans, especially among independents. Of those Indian Americans who are registered to vote, 46% said they thought of themselves as Democrats and 19% as Republicans, while 35% identified with neither party, according to the post-election National Asian American Survey.
“I definitely sense excitement from people who are donors, and people who have been pretty heavily involved in Democratic Party circles, as well as civic engagement more generally,” said Ramakrishnan, who is also a public policy and political science professor at the University of California at Riverside. “What I am sensing is people embracing this as a historic moment for the community.”
Ramakrishnan argued that while Trump has tried to make inroads with Indian American voters, his positions on health care, gun control, immigration and the environment do not align with those of many Indian American voters.
Harmeet Dhillon, a civil rights attorney from the Bay Area who is the RNC committeewoman from California, said both major political parties have done little to connect with Indian American voters, other than hitting them up for campaign donations. Many of her Indian American friends are Democrats who planned to vote for Biden regardless of his running mate, so she wonders how much Harris will help the former vice president expand his support from Indian American voters.
She criticized Harris as not heavily involved with the South Asian Bar Association of Northern California or Indian American civil rights causes during her law career and years as California’s Attorney General.
“Our interaction with Kamala Harris was never anything other than sort of transactional for her,” Dhillon said. “If she was running for office, she would reach out to people and tap them for holding fundraisers. . . . They would get her to come and speak for 15 minutes at an event or less. That was really it. There are a number of issues of concern to the South Asian in the Bay Area – domestic violence, immigration, wage theft from tech workers. She never got involved in any of those issues.”
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., disagreed with that characterization, saying Harris has always been proud of her Indian heritage and has long been involved in Asian communities, including at events that he attended.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Kamala. . . . I’ve never seen her run away from her Indian American heritage,” said Bera, whose district is in Northern California. “This [election] is an opportunity for someone who is biracial like Senator Harris to really give voice to the folks who aren’t always seen and heard.”
Makhija, whose group hopes to raise $10 million for 70 South Asian candidates this election cycle, says he sees Harris’s Indian values reflected in her passionate positions about immigration – particularly families separated at the border – and climate change.
“Globally, that perspective comes from having family on the other side of the world,” he said.
He also said Indian Americans have loved her social media posts about food, such as the video with Kaling, in which the two cooked the crepelike South Indian dish known as dosa and Harris listed other Indian dishes she makes at home: “Lots of rice and yogurt, potato curry, dal, lots of dal.”
“That’s the most important thing to us, honestly, is the food,” Makhija said. “She’s like everybody’s auntie, a very caring and compassionate person who is coming from that place where the language of love is food. I think many Indian Americans identify with that.”