Tanushree Ghosh Dhall
Quite expectedly, as soon as California Senator Kamala Harris announced her run for the US presidency for 2020, significant excitement and chatter followed. There is angst among the Democratic voters in the US as well as the fiscally conservative social liberals concerned about the Trump presidency. That contributes excitement to any strong candidacy announcement from the other side. However, Kamala being a woman, and black, definitely adds momentum. And that is to be noted here as the fact.
Although Senator Harris, born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, identifies with being both African-American and Indian-American, she is more the former than the latter. As reported in some news reports, it is only recently that she has started attending Indian-American events. The black community claims her as its own and hopes that she would continue the legacy of the Obamas. The same can’t be said about her association with the Indian community, now eager to claim her.
To be fair to Senator Harris, there are obvious factors that have much more to do with this. A total of 12.7 per cent of the US population is black, making African-Americans the largest racial minority group in the US; Indian-Americans make up around 1.3 per cent. And although Asian Americans claim a higher percentage (6.9), unlike the African-American population, the Asian communities have rarely had synergy in issues and policies or even as a community.
This is compounded with the deeper and longer running history the US has with race, primarily its black population. High rate of youth incarceration, poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities and police shootings are issues globally associated with the African-American community. The Indian community shares some common interests, namely tech-sector employment, visa-sponsorship opportunities, religious freedom and identity. Within the latter, differences perpetuate with the Sikh community having a differentiated focus.
In addition, the political history of Indian origin candidates hasn’t been of much glory here in the US, although success stories like Nikki Hailey and now Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard (who is a Hindu but of Samoan origin) have dotted the political narratives from time to time. Most recently, in the 2016 presidential race, Republican nominee Bobby Jindal caused quite an embarrassment to both the Indian diaspora and the white Americans by going out of his way to disassociate himself from his Indian heritage. And this is not something uncommon — the conscious (or maybe subconscious) effort of distancing from the community. In spite of what the Indian community in the US would like to believe, running as a proud Indian descendant will not lead to winning the US Presidential election yet.
Scouting the Indian community for thoughts on Kamala Harris’ Presidency definitely brings out Indian pride, but also some clear divides. While the diaspora related organisations and the elderly feel this is ‘proud moment for Indians’, the younger lot is more pragmatic. An IT professional says Kamala’s Indian descent is meaningless and that it’s the policies she pushes for that will really determine support. Another woman doubted if, in this current climate (vis-à-vis immigration), Kamala would be able to put forward, let alone implement policies that matter to her, namely continuing to be able to work on H4.
What calls for excitement at this moment is the fact that Kamala Harris does come in with a strong performance and is a promising candidate. What charter she puts forward and whether or not her Indian-American identity matters, remains to be seen.