I think it’s great that Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate, which also positions her to be the Democratic Presidential candidate in (likely) 2024 or (if Biden is still healthy) 2028. It’s time we had a woman on the ticket, and if she’s a racially mixed woman, so much the better. For Harris is not only a woman of color (half Jamaican black, half Indian), but one who’s well qualified for office—smart, eloquent, pugnacious when she has to be, and with a proven track record. (Some will, of course, take issue with her accomplishments.) But I have no beef with those who put her ancestry above her accomplishments, for she remains accomplished and qualified, and to me that’s the most important criterion. If she makes a group proud because of her ancestry, what’s the problem with that?
So I have no beef with those who see her as a role model, and those includes both African Americans and Indian Americans. The article below in yesterday’s New York Times, as you gather from the headlines, collects a bunch of enthusiastic responses to Harris’s candidacy, largely because of her ancestry. While one interviewee bridled at Harris’s record as California’s attorney general, all of them are positive, many because she’s a role model for Indians, blacks, and those who say that her multicultural background mirrors the changing face of America.
When I read the above, I thought, “This is great! Most Americans (and I mean of all Americans) approve of Biden’s choice, and this can only help kick Trump out of office in November, and perhaps even help the Dems win the Senate. But of course there’s a spoiler: the article below from the Washington Post, which demonstrates the downside of identity politics. A trap? What kind of trap is Harris’s nomination?
The trap, of course, is that although Harris is a Democrat, and on the Left, she’s not the right kind of Leftist. She’s not progressive enough. Never mind that a more progressive candidate might have been an impediment to a Democratic win, giving ammunition to Trump.
More important, the article, by Sanjena Sathian (an Indian American) is not so much about Harris’s policies as about the policies that she should have given her ancestry, but apparently doesn’t or hasn’t yet sounded off on them. The article shows the danger of concentrating on a candidate’s identity above her policies, for here we have a division in the Left that, to me at least, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The article begins with The Issue:
Recognition is primal. But it can also make us gloss over the complexities of identity — and their unpredictable implications for policy. The heady rush of recognition can lull us into complacency or lead us to quell our deeper ideological convictions.
Okay, well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so let’s read on.
Among the beeves that Sathian brings to market are these:
Other Indian Americans have been conservative, but Harris, though not conservative, isn’t progressive enough.
Harris’s selection appears momentous set against Indian Americans’ earliest political success stories: the Southern, Republican governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. It once seemed that, to succeed in public life, Indians had to swap their outsider status for White conservatism. Haley and Jindal changed their names from Nimrata and Piyush, respectively; Jindal espoused the spurious notion of “colorblindness.” That devil’s bargain involved more than external identity markers: Haley has defended the Confederate flag, and therefore white supremacy, and Jindal deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric. Harris, in contrast, talks often about her Indian background, citing her maternal grandfather’s involvement in the Indian freedom struggle as the source of her political ambitions. In that sense, something big has changed.
But in another sense, nothing at all has changed: The real cleavage in Indian American political life hasn’t been a partisan one, between a Republican like Haley and a Democrat like Harris. Indian Americans still reliably vote Democratic. Rather, the divide is between centrists like Harris and progressive South Asians such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Rep. Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders-inspired grass-roots upstarts like democratic socialist Nikil Saval, a candidate for Pennsylvania’s state senate.
Seriously? Nothing has changed? We have a mixed-race woman on the ticket, and one who, in view of Biden’s age, is likely to run for President. In fact, we have a liberal Indian American, but there are others of similar ancestry who are further toward the Left. Apparently Harris is supposed to be in the latter group, even though that could damage the Democratic ticket.
Harris should be fighting for those issues of greatest importance to immigrants, but doesn’t seem to be.
Harris calls up the question facing many upwardly mobile immigrants: Having arrived, how much trouble do we want to make? In her case, the answer seems to be “not very much.” After years of developing an establishment prosecutorial record, she basically lacked an ideological identity in the primary race, which made her the safe choice for Biden.
But those of us who are new to America should be the most intent on ensuring that this country makes good on the promises of opportunity and equality that brought us here. We should be the ones who most demand just legal systems and fair immigration proceedings; who condemn climate policy that causes unequal harm to the nations our families come from. Indian Americans in particular, who have benefited from policies that favor “high-skilled” foreign workers, are for the first time placed to use our collective social capital and financial privilege to make life more equal. But Indian Americans’ joy at seeing Harris on a national stage suggests that desis risk merely joining the system, not pushing to change it.
This presumes that Harris, as a native-born American, should see herself as an Indian-American/African-American first and as an American second. But the President and Vice President are supposed to work for the country as a whole. Yes, one’s background can (and should) make one more sensitive to some issues, but claiming that Harris will become just another cog in the “assimilation machine” is way premature.
Voting for Biden and Harris at this moment is, in fact, changing the system: the corrupt and malfunctioning system of government created by four years of a narcissistic loon and his Republican flunkies. Are Indian Americans supposed to be upset at Harris’s nomination because she won’t push to change the system? Well, why don’t we wait and see what, if she and Biden are elected, they will do? At this point we have no idea, save that they’ll enact saner policies than would Trump and Pence, not to mention the doings of the hidebound conservative Senate.
Harris’s status as half-black, half Indian is problematic because the two groups haven’t always had the same political stands.
The rush to claim Harris — to Spot her, triumphally, as one of our own — has other pitfalls: Some desis have begun to conflate her Blackness and her Indianness. In political commentary lauding Harris’s ascent, Indian Americans have celebrated Mohandas Gandhi’s connection to the Black civil rights movement and referenced the discrimination that South Asians have historically faced in America. That narrative actively rewrites a history of anti-Blackness in our own community. Gandhi, for example, began his protests on a South African train by positioning himself as above Black people. Another figure being cited as an immigrant rights hero, Bhagat Singh Thind, petitioned the Supreme Court for citizenship in 1923 on the grounds that he was White.
Gandhi, of course, abjured the racism he espoused in South Africa, and one of his followers was Martin Luther King.
Sathian continues her beef:
Desis have been able to take refuge in simulacra of Whiteness in a way that Black Americans cannot. A graduate of Howard University, a historically Black college, Harris emphasizes that her Indian mother brought her to visit family on the subcontinent while also understanding that “she was raising two Black daughters.” If Indians want to claim Harris, we can’t just point to her achievements; we must also engage with the histories at whose intersection she sits.
Like many in my community, I recognize Harris. But I don’t see her selection as a hard-won victory on behalf of immigrants or as the apotheosis of the American Dream — but rather as an identity crisis for a large swath of Indian America. When we see Harris and Biden remove their masks to flash pearly whites this autumn, some of us will decide that we’ve arrived.
But spotting ourselves on the highest stages of public life, and the complacency that brings, opens the door to other toxic ideas, such as nationalism (especially among Hindu Indians). President Trump, in part through his amicable relationship with right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to woo wealthy Indians; Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, have also cozied up to Modi and his party, earning Indian accolades as a result.
No, we don’t have to engage with intersectional history. That’s pathetic and a diversion. We must engage with Trump and the Republicans. The policies toward India by Trump and Tulsi Gabbard are irrelevant now: Indian Americans will vote Democratic this fall, and more power to them.
Finally, Sathian is worried that Harris might not do do the right things if she becomes the VP. But can’t Sathian wait and see instead of playing Chicken Little? Viz.:
For her part, Harris has stepped carefully with regard to India policy issues, delicately defending Jayapal’s right to criticize India’s stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir and saying that Kashmiris are “not alone in the world,” without making Hindutva (Hindu extremism) a key talking point. If she’s elected, I don’t know that we can expect Harris to use her new power as the most prominent South Asian in America to end Kashmir’s historically long Internet blackout, for example, or challenge Modi’s virulent majoritarianism. But desis should demand that, just as Black Americans can demand that Harris confront whether her prosecutorial role harmed their community.
Sathian doesn’t seem to recognize that the issues of black Americans are American issues, and those of the execrable Modi government are less important to Americans, bad as things are in India. What we should expect Harris to do as Vice President is to give precedence to things affecting the country she was elected to co-lead, not spend much of her time on issues of marginal significance to most Americans (granted, they are of more significance to Indian Americans, and I hope to hell that Modi is somehow deposed, though it doesn’t look likely).
In the end, Sathian appears to be most upset that Harris—even though she won’t be running the show for four years—will inspire Indian Americans “to belong to, rather than transform, America.” But you can do both. If our motto “E Pluribus Unum” is to mean anything, it must mean that progress in America depends on both belonging and transforming. For this is a democracy, and if you want to transform, you must do more than make demands; you must appeal to the moral and political sentiments of your fellow Americans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. That is why Martin Luther King had more success than, I suspect, Black Lives Matter ever will.