Shortly after former Vice President Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate, Neil Makhija’s father sent him a photo.
It was of Harris, sitting with her family in traditional Indian dress, a bindi on her forehead and a raspberry-coloured sari wrapped around her. The image could have come from his own family album, he said, and made clear that for the first time, a candidate for one of the nation’s highest offices looked like him.
“Spending time in India, growing up where nobody in our neighbourhood really understood us — or maybe they kind of noticed my mother’s accent, or didn’t take her as seriously — those are experiences that Kamala Harris understands,” said Makhija, now the executive director of the Indian American Impact Fund.
“I think we’re feeling seen for the first time,” he added.
On Tuesday, upon being named Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Harris became the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. She also became the first Indian-American, South Asian and Asian American person to be chosen — historic firsts in their own right that many Asian-Americans celebrated.
In interviews, Indian-American political leaders and community advocates called Biden’s choice of Harris — the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father — a refutation of President Donald Trump’s demonisation of immigrants and a powerful statement on American possibility.
“It’s a stand-alone milestone, irrespective of who the opponent is,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President Barack Obama. “But it is particularly poignant given what this country has endured for the last several years, with this administration that at every turn has sought to divide us and use racism for political gain.”
Some Indian-Americans said the consideration of Harris for a job no Asian-American has held represented a sort of validation of their own family’s choices to come to America.
“It’s a reaffirmation of a decision to undertake something that’s really, really difficult,” said Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for the Southern District of New York who tweeted about his Indian mother being excited to vote for Harris.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who in 2017 became the first Indian-American woman to join the House just as Harris became the first Indian-American woman to join the Senate, said her mother had sent an elated text message from Bangalore upon hearing the news of Biden’s pick.
“I think it’s a joy about individual accomplishment which travels — believe me — across the world,” she said. “It’s also about the changing landscape and what becomes possible for so many other people when they see barriers being broken.”
Throughout her career and as a presidential candidate herself, Harris has at times described herself simply as “a proud American,” choosing not to call attention to her race or ethnicity, while also imploring the public and the media to stop “seeing issues and people through a plate-glass window as though we were one-dimensional.”
But she has also written about the influence her immigrant mother and Indian grandparents had on her. In her memoir, Harris detailed how her mother, who grew up in southern India, had chosen to come to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley and eventually become a breast cancer researcher. She recalled that her grandmother had been a skilled organiser, and her grandfather a part of the movement to win India’s independence.
On the campaign trail, as Harris repeated those stories — and cooked Masala Dosa with Mindy Kaling on video — Indian-American community activists said that more South Asians had become aware of her heritage and had begun to identify with parts of her personal story.
Just hours after Harris’ selection was announced, Harris’ sister, Maya Harris, tweeted a video montage of family photos overlaid with the senator speaking to voters about her mother.
“There are people who will say, she isn’t Black enough. There are people who will say she’s not Indian enough,” said Shekar Narasimhan, the chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, a group focused on empowering Asian-American voters. “But she brings all that to the table, which is why I just think she’s a true American.”
Experts and community leaders also highlighted the fact that Harris is biracial. And some noted that the Indian-American population of the United States swelled after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which was led by Black people in America.
“We came on the backs of the civil rights movement,” Narasimhan said. “So to have this unity shown on the stage of a woman who is of our heritage, who is Black, who came out of this struggle, whose grandfather in India came out of an independence struggle, links and creates a unity.”
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, said the most recent survey data available showed that Harris was viewed favourably by Indian-Americans by a wide margin, and that her performance among Indian-American donors improved throughout her presidential campaign last year.
Some political scientists also said Harris’ elevation to the presidential ticket could help broaden Biden’s appeal to a wider swath of the electorate and boost voter turnout.
“The historic nature of having a Black woman on the ticket, particularly given the loyalty of Black women to the Democratic Party, I think makes this a sensible choice,” said LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University who specialises in racial attitudes and public opinion.
And while “South Asians aren’t a large part of the base or a large percentage of the voting population,” she added, “there’s something to be said for voters beyond that community, where this narrative of being born to immigrant parents, being biracial is a story that’s in some ways a quintessential American story.”
Jayapal suggested a humbler benefit of having Harris — whose first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit — elevated to a presidential ticket. “I can’t remember if it was my mother or someone else who said: ‘Maybe now they’ll learn to pronounce your names.’”
Matt Stevens and Rebecca R. Ruiz c.2020 The New York Times Company