Part I: Black, Desi, and (Just) American: Identity and the Political Ascendancy of Kamala Harris
(in 3 parts)
Let us first, in speaking of Kamala Devi Harris, dispense with the two sets of commonplace observations being aired since Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President of the United States, named her as his running mate. Harris is described as a prolific trailblazer: she was the first Black, the first Indian American, and the first woman elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco and later as the Attorney General of California. She is only the second Black woman to serve in the US Senate, having been preceded by Carol Moseley Braun who represented Illinois for one six-year term in the 1990s, and Harris is the first Indian American to serve in the Senate. She is now the first woman of color to join the presidential ticket of the country’s two major political parties and, should the Democrats prevail in the November Presidential election, she would obviously become the first Indian American and African American to hold the Vice-Presidency of the United States and would be well-poised to make a bid to become the first person in all these capacities to preside in the White House and perhaps dominate the politics of the Democratic party over a good part of the next generation. If all of this were not exhausting enough, she is also the first nominee of either party for the position of either Vice President or President to have graduated from one of a group of what are known as Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—more precisely, from Howard University, apparently dubbed at one time the ‘Black Harvard’. Harris is clearly what is called an ‘achiever’, and is not shy in being characterized as one—though she seeks in principle to soften what might otherwise be seen as boasting by quoting her mother, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
It is very likely that there are many other such “firsts” in Kamala Harris’s resume of accomplishments. Donald Trump had many “firsts” too, among them being the oldest incoming President in the US and the first President since Dwight Eisenhower to win the White House without having ever been elected to any office (though Eisenhower had at least been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War Two, rather than being, as is true of Trump, a notorious draft dodger). Trump is, to put it bluntly, also the first president to have installed as the First Lady a woman who modeled in the nude—nothing wrong here at all, lest someone construe this as a call for sexual puritanism—and the first president to have racked up a phenomenal record as an incorrigible liar, though other presidents may have distinguished themselves with a catalog of other and perhaps more disturbing atrocities. To enumerate all of Trump’s “firsts” would be to steal the thunder from Harris, or perhaps add lustre to her candidacy. Kamala Harris’s resume should be, other things being equal, sufficient to win her the approbation of all but cynics and perhaps those who would like to think of politics in the rather more elevated language of a political philosopher or an ethical thinker. It is remarkable, indeed, that the second set of commonplace observations on her nomination for the Vice Presidency of the United States similarly bears affinity to the place-markers of identity with which she is described. On this view, Biden’s selection of her was astute since she is smart, a centrist, and a pragmatic moderate, but, above all, because she is the counterpoint to him in the most fundamental respects. As Biden is male and white, Harris is a woman of color; if he is the past of the party, she is its future; if he is old, she is reasonably young; if he looks rather worn-out, wearing the bottom of his trousers rolled, she is brimming with energy; if he is dull, she always seems to sparkle—with something; if he is from the East Coast, she is from the West Coast. In the folksy, somewhat endearing and at times annoying language in which Barack Obama delights and which gives California its somewhat starry-eyed reputation, the coming together of Biden and Harris is the coziness of yin and yang.
It does not surprise, then, that barring some predictable and often lengthy inquiries into Harris’s record as a prosecutor and ‘top cop’ of the wealthiest state of the union, the opinion pieces have revolved around the question of identity. Does she ‘identify’ herself predominantly as Black and only take recourse to her Indian identity when the occasion seems fitting? Is Harris likely to become more Black as the campaigning intensifies, if only because she is astute enough to recognize that, however much she may feel beholden to her partial Indian ancestry, Black people will indubitably have a far greater role in determining her future in American politics? Indians number in the vicinity of around 4 million, around 1.25 percent of the American population; Blacks, on the other hand, make up close to 14 percent of the country. But their numbers belie the strengths that Indian Americans bring, in principle, to the Democratic campaign—the advantages of education and affluence. As Indian Americans are fond of reminding others, they have done better for themselves than any other community in the US, including Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans, and white people, judging from the percentage of Indian Americans with a postgraduate degree—40 percent, compared to 21 percent for all Asian Americans and 11 percent for all Americans—and their median wealth. Some are consequently asking: will Harris selectively play up her Indianness as she courts voters and donors in the affluent Indian American community? She is reportedly close to the tech world and it is no secret that Indians play an outsized role in Silicon Valley. Or, to put forth another possibility, might Harris present herself as equally Black American and Indian American, as someone who, in the last analysis, counts herself only as American?
That neither her Indian American nor Black identity will have a bearing on some, indeed most, of her views should be amply clear from the positions that Harris has adopted, to take one illustration, on the question of Palestine. Harris is a keen supporter of Israel, and was more adamant than all other Democratic hopefuls in the summer of 2019 when, in response to a question posed by the New York Times, “Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?”, she replied in the affirmative and insisted that American foreign policy in that region had to be rooted in “understanding the alignment between the American people and the people of Israel.” In this respect, she is truly the soul-mate of Biden, whose position has barely budged from the views he enunciated in 1986 during a debate in the Senate on arms sales to the Middle East, when he declared: “It’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel, there’s no apology to be made. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.” The Palestinians have no reason to rejoice in the selection of Harris, merely because she is an Indian American and African American woman; from their standpoint, it is more than likely that she will be speaking only as an American—that is to say as a white person. Those who live and thrive on identity politics have given everything to pronouncing themselves Asian American, African American, Hispanic American, Japanese American, or whatever, and have themselves recognized as such by others, but they seldom recognize that once one has been nominated an American, one perforce takes on the characteristics of those deemed white. That is one of the entitlements, though a liability for others, of being a ‘White American’—who alone have, and dearly wish to retain, the privilege of not being named. White Americans are just Americans. This is what the French philosopher Roland Barthes characterized as the realm of ex-nomination.
(to be continued)