When Joe Biden announced he had picked Kamala Harris to be his running mate for the upcoming US presidential election, her sister Maya pointed out: “You can’t know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was.”
The 55-year-old junior senator is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, who immigrated from India in the late 1950s to attend a doctoral programme at UC Berkeley, and Donald Harris, who immigrated from Jamaica for a graduate degree. This makes Harris the first Indian-American and also the first African-American vice-presidential candidate.
Since the August 11 announcement – which comes amid an anti-immigration climate under the Trump administration – Harris’ South Asian American identity has come in the spotlight.
“Her candidacy is historic and inspiring for millions of Asian American voters, the fastest growing voting bloc in the country,” said Neil Makhija, the executive director of IMPACT.
Founded in 2016, IMPACT is a national Indian-American political organisation that helps members of the community run for office at the local, state and federal level. It aims to ensure that “Indian-American leaders from all sectors are fully represented and heard in national policy conversations”. It also serves as a voice and advocacy group for the Indian-American community.
“If one looks at the United States political organisations, whether it’s LGBT groups, African-Americans, Latinos, women’s groups, there are some entities and organising bodies for virtually every community, but Indian Americans have not had that,” said Makhija. “This is the first time where we are really building a sophisticated infrastructure that can support Indian-Americans as they seek to engage in public life.”
With Harris’ selection, Makhija said, “we are excited about telling the Indian-American story nationally – because we’ve never had that opportunity before.”
Scroll.in spoke to Makhija about Harris’ Indian roots, what her selection means for Indian-Americans, and more.
What does IMPACT do?
We talk to Indian-American candidates every day around the country – whether they’re running for Congress or Senate or school board, and we help and advise them on the process of running. Our separate group, the Indian-American Impact Fund, endorses, supports and helps elect them.
Our goal is really to build a bench in a pipeline of future leaders. And of course, Kamala Harris is a trailblazer and she has ascended to this height of being selected as a vice president nominee, which is a historic moment for all Indian-Americans, and also for African-Americans and women. We’re very proud of what she has been able to do through her extraordinary work and talent.
Why do Kamala Harris’ Indian roots matter?
It gives her a global perspective, which tends to be the case when you have family overseas and you are a recent immigrant. The United States has many immigrant communities. We have the experience of having a family on the other side of the world and understanding the talent and the energy that the US draws from places like India and how important and crucial that is for American innovation and American society generally.
I think she appreciates the opportunity that America provided to her mother and her family. And she knows that we can be a beacon of hope and a land of opportunity for people around the world.
What does her selection mean for Indian-Americans in general, and for Indian-American wanting to enter politics in particular?
It means no door is closed to our community. It’s often the case that immigrants, especially Indian-Americans, are expected to fill a narrow and perhaps a stereotypical role in society in terms of what we do.
She breaks that open and says that you can aspire to leadership, whether you’re an Indian-American or African-American or a woman. It also marks the moment where what was before impossible has now become possible.
Kamala Harris is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. What does her selection mean in today’s anti-immigrant climate? What message does it send out?
It’s reclaiming who we are as Americans. Donald Trump has one message – he wants to send the United States back to a time before Indian-Americans or other immigrant communities were here – and this is a repudiation of that.
This is also a recognition that Kamala’s story is the American story, and that America is an inclusive, generous nation that really is a place where people from around the world can aspire to find opportunity.
What challenges is she likely to face next?
I think she has faced many challenges in a long career in politics and will have no problem taking on this administration – which she already has from the United States Senate with incredible power. I have no doubt that she will be extraordinary in her vice-presidential debates. I would never bet against her.
You wrote on Twitter that Kamala Harris will be “a natural leader on two critical issues of our time: climate change and immigration”. Could you expand on that?
We do recognise the urgency of addressing climate change and Donald Trump has espoused this America First policy, which is putting the whole planet, including America, at risk. I think Kamala Harris recognises that we need serious cooperation with other nations, including India, to deal with global climate change, rising sea levels, increasing severe weather events.
We need to adapt and build a new clean energy economy, and we’re going to need to support sustainable development so that India and other developing countries can grow in a clean way – through clean energy.
Coming from California, which is a very diverse state, one that is seeing the effects of climate change and is also a leader in the green economy, it’s a really great signal. She’ll recognise that there’s a serious potential for collaboration – more than that, the necessity for collaboration – amongst countries to address this issue.
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