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Kamala Harris: Redefining Representation

Individual visibility is a necessary but insufficient step on the path to collective liberation


As the first Black and Tamil-Indian American on a major party’s presidential ticket, Kamala Harris has broken barriers in becoming the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Harris’ presence on the ticket as the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants has sparked excitement in many communities of color. This also provides inspiration to young women of color in particular. As Stacey Abrams stated, “For a Black woman looking for pathways and validation that you’re not crazy, you can do this, [Kamala is] incredibly important.”

However, despite the real significance of such a milestone, celebrating symbolic representation in and of itself is inadequate.

When discussing the Biden-Harris campaign, mobilizing voters, and pushing the Democratic Party to represent all Americans, we must refocus our discourse and adopt a more substantive view of representation. Representation is meant to be a celebration of racial equity, and drawing the distinction between hateful criticisms and meaningful critique is vital in shaping the political outcomes that Americans are demanding.

As a successful Black and South Asian woman, Kamala has been faced with racist and vitriolic attacks that are absolutely unacceptable. Statements from the right mimic the racist Obama birther conspiracy. The discussion surrounding her multiracial identity reflects disturbing anti-Blackness within the South Asian community. Dismissal of Harris’ South Asian background and discussions of whether she is “Indian enough” are invalidating and unnecessary. These attacks should be unequivocally condemned. However, it would be wrong to shy away from legitimate criticisms of Harris’ political record. 

Despite being labeled as a progressive candidate, Kamala Harris has received criticism on multiple aspects of her record. Critics point out her defense of the death penalty in California, heightened law enforcement surrounding marijuana, support for a policy turning undocumented students over to ICE, and her “war on truancy,” Unlike other 2020 contenders, particularly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Harris does not prioritize tough financial regulation. She declined to prosecute Steven Mnuchin after he repeatedly broke California foreclosure laws. The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “As Kamala Harris Joins Biden Ticket, Wall Street Sighs in Relief,” an indication of relative lenience on financial regulation under the Biden-Harris administration. Some of the most problematic aspects of Harris’ record are in regards to her inaction in cases of police brutality. Amid the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests and a national conversation surrounding police and prison abolition, Harris’ self-labeling as a “top cop” and “progressive prosecutor” feels out of touch. 

In her 2009 book, entitled “Smart on Crime,” Harris stated that “virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat,” rhetoric which she reversed after the murder of George Floyd. After Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, Harris said it was not her job to step in and investigate multiple police shootings in San Francisco. That same year, she appealed a federal judge’s decision against capital punishment, and pushed back against the early release of prisoners because they were “an important labor pool.” According to the New York Times, four dozen law enforcement groups subsequently supported her re-election campaign. 

Manisha Sinha wrote in the New York Times that Harris’ overall record as attorney general was “progressive, despite serious missteps,” and stated that Harris is “well qualified to course correct when it comes to her own record [and] police brutality.” Evolution and growth are natural components of anyone’s political career. However, assuming this is true, the tendency of the Democratic party to co-opt popular demands raises cause for concern that progressive demands will not easily translate to policy change. As several Democrats, including Harris, responded to demands to defund the police by wearing kente stoles, it is understandable that many Americans are skeptical of the party’s receptiveness to popular outcry, particularly when demands are perceived as radical. 

In addition, Biden’s connection to the Hindu nationalist Modi government presents cause for concern. Biden’s Muslim outreach coordinator, Amit Jani, is a Modi supporter with direct ties to the RSS. This raises significant concerns regarding a Biden administration’s willingness to speak out against fascistic Hindutva politics in India. Although some Modi supporters have criticized Harris for her relatively vocal stance on Kashmir, neither Biden nor Harris has taken a vocal stance against the oppression of Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in India.

According to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs, this issue is intertwined with Harris’ identity as a Tamil Brahmin. Amid issues of caste discrimination occurring in Silicon Valley, Soundarajan said, “We need her to speak to her [caste] privilege [and] the challenges of caste because it’s happening in her state.” Speaking of Harris as Indian-American without acknowledging the particularity of her Tamil Brahmin identity is reductive and also erases important implications for US-India foreign policy.  

Behind these various criticisms of Harris lies her fundamental belief in internal, incremental change. Earlier this year, Harris stated, “I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed.” Yet both in the past and present, her constituents and onlookers have insisted that an incremental, status-quo approach is both insufficient and often counterproductive, as it perpetuates the very systems that popular movements seek to dismantle. Blake S. wrote in Afropunk that Harris’ campaign strategy “uses the popular aesthetics of Blackness despite the actions of Harris being fundamentally anti-Black.” 

At a time when the majority of the American people are demanding bold, sweeping change - on healthcare, immigration, climate change, criminal justice, and racial justice - it is necessary to push back against the discourse of internal change. The role of protesters and social movements has been to pressure politicians. In the middle of a global pandemic, nationwide protests, and record-high unemployment, it is necessary to hold elected officials accountable to the highest standards. Being “anti-Trump” is not itself a complete political stance. As demonstrated by the popularity of progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar,  many Americans are in favor of bold change that goes further than a reversion to the pre-Trump “normal.” To be truly representative, Biden and Harris must take stances that empower the most marginalized Americans - favoring policies that lobbies and wealthy corporations have an active incentive to reject.

Upon the announcement of Harris as vice presidential pick, many Indians and South Asian Americans celebrated the presence of chai, mirch and masala, and Diwali in the White House. Without a doubt, there is power and joy in being represented in such a way. Yet an overemphasis on symbolic representation both flattens Harris’ identity and detracts from the substantive representation that would result in material change for Americans who suffer from the status quo. The selection of a self-labeled “top-cop” who is a history-making Black and South Asian woman has complicated implications, and discomfort for some Black and South Asian voters who may not necessarily feel represented by what Harris stands for. If we are to push the Biden-Harris policy platform and urge progressive change, we must grapple with this tension and discomfort while vocally holding the candidates accountable.  

Representation is multi-dimensional, and symbolic representation is just one facet of it. In communities of color mobilizing for progressive change, it is our responsibility to push for a more multifaceted view that emphasizes material change, uplifts the people of color who have not made it onto the political stage, and recognize that individual visibility is a necessary but insufficient step on the path to collective liberation.

About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

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