Atlanta lawyer Amol Naik was surprised by his emotional reaction to Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate.
It’s not that Harris will be the first Black woman to be a major party’s vice presidential nominee; it’s that she will be the first Indian American.
“I have just been moved by it in a way that I didn’t expect,” said Naik, whose parents immigrated from India to North Carolina. “It’s just really a remarkable thing that this could happen. It gives you a lot of faith in the country.”
The California senator’s ascent to the top tier of American politics drew an outpouring of pride among Indian Americans, a growing force in Democratic politics. They could reward Biden and Harris with crucial votes in the handful of states that will decide the election, along with a surge of campaign donations.
“You’re going to see a lot of that being uncorked in the next few months,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside public policy professor.
Historic breakthroughs have been a constant in Harris’ 17 years in politics. She was the first Black woman to hold every office she has won — San Francisco district attorney, state attorney general and U.S. senator from California. With the United States in the midst of a historic reckoning with systemic racism after George Floyd died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, her status as the first Black woman tapped as a major vice presidential nominee has generated enormous media attention.
Less remarked upon has been Harris’ distinction as the first Indian American to reach all of those positions. But Naik was one of many who saw Biden’s choice of Harris as a watershed cultural moment for the nation’s 4.5 million Indian Americans.
“It wasn’t that long ago when Indian Americans were not at all part of the American mainstream,” said Naik, who has worked in Georgia Democratic politics. “That’s now happened. We have Sanjay Gupta on CNN. We have [comedian] Aziz Ansari — people everyone knows. That was not the case in the 1990s when I was growing up.”
Television director Kabir Akhtar wrote Tuesday on Twitter that it was “incredible to see an Indian American on the ticket. a whole generation of us felt like outsiders in our country growing up. so happy for all the young women and POC in our country who can see someone who looks like them on the presidential ticket.”
Harris is the daughter of two immigrants, a key aspect of her biography as she and Biden work to unseat President Trump. A core part of Trump’s political identity is his anti-immigrant agenda.
Harris rarely speaks publicly about her father, Donald Harris, a Jamaican-born economist who taught at Stanford University.
But she often talks about her late mother, breast cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan, who moved from India to California in the late 1950s to study at UC Berkeley.
In an interview in June on a Los Angeles Times podcast, Asian Enough, Harris said her mother was “conscious of race” when raising her and her sister, Maya, in deeply segregated Berkeley in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“She knew that in America, her daughters would be treated, for better or worse, as Black women and Black children, and she raised us with a sense of pride about who we were,” Harris said. But it was “never to the exclusion of always being very proud and very active in terms of our Indian culture as well.”
“We grew up in the Black community and learned that you could cook okra with mustard seeds — or with dried shrimp and spicy sausages,” Harris said with a laugh.
The Harris sisters visited their grandparents in Chennai, in southeastern India, a number of times when they were growing up. The media in India covered Biden’s selection of Harris widely on Wednesday. In a Times of India story headlined “One of Our Own,” her uncle Gopalan Balachandran was quoted saying, “She likes India, she likes Indian music, but she likes jazz.”
A Hindustan Times editorial on Wednesday said Harris “represents the political pinnacle of the Indian-American community’s meteoric rise in the United States.”
Also getting coverage in India was Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson losing his coolwhen a guest, Democratic lawyer Richard F. Goodstein, asked him to show Harris respect by pronouncing her first name correctly. Her name, which means “lotus” in Sanskrit, is pronounced “Comma-la,” as Harris has explained.
“So I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally,” Carlson snapped. “So it begins. You’re not allowed to criticize ka-MAH-la Harris, or KAM-ah-la Harris, or whatever.”
Republicans quickly sought to undercut Harris’ support among Indian Americans. Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco lawyer who is national co-chair of Women for Trump, told Fox News that Harris was a “shape-shifter” who “doesn’t have any true center or any true roots.”
“This is going to be a little brutal, but the reputation she has among the Indian American community is she’s Indian American at an Indian-American-thrown fundraiser, and that’s it,” said Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member for California. “She forgets her heritage in every other way.”
If there’s “money in the room,” Dhillon said later by phone, “all of a sudden it’s ‘namaste.’”
Trump has made a play for Indian American votes, placing social-media ads touting his friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and holding a Houston rally last year with the controversial leader that attracted tens of thousands.
But Indian Americans, who are among the nation’s most highly educated and affluent ethnic groups, lean strongly Democratic, UC Riverside’s Ramakrishnan said. Surveys have found they tend to favor universal healthcare, gun control and higher taxes on the wealthy, he said, and they are turned off by Trump’s nativist rhetoric.
“It’s the social exclusion that keeps them in the Democratic Party,” he said. “They’re very sensitive to racial discrimination.”
If the presidential election is close, Indian Americans could also be pivotal in states that will tip the election to Biden or Trump. There are roughly 87,000 eligible to vote in Florida, 61,000 in Pennsylvania, 57,000 in Georgia, 45,000 in Michigan and 36,000 in North Carolina.
Deepa Sharma, a Bay Area lawyer who did grass-roots organizing of South Asians for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is doing the same now for Biden, said she was “overwhelmed and overjoyed” that he picked Harris.
“Now that Kamala Harris is on the ticket,” she said, “I can’t tell you how much that enthusiasm could be magnified.”