by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
Asian Americans have shattered another glass ceiling. On Tuesday, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden announced California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris is both Indian American and Black, making her the first Asian American pick for a major-party ticket.
While many Asian Americans have expressed pride in seeing Harris on the ticket, others feel less connected to the California Senator.
Harris has spoken proudly about her Indian American heritage. In her 2018 autobiography, The Truths We Hold, she wrote about being the daughter of an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father.
Harris’ parents were separated when she was five and she was primarily raised by her single mother Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activists.
When Biden announced Harris, many Indian Americans across the country celebrated, saying they felt seen. Television producer, writer and actress Mindy Kaling tweeted that it was an “exciting day,” especially for her “Black and Indian sisters” who “have gone their entire lives thinking someone who looks like them may never hold high office.”
Some Asian Americans also see her Indian American identity as an important political asset. Sheridan Tatsuno, a tech startup business owner from Silicon Valley who studied political science at Yale, told AsAmNews he believes that her presence in the White House could help strengthen ties between the United States and India.
Tatsuno also pointed out that Indian Americans are very vocal and politically active.
“The Indian American community is the most politically active nationwide,” Tatsuno said when speaking about the political activism of different Asian American ethnic groups.
Indian Americans are a vocal voting bloc. In 2016, Indian Americans raised $10 million for the Clinton campaign, according to Politico Magazine. The Indian American turnout that year was 62 percent, higher than the country’s overall 61.4 percent rate. In 2018, Indian American voter mobilization helped put several Indian Americans in office.
“She’ll make it much more visible and acceptable for Asian Americans to speak out”
Harris’ identity could help garner support from Indian American political allies. During her own presidential campaign, she received support from Indian American political groups like the IMPACT (Indian American Impact Fund), an influential political action committee. Harris was their keynote speaker at a 2018 summit.
“She understands the need to build a strong, diverse party that represents the future of the country,” Neil Makhija, the executive director of IMPACT, said in an email interview with AsAmNews. “I have no doubt she will be an asset to the ticket for that reason. She isn’t afraid of any corner of the country — she will fight for everyone.”
Tatsuno also praised Harris for her passion and outspokenness.
“She’ll make it much more visible and acceptable for Asian Americans to speak out,” Tatsuno said.
Not all Asian Americans see themselves in Harris. Nick Flor, an engineering professor with a size-able social media following, tweeted that he did not remember Kamala Harris identifying herself as Asian American during the debates.
Peter Zhao told AsAmNews that as a Chinese American immigrant living in New York City he did not feel an immediate connection with Harris.
“Truthfully there’s a distance,” Zhao said. “There’s a gap definitely.”
Tatsuno noted that Asian Americans who were not Indian American may be less likely to initially connect with Harris. He said that some Asian Americans tend to live in ethnic “silos” and don’t throw as much support to people who don’t belong to their group.
Zhao, however, says he knew much about Harris’ political and prosecutorial background before she ran for president, but didn’t learn about her Indian American heritage until she launched her presidential campaign.
“That’s why initially I thought there was a gap between us,” Zhao said. “Knowing that she’s half Asian gives me a perspective on why a lot of Asian Americans in my circle support her.”
Many Asian Americans have criticized the mainstream media for not highlighting Harris’ Asian American identity. An NBC News article published before Biden’s announcement pointed out that the significance of having two Asian American women under consideration for vice president (Harris and Senator Tammy Duckworth) was missing from public discussions.
“Their Asian heritage is invisible in most conversations happening around Biden’s pick,” Sayu Bhojwani, president of New American Leaders, an organization that works to get immigrants running for office, told NBC News.
When Biden announced Harris as his running mate, many Asian Americans called on journalists to highlight her Asian American heritage.
Zhao, who was raised by a single mother like Harris, says he feels more connected to her now that he’s learned more about her heritage. He was surprised that Biden picked Harris, but says he supports her and the campaign.
Makhija believes that more Asian Americans, like Zhao, will warm to Harris once they get to know her.
“If they ever have the chance to meet her, I’m confident they won’t feel that way,” Makhija said. “She is incredibly warm and thoughtful.”
Harris has continued to reach out to the Asian American community. For the past few months, the Senator has spoken out against the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic. In May, she introduced a resolution with Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) condemning anti-Asian racism.
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