Op-Ed: Kamala Devi Harris, the First of (hopefully) Many

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Kamala Harris
Via Flickr Creative Commons by Mark Nozell https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcn/

Via Flickr Creative Commons by Marc Nozell

By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Staff Writer

I have always held an equal amount of admiration and reservations about Senator Kamala Harris. For one, she is a woman of color who has made a name for herself through her articulate interrogations of questionable people of authority (see Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings), and of course, for being the first woman of color to do many things that have long been kept out of reach for minority communities. 

However, one cannot only admire her and refrain from expressing some concerns. Can we ever look at a politician without looking at their track record? Can we trust that they won’t fall back on tendencies they have shown in the past? Moreover, can we forgive such contradictions and entrust our future to them? Unfortunately, Kamala Devi Harris must be subjected to such pointed questioning herself.

Harris notoriously prosecuted people accused of marijuana possession during her time as the District Attorney of San Francisco. Under her, conviction rates of drug dealers rose by almost 20%. Although the rate of prosecutions for marijuana-related crimes rose, the rate of jailing defendants remained low. This does not take away from the fact that defendants were put through a painful ordeal and were labeled as legal offenders- a permanent mark on their record. More so, the people Harris prosecuted as DA were likely from lower-income communities of color, further causing detriment to their access to equitable resources and opportunities. 

As vice presidential nominee, Harris has pledged to reform the prison system and ban private prisons. She has also pledged to ban chokeholds by police officers, following the death of Mr. George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests that raged all summer. One can hope that these are things the Biden-Harris regime will follow through on. More importantly, Harris can and should go back on her previous track record, and forgive offenses regarding marijuana. It is only a matter of time before marijuana usage is federally legalized. Refusing pardon to those who were unfairly and unjustly prosecuted- most of whom are people of color, are disenfranchised, and stripped of equitable opportunities- would be a heinous reinforcement of our broken and biased incarceration system. 

On the other hand, Harris has the ability to present a side of herself that is more than just a politician with ‘hard-on-crime’ tendencies. Harris has the ability to appeal to niches of the population that have gone unnoticed and voiceless for too long. She has the ability to bring together cultures and people who otherwise fail to see representation of themselves in positions of power, much less as women in positions of power. 

Via Flickr Creative Commons by Phil Roeder

Harris traces back half of her heritage to her Jamaican father, and the other half to her Tamil Indian mother. Personally, as a woman from India, I feel proud to be represented, on principle. Yet Harris does not portray any part of her that is overtly connected to her cultures. Perhaps that is just who she is. I have often seen that Harris is identified by the media as a Black woman. Of course, Harris is well within her rights to identify the way she choses, and perhaps she identifies more strongly as a Black woman than as an Indian woman. It is not my place or anyone else’s to wish she were “more Indian”.

Harris has been vocal about the discrimination she has faced by neighbors when she would visit her father, how those attitudes of othering stemmed from the fact that she was part Jamaican. However, I wonder if this means whether or not she can provide an accurate voice for the Indian-Asian community in the United States. When one is given the rare opportunity to see someone from their community in a national and international seat of power, it is hard to not want a bit of connection for yourself in a cultural context. This is the case for me personally, and perhaps for other Indian Americans like me. We all wish that Kamala Devi was a tad bit more easy to identify with from an Indian perspective. 

I also cannot help but wonder if the American population would make comparisons between Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris. To me, it can come across as reductionist and typifying, to compare some of the few women of color who have been in prominent positions in the American government. We must take utmost care to not reduce both women to their roles and positions. Benevolent racism is dangerously under the surface, and can come across in descriptions of the former First Lady as “motherly, gentle, and nurturing”, a more ‘digestible’ image of Black women. Easily so, will be to characterize Harris as the “opportunistic, ambitious, and emotionless” Black woman. Fox News has already taken the liberty to dissect Harris into these parts, following the vice presidential debate a few weeks ago. 

Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama

To compare and contrast the similarities amongst two powerful women of color would be an extreme disservice to them both. Yet, I shudder to think of the ways they will be talked about in a society that is still championing old White men as their leaders. Even though a woman of color may be in a position of power, she is in no way safe from the hurtful, sexist, and racist comments that are thrown at her. At the end of the day, I identify with Kamala Harris because she is a woman of color in a white-male majority. I have no doubt that she can and will hold her own alongside Joe Biden. The question that lingers with me is the legacy she will leave behind, and what kind of doors she has opened. She is the first female Vice President, the first Vice President of color, the first Black Vice President, and the first Vice President of Indian-origin. We cannot let this long list of “firsts” become short-lived “lasts”.

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