by LAUREN CODLING
THE historic election of Indian American Kamala Harris as vice-president elect in the US has been praised as a breakthrough moment of hope in America and abroad, as the first woman voted to the post said she “would not be the last”.
Harris, 56, who is of Asian and black heritage, and Joe Biden were announced as vice-president elect and president elect respectively, last Saturday (7), as votes were still being counted in the US election that was held last Tuesday (3).
In her victory speech last Saturday, Harris paid tribute to her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who emigrated from India when she was 19, and spoke of her hope for generations of women to come.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris, a senator from California, told a cheering crowd in Delaware. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Wearing a white suit in tribute to the suffragettes who fought 100 years ago to win American women the right to vote, Harris said her mother (who died in 2009), believed “so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible”. “So I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women – black women, Asian, white, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight.”
Harris’s win was celebrated not only in the US, but also in her mother’s ancestral villages in India, and the UK. At Thulasendrapuram village i southern Tamil Nadu state, once home to Harris’ maternal grandfather PV Gopalan, celebrations broke out with locals lighting firecrackers, praying at its main temple and waving posters bearing her face.
In the UK, Lord Simon Woolley, the founder of Operation Black Vote, told Eastern Eye that Harris’s win “sent a message of hope” across the world. “Harris’s (African and Indian heritage) gives us all so much to celebrate,” the peer, who until recently led the UK government’s race audit, said on Monday (9). “This is one of those rare elections where the result has not only made a massive impact on the US electorate, but also globally.
“It sends a message of hope and decency that, perhaps even more than (former US president) Barack Obama’s presidency, the structures of race equality will be one of the top priorities. In many ways, African, Asians and other minority ethnic individuals will sleep a lot easier having seen (US president Donald) Trump be defeated, because both the racial hatred and the political will to ignore systemic racism has been heartbreaking,” Lord Woolley said.
Confident that Harris could be the first female ethnic minority president in the US if Biden only serves one term, Lord Woolley predicted “exciting years ahead”.
Sunder Katwala, director of the independent thinktank British Future, agreed Harris’s journey told a “hopeful” story about America, of how an ethnic minority woman could reach the White House. “If the Trump presidency has bruised America’s reputation, Harris updates one of America’s most attractive ‘soft power’ messages – that there should be no ceiling on how high the daughters as well of the sons of immigrants can rise in America in this century,” Katwala told Eastern Eye on Monday.
However, he believes Harris will want to be more than a symbol of social change. Given that Biden will be 81 years old when the US next chooses a president, Katwala believes Harris could become one of the most powerful American political figures of the decade.
“If Harris can work with president Biden to hold together the Democratic coalition as more than a one-off vote to remove Donald Trump, she could have the chance to secure the top role in her own name in four years’ time,” Katwala said, echoing Lord Woolley’s prediction.
Since the result was called in favour of Biden-Harris, several news outlets have highlighted the racism Harris encountered during her political career.
A New York Times profile last weekend referred to Harris’s understanding of how the political world in the US treats women of colour. She faced a number of racial microaggressions throughout the campaign, including Trump’s alleged refusal to pronounce her name correctly.
Senator Cory Booker, a colleague and a long-time friend of Harris, said her guardedness was a “form of self-protection”. “She still has this grace about her where it’s almost as if these things don’t affect her spirit,” Booker told the New York Times. “She’s endured this for her entire career and she does not give people license to have entrance into her heart.”
Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College, told The Guardian that that Harris’s biracial heritage “represents a history of Asian Americans that is often overlooked”, adding that she was “a powerful symbol and voice for progressive Asian Americans”.
In a 2019 interview, Harris told the Washington Post, “When I first ran for office, that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created. I am who I am … You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
Lord Woolley highlighted the significance of having a woman of colour on the presidential ticket as analysts noted the rise in the number of black voters at booths this year. He told Eastern Eye, “Elections are a numbers game and there were record levels of voting on both sides. Trump poisoned many Americans with racial hatred and bigotry, but many more responded to Biden and Harris’s love and hope.”
Matthew McGregor, campaigns director at UK advocacy group Hope not Hate, agreed that Harris’s election “gives hope to millions of people around the world that the structures which exclude black people and other minority groups from power can be broken down”.
“Kamala Harris’ story – as the daughter of a Jamaican-American father and an Indian-American mother – is powerful for people wherever they are in the world,” McGregor told Eastern Eye on Tuesday (10).
Lord Woolley added, “A win for Trump would have signalled more racial hatred, more division, and a sense that black people don’t belong.”
A day after her victory speech, Harris said she and Biden were ready to write the “next chapter” in American history. Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery, racial equality and climate change were listed as the four top priorities on the Biden campaign website last Sunday (8).
“On day one, we’re going to get to work building an economy that works for working families,” Harris said on Monday (9). “Nobody has more respect for the working women and men who get up every day to build and sustain this country, or more confidence that they can meet the challenges we face. The Biden-Harris administration will rebuild the middle class – and this time make sure everyone comes along.”
Harris’s victory was also praised by the United Nations leadership who applauding her for breaking “yet another ceiling” and describing it as a “milestone for gender equality”.
In India, Harris’s uncle, academic Balachandran Gopalan, said his late sister would have been proud of her daughter and that the family would converge in Washington from across the US and from India, Canada and Mexico to witness her historic inauguration.
“Her mother would have been very happy. She would have asked Kamala to continue what she’s doing,” the 79-year-old academic said in the capital New Delhi as a huge media contingent crowded outside his home. “Can you think of any other country where a first-generation immigrant would go to the highest office… It’s a lot of firsts. And at a major time in US history. And that she’s there as VP means a lot.”
His niece’s lifetime of accomplishments in the political world – she was also California’s first black attorney general and the first woman of south Asian heritage elected to the US senate – would be an inspiration to other Indian-American immigrants, he added.
“Lots of (Indian-American) children who earlier were interested in the annual Spelling Bee contest are now going to be interested in US politics,” he quipped. “Young children, especially young girls, will be more motivated and enthused. That’s a good thing.”