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OP-ED: A South Asian in the West Wing?

  • Published at 09:29 pm August 13th, 2020
Joe Biden Kamala Harris
Blazing the trail REUTERS

Let us consider the unprecedented significance of what Biden has done

History in the making in American politics, as Joe Biden -- the Democrat favoured to win this year’s presidential election -- selected Kamala Harris as his running mate. 

Their combination sparked instant electricity and drew an immediate global spotlight, quite like what Biden experienced as vice president under Barack Obama. One reason is sheer stakes: The world knows it cannot afford another four devastatingly incompetent years of Donald Trump. 

But it’s also Harris, who she is, and what she stands for. The daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, she maintains (and proudly communicates) strong ties to both the countries of her parents. Also, via the US’s unscientific and infuriating, yet inescapable, “racial” calculus, she’s the first “woman of colour” major party candidate for that country’s highest offices.

All this assumes huge significance because Biden is 77, and has reportedly already told his aides he will only serve one term. 

That means, in the way American politics lines itself up, a part-Hindu, part-Christian (she’s married to a Jewish man), “black” Jamaican-Caribbean Tamilian Brahmin Californian-American woman now has the inside track to the “most powerful office in the world.” 

Wild? Not when you consider that Harris comes from two of the most successful immigrant communities in American history. 

There are 3 million Jamaicans in Jamaica, but almost the equivalent number lives in diaspora (over a million in the US alone). Sons and daughters of the island have always been in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, from Marcus Garvey to Harry Belafonte. It’s important to remember that, just two decades ago, Colin Powell was the most popular political figure in America, though he declined to run for president (his wife feared he’d be assassinated).

Donald Harris, the father of Kamala and her younger sister Maya, was divorced from Shyamala Gopalan when their daughters were young. Yet, this Stanford economics professor (he is a rare Marxist in the highest levels of US academe) often took his daughters to visit his family, he writes, to “memba whe yu cum fram.” 

In an essay entitled Reflections of a Jamaican Father, Harris writes: “My message to them, from the lessons I had learned along the way, was that the sky is the limit on what one can achieve with effort and determination and that, in this process, it is important not to lose sight of those who get left behind by social neglect or abuse and lack of access to resources or ‘privilege’; also not to get ‘swell-headed’ and that it is important to ‘give back’ with service to some greater cause than oneself.” 

Those “home truths” were considerably reinforced by Kamala and her sister’s evidently remarkable mother Shyamalan Gopalan, and her family.

Since the nomination of Harris earlier this week, some reactions have revelled in vulgar triumphalism because her mother was an Iyer Tamilian Brahmin (a set of sub-castes short-handed as TamBrahms). And it is a fact that this relatively minuscule community has accumulated vastly disproportionate achievements, including three Nobel Prize winners, a World Chess Champion.

But the actions of the Gopalans embody the rejection of caste orthodoxy. Shyamalan Gopalan was unquestioningly supported when she chose to study in California, to marry (and then divorce) a Jamaican man of African-Caribbean heritage, and raise her daughters amidst the onerous strictures of “black” America. Her sisters and brother (he married a Mexican) also blazed their own trails, to an extent unusual even today.

South Asians are going to have to grapple and come to terms with these complexities, and hopefully learn from them. 

The poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote aptly referenced Satyajit Ray’s 1984 classic movie, when he commented on Twitter this week: “What saddens me is the playing up, in India, of her Tamil Brahmin connections -- with no mention of her Afro-Caribbean heritage, which involves histories of a very different kind. Some people who feel threatened by marvellous transcultural hybridity at home seem to celebrate it when it happens overseas. Ghare Baire!”

It’s already clear that citizens of the sub-continent will now spend months and -- fingers crossed -- years obsessively parsing everything that Kamala Harris says and does. Actually, if the early days after her nomination are any indication, it’s going to be an international pastime. 

But this is also the moment to pause and consider the immensely impressive, totally unprecedented significance of what Joe Biden has done. 

A highly ambitious politician from the dominant majority -- the same exact constituencies that Trump stirs to express their worst instincts -- initially showed himself capable of standing aside to allow the growth and eventual stardom of a much younger, much less seasoned Barack Obama. 

Now he’s chosen someone who is more dazzling still, and without making any fuss about it, is clearly passing leadership to a very different America from the one he grew up in. 

That’s statesmanship.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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