Kamala Harris likes to say she’s American. Of course. But she’s not generic. Her racial subtext is this: On her father’s side she’s half-Jamaican, and on her mother’s side she’s half-Asian Indian. Harris should say it proudly and often. Because there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. Just ask Donald Trump Jr.
He never heard that she was half-Asian (Then again, he thought that meeting in Trump Tower was about Russian adoptions or something).
When it comes to Harris, I like pointing out her Asian side often because wouldn’t that be cool to have the first Asian American president of the United States be half-Black and a woman?
The 2020 Democratic presidential field is nothing but diverse, filled with a demography of riches. There’s men, women, young, old, gay, straight, from North, South, East, West, and Wester (Hawaii), Blacks, Latino and Asians, all of whom yearning for the chance to say they too “Habla Espanol.”
But of them all, I’d say Harris has emerged as diversity’s candidate. She’s what America’s becoming. She’s the face of the American future, mixed race, not just one thing. And definitely she’s not White, though she married one. Diversity!
The daughter of two university professors, Harris grew up in higher ed, and attended public schools in Berkeley, California.
And as we found out last week at the second Democratic debate, she was part of a program that used busing to integrate schools in her city.
It was a policy that segregationist senators fought against. And as Harris deftly pointed out, Joe Biden, while not necessarily a racist, supported those senators.
Harris’ ploy created space between herself and Biden, and between her other competitors, in the battle to be the Democratic nominee.
Weaponizing race in her way did exactly what she wanted — gave her some separation, a breakout moment. But it all seemed a bit calculated to me in order to sell her blackness to the broadest base.
I kept wondering when she would own her other side — the Asian side — on the national stage.
She has no problem being Black in public. But Asian?
There are 21 million Asian Americans in the country. We have a natural affinity for the daughter of an Indian immigrant who could be president. Was it a missed opportunity? Or a purposeful streamlining on race?
I’ve mentioned this before. Harris is quite public about mentioning the love for her late mother from India. And isn’t shy about mentioning her Asianness when fund-raising among Asian groups (The Indian community are huge donors). But since she began her campaign on the national stage she hardly mentions the Asian part. Not in Iowa. Not on the first CNN Town Hall that introduced her. She didn’t say it then. She’s not really saying it now.
Does she figure if it matters to you, you should already know it? Not mentioning it does make things easy for her.
She can just ride the “I had the Berkeley Black experience and then went to Howard” narrative. And then use her personal story to blast Biden on race.
But that strategy opens up the “Is she Black enough?” debate.
And Black conservative, Ali Alexander went after Harris on Twitter on exactly that point. “Kamala Harris is implying she is descended from American Black Slaves,” Alexander tweeted. “She’s not an American Black. Period.”
I would beg to differ with Alexander. I don’t question Harris’ Blackness.
But Trump Jr.? He retweeted Alexander’s tweet, with a kind of glee, and then realized he had misunderstood the argument. He was just startled when he heard that Harris was part Asian.
“Don’s tweet was simply him asking if it was true that Kamala Harris was half-Indian because it’s not something he had ever heard before,” spokesman Andy Surabian told The New York Times. “And once he saw that folks were misconstruing the intent of his tweet, he quickly deleted it.”
But not fast enough. And so the debate raged on about Harris not being Black enough, with Trump trying to extricate himself from it all.
Frankly, I think Harris is definitely Black enough to have lived the African-American experience. There’s no doubt in my mind.
It’s just that when it comes to race, I see her as both. Black and Asian.
She is definitely Asian enough to be called Asian American. So why doesn’t she?
It’s diverse and it’s Asian. But could it be that in a politically charged 2020 race, embracing Asian, going outside a Black/White context just isn’t politically expedient for America?
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok