The many layers of Kamala Harris' identity

Looking at Joe Biden's running mate through the lens of Isabel Wilkerson's magnificent new book, CASTE

At the age of 21, I moved from the United States to India and began, for the first time in my life, to be asked about my caste. (As an answer, “Cleveland Indian” didn’t satisfy.) I had been an Indian-American; now I was an American in India, and this was among the surprises of my arrival. But if a seminal new book is to be believed — and I think, for all our sakes, it must — I hadn’t left a casteless society for a caste-obsessed one. I had simply traded one of history’s three fiercest regimes of caste for another — each with its own particular means of bounding people, each with its own particular ways of hiding that it does.

The three caste systems investigated in the journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” are those of the United States, India, and Nazi-era Germany. And this week, as I watched Senator Kamala Harris assume the role of vice-presidential nominee, with the book very much on my mind, I couldn’t help but observe how those three monstrous caste systems haunted this historic moment like ghosts.

It was historic because Harris is the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket. She is, in fact, you might say, a woman of two colors: Black, owing to her Jamaican father; and brown, owing to her Indian mother. And each of those lineages comes with its own histories and complications and inheritances related to caste.

Harris almost certainly wouldn’t exist if her maternal grandfather had not been an improbably progressive upper-caste Indian, a defier of caste. A Brahmin civil servant in newly independent India, P.V. Gopalan might have been expected, as The Los Angeles Times notes, to hew to the convention that “destined Brahmin offspring for arranged marriages and comfortable careers in academia, government service or the priesthood — if they were men. Women were not expected to work at all.” Instead, all four of his children traveled untraditional roads. His son married a Mexican woman. A daughter became a doctor and never married. Another daughter became an information scientist and didn’t have children. And Shyamala, the senator’s late mother, pulled off a caste-defiance hat trick of Things a Well-Born Indian Woman is Not Supposed To Do: leaving the country alone as a 19-year-old woman; pursuing a master’s degree as said woman; and not only failing to marry an Indian man but marrying a Black man — a brave act given anti-Black racism among Indians.

So Harris descends from privilege in the Indian system of caste, but only came to be born because of the rejection of the rules of that privilege. And her father’s background implicates other systems of — and questions about — caste. Donald Harris was Black and Jamaican. He and Shyamala met during their work for the civil rights movement. So it was the battle against the American caste regime that brought them together. Yet because of her father’s foreign provenance, Harris has long been met with (rather unfair) questions about the authenticity of her Blackness. “What does it mean to call Kamala Harris ‘black’ in an American context?” the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams tweeted this week. “People keep saying, ‘Well, she looks black.’ Always good to keep in mind that ‘race’ has never strictly been about how someone looks. My blue eyed children would qualify for reparations and Harris would not.” His ground for this latter claim is that Harris cannot trace an ancestor back to American slavery. (There have also been unsubstantiated suggestions that Harris’ ancestors include an enslaver — suggestions that are intended to cast her bona fides as a survivor of the American caste system into doubt, suggestions that seem utterly unfamiliar with hemispheric history.) But whether or not Kamala Harris’ future critics would recognize her and her sister as Black, their mother had no doubt. As Harris writes in her memoir, Shyamala “understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”

At that Shyamala couldn’t be accused of failing. And as Harris grew into a trailblazing public official and a political superstar, the ghost of caste hovered. At every step of her career, she defied America’s racial caste system and other hierarchies, accumulating a pile of firsts: first woman elected district attorney of San Francisco; first woman, first African-American, and first person of South Asian origin elected as attorney general of California; first United States senator of South Asian descent (and only the second African-American woman). But, like Barack Obama’s ascent to power, Harris’ successes also illustrated the limitations of singular defiers of caste regimes. As the writer Casey Gerald has said of his own transcendence of caste, rising to great heights from a hard-up African-American community in Dallas, “The American dream relies on stories like mine…to distract from the American reality: There is a conveyor belt that sends most young people, especially from neighborhoods like mine, from nothing to nowhere, while the chosen few are randomly picked off and celebrated.”

There is also the issue of what is expected of those from disfavored castes in exchange for the chance to defy caste systems. A lot of us would have wanted an angrier Barack Obama when it came to the abuses that led to the 2008 financial crisis, but, given how many white Americans react to Black anger, that man would probably have remained a professor in Chicago. Those of disfavored castes permitted to rise within caste systems must often navigate an extra expectation to prove that they will not rock the caste boat. Which is hardly to excuse Senator Harris’ controversial record as a prosecutor — a record that, for certain progressives, puts her beyond the pale. She did what prosecutors do — put people in jail — and she did it within the caste regime that is, in Michelle Alexander’s phrase, “the new Jim Crow.” For many of Harris’ critics, it is especially disheartening that a pioneering woman of color — of those two colors — rose to power through, among other things, jailing Black and brown people. It is a reminder that representation matters, and that structure matters as well, and advances in representation can bring about advances in structure or can crowd them out and stave them off. It is progressive to diversify the rooms where it happens, but diversifying those rooms doesn’t necessarily, on its own, make them progressive.

Harris’ selection, and the question of its relationship to deeper change, made me think of a book published 20 years ago, “The Karma of Brown Folk.” In it Vijay Prashad retells the forgotten history of solidarity between South Asian and Black peoples, and reveals how it was buried under the more recent phenomenon of holding South Asians up as “model minorities,” weaponized to serve anti-Blackness and status quo-ism. “Kamala Harris’ choice is calculated, so carefully calibrated, that it does not strum the chords of Afro-Asian solidarity that have echoed in the United States throughout its history,” Prashad told me this week. “She has been chosen in the midst of a new uprising for Black Lives, a concern for women’s rights, a concern for very correct issues that — for the Democrats — will stand in for substantial and necessary change, including to the prison-industrial complex. Harris’ parents — one Jamaican, one Indian — will be the reason for excitement, not her record, not the agenda proposed by Biden. This is sadly the cynicism of identity politics.” He added: “The historic movement of Harris’ selection would be a caricature of what it could be if the Biden-Harris ticket does not break with the Democratic-Republican consensus on ‘tough on crime,’ which means — in this conjuncture — ‘tough on Black and Brown folk.’”

Alicia Garza, who helped seed the Black Lives Matter movement, was more hopeful. “Representation is important — it is essential that the ticket reflects what America looks like,” she wrote in Glamour. “But representation cannot be the total substance of our support: We must match representation both in symbol and in substance. Women and Black people, and other communities that have been left out and left behind, must be in positions of leadership. When they do lead, it is also important that this leadership lift up those who have been kept down after generations of rigged rules left us without the things we need to live well.”

And so here we have Senator Kamala Harris, who is descended, in one branch of her family, from high-caste people who rejected caste; who was conceived because two people of different backgrounds came together to fight racial caste in America; whose mother knew she would have to be twice as tough to survive that American caste system of anti-Blackness and who nonetheless still confronts questions about her Blackness; who herself has triumphed over the American caste system again and again, and who has, all the while, been trailed by questions of whether she is sufficiently committed to dismantling that caste system, in all of its tentacular devastation, not just to personally transcending it; and who, on the day of her anointment as vice-presidential nominee, called to mind yet another ghost of caste haunting this moment and all of us.Her debut on the ticket was on August 12, the three-year anniversary of the white-supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Remember,” former Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday from a school in Delaware, “what it felt like to see those neo-Nazis — close your eyes — and those Klansmen, white supremacists coming out of fields, carrying lighted torches, faces contorted, bulging veins, pouring into the streets of a historic American city, spewing the same anti-Semitic bile we heard in Hitler’s Germany in the ’30s.” And so we saw a woman who represented the defiance and the persistence of caste in two different societies, being introduced to the nation on the grim anniversary of the moment when that third infamous caste system, Nazi Germany’s, echoed so loudly and ominously in America, and inspired the president of the United States to praise some of the “very fine people” among those neo-Nazis.

The anniversary gave a further layer to the moment. Here was a subject of the Indian and American caste systems, with her complicated relationships to both, running to eject from office a man whose predecessor marshaled a Jim Crow army to defeat white supremacy in Europe and who now, unworthy heir that he is, seems to take inspiration from the fascist enemy America helped beat.

It was, in all of its complexity, a reminder that caste is still very much with us in the year 2020, stubborn and wicked, surmountable at times and for some, and resilient.

In next week’s issue of The.Ink, I will talk with Isabel Wilkerson about caste and “Caste,” and the unlikely source of hope she offers Americans: the Germany erected after Nazism. “To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system — the twelve-year reign of the Nazis — can be created, it can be dismantled.”


Photos: Top — courtesy of the Biden-Harris campaign. Middle — Tom Williams/Getty.