Discover more from Singal-Minded
On Kamala Harris’s Privileged Upbringing And Why It Matters (Unlocked)
Racial identitarianism always obscures and stupefies
I unlocked this article on 7/28/2023. If you enjoy it, please consider becoming a paying subscriber or giving a gift subscription.
Here’s an article in Politico headlined “How Kamala Harris became a victim of the barriers she broke,” by Anita Kumar. It’s interesting! It basically explains how different constituencies are laying claim to our vice president, who is half black and half Indian. Has she acted too black and not Indian enough? This is a question people are asking.
I don’t really mind a reporter, well, reporting on the sort of jockeying for influence that occurs constantly in politics, everywhere, including in a zillion nonracial contexts. But I think if you pull apart some of the assumptions in this article, a rather corrosive, stinky identitarian core is revealed.
Here’s the basic scene-setting from the Kumar’s piece:
Harris carried many firsts with her into the vice presidency. The daughter of an Indian mother and a Black Jamaican father, she is the first woman, Black person, Asian American, Indian American and biracial woman to serve as vice president. Those firsts have come with their unique set of pressures, primarily for her to embrace her history-making role. And after nearly four months in office, Harris faces criticism that she hasn’t struck the right balance, that she’s focused more often on being the United States’ first Black vice president than the first Asian American one.
Politicians and activists of Asian descent have cheered Harris’s ascent. But they want her to speak out more about her Indian heritage, embracing it as she does her Black roots, and advocate for policy issues important to Asian Americans, including legal immigration, Covid-19 disparities and discrimination and hate crimes. They say the need has never been more pronounced, as the discrimination Asians have long faced continues to grow, marked tragically by the March shooting of six women of Asian descent at three Atlanta-area spas.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the idea of “Covid-19 disparities” facing Asians, because I wasn’t aware that Asians — I can’t emphasize enough how silly it is to refer to “Asians” as one group, but I’ll return to that point soon — had been disproportionately affected. Sure enough [update, 7/28/2023: this link is dead now], the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t think so: “Recent studies have consistently found that among those tested for COVID-19, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic or Latino, and people who identify with more than one race and are non-Hispanic were more likely to have positive test results as compared with non-Hispanic White or non-Hispanic Asian people.” I clicked around on that page a bit more and couldn’t find anything to suggest Asians are at a particularly heightened risk in the way black and Latino people are. It feels like almost a tic at this point, when mentioning any non-white group, to state that they are disproportionately affected by whatever hardship is currently being discussed. Which is often true! But not always.
That mention of the “six women of Asian descent” who were murdered (the non-Asians who were killed in the exact same attack go unmentioned, as does the fact that there is zero evidence to suggest the killer was motivated by racial animus) is what’s most interesting to me, though. What does Kamala Harris have in common with women working in a massage parlor?
To answer this question, we need to know a bit more about Harris’s background. “She regularly talks about the influence of her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher who came to the United States at age 19 to attend graduate school and died in 2009,” notes Kumar. “But she says little about her father, an economist and professor who divorced her mother when she was 7, and has since retired from teaching at Stanford University. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.” (They were both lefties and met at a black student organization meeting, explains the Times.)
We can tell from this — from this alone — that Harris grew up in a fairly privileged situation. In the United States, having two parents with graduate degrees makes it extremely unlikely you will face much real material hardship and very likely you will be bestowed with solid opportunities, even if it (obviously) doesn’t shield you from certain forms of racism if you are visibly different from the majority. (Harris grew up in a “middle-class Berkeley flat” and was actually bused to a whiter school, which made for an interesting confrontational moment with Joe Biden during one of the Democratic primary debates.)
Sure enough, Harris has had the sort of educational and career trajectory you’d expect of someone from this background, and then some. Yes, she’s known some of the hardships that can pop up anywhere, like not having a relationship with her dad and losing her mom (who died at 70 of cancer). And of course being a single mom, as Gopalan was, is difficult under any circumstances. But overall Harris has never really had to worry about keeping a roof over her head or putting food on the table, and has always had a very well-lit path to a materially successful life. As soon as she entered adulthood, she was training to become a member of the professional class, and then she was in it, and then she rose to positions of great power as the attorney general of California, then a senator from there, and now our veep.
If you work in a massage parlor, you likely come from, and are in, a very different economic situation from the one Kamala Harris has inhabited most of her life. I’m oversimplifying, a bit — at least one of the victims was an entrepreneur who actually owned the establishment where she was killed — but is it remotely controversial to argue that the day-to-day life of someone who works in a massage parlor like the ones that were targeted would be unrecognizable to the daughter of two academics who proceeded to Howard University, law school, and a life of public service that culminated in her ascension to Vice President of the United States of America? What does Harris’s life have to do with theirs, when it comes to any of the stuff that matters? (Interestingly, Harris was admitted to law school through a program for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, which Razib Khan argues “seems to be unfair to students who were genuinely disadvantaged” in light of her background.)
In theory, of course, the connection is that Harris is part-Asian, and the victims (well, the ones mentioned in the Politico story) were Asian. But I feel like I should be putting that term — Asian — in scare quotes. These particular victims were mostly Korean. So on paper Harris, like the victims, has “Asian heritage.” But I ask you in good faith: what the hell does this mean? The distance from the part of India where Harris’s mother is from to Seoul is about 3,300 miles. These are entirely different civilizations. Even the most racially ignorant rube would be unlikely to mistake someone of Indian descent with someone of Korean descent. And of course even here the language is extremely slippery, because India, in particular, is quite ethnically and linguistically complicated, as one would expect of a gargantuan country of almost 1.4 billion people.
If you squinted you could say something like, “Indians and Koreans have a shared history of oppression in the United States.” But is this “shared” part even true? It’s certainly true that anyone who doesn’t “look white” is likely to face some discrimination at some point. But there’s a lot of heterogeneity there, no? Plus, if we’re going to go down this road, Indians had the highest average household income in the country in 2019, at $135,705, while Koreans were #42, at $76,674 — both much higher than the median household income that year, which was $63,179.
So what makes more sense as a hypothesis: there are enough similarities between the experiences of Indians and Koreans that we should lump them together under one umbrella in the way this article and so much other discourse suggests, or we are falling victim to a crude form of racial essentialization?
Identity talk is very, very weird. Kumar’s article also mentions this tweet from Maya Harris, Kamala’s sister, about their hometown of Oakland:
I’m not saying it isn’t an inspiring story. It is of course very good that being half-black and half-Indian and a woman aren’t, alone, impediments to reaching the highest levels of power, that the daughter of not one but two immigrants can reach this perch. And it is surely the case that Harris worked hard to get where she went — she came from privilege, not “child of a president” Privilege.
But this tweet is supposed to imply a genuinely humble background, and Harris isn’t from a genuinely humble background! Her mom was from a “high-caste Brahmin community” and came to the U.S. as a super-high-skilled immigrant who went on to publish important cancer research, and her dad was an economics professor who “was raised in a landowning family on the north coast of Jamaica,” as the Times notes. Their skills and training don’t render them immune from racism, of course, but this is exactly the sort of background you would expect a VP and potential POTUS-in-waiting to have come from! To pretend otherwise is a bit delusional and erases the vital importance of class and education in determining who gets what.
I want to be clear that I don’t begrudge anyone who takes pride in having members of their ethnic/religious/whatever groups ascend to positions of power in the United States. I’m Jewish, and there was a time not too long ago when we were shut out of many of the halls of power quite intentionally, so of course it was a big deal when we were able to overcome that (and eventually form a secret cabal that controls the weather). People do sometimes extract meaning and inspiration from identity talk. And of course it is perfectly natural to view yourself as part of an ongoing tradition and history that stretches back to your distant ancestors. Those stories help fight the terrifying randomness of existence.
But I’m just not sure there’s any way to conceive of a concept of “Asianness” that 1) includes both Kamala Harris and the victims of the massage parlor murders and 2) doesn’t horseshoe into something redolent of old-school racism or Orientalism. These are entirely different groups from countries that are very distant, culturally and geographically. It is not good, in the long run, to keep pretending that “being Asian” has some sort of stable, agreed-upon, important meaning, and that there is an essence or fate or both shared between people from completely different backgrounds who have been lumped together in the same giant bucket as an accident of world history and colonialism and primitive racial theorizing.
All of this is true of Latinos too, of course. As FiveThirtyEight put it before the election last year, “There’s No Such Thing As The ‘Latino Vote’,” because Latino encompasses so many very different groups. In some polling, a majority of American Latinos don’t even like terms like Latino or Hispanic, but just call themselves Mexican, Guatemalan, or what have you. It feels like there’s an effort to lump them altogether in a tent they don’t really fit under, and that the same thing is going on with American “Asians.” The difference is that “Asian” is arguably even worse and more essentialist, given that there are about 4.5 billion people on the continent from which this group, or their forebears, immigrated. That’s a majority of the world’s population!
At the risk of beating the same drum over and over again, when you talk about these historically important but fundamentally made-up racial categories endlessly, in a way that reifies them as meaningful — when in the public eye and the vast majority of mainstream media coverage Kamala Harris is first and foremost a black and Asian woman, rather than, say, a woman raised by two parents with advanced degrees — some very important stuff is going to be obscured. It’s worth pointing this out and asking who benefits from a media landscape in which class is increasingly rendered invisible.
Questions? Comments? Requests for details about how I was able to claw myself out of the hole dug by my exceptionally hardscrabble upbringing? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The lead image, of Harris, is from Wikipedia.