Kamala Harris’s Nomination Shines a Light On Asian American Involvement in Politics

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The brutal coronavirus pandemic, violent civil unrest, and mass mail-in voting all pose frightening novelties for the upcoming general election. But with the nomination of Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as Joe Biden’s running mate comes a novelty celebrated by several minority communities. Harris would be the first woman of color and the first Asian American ever to be featured on a national ticket. As a result, Asians around the country and the rest of the world are rejoicing.

But how did we get to this point? What other Asian Americans are prominent in our government? And how do they embrace their heritage?

History of Asian Americans

Today, Asian Americans have risen to prominence within mainstream politics. However, their history in the United States began with many being discriminated against. Asian Americans first immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century – with an influx of Chinese and Filipino immigrants in light of the California Gold Rush. For many of their first decades in the U.S., Asian Americans were predominantly poor and unskilled, and they were clumped together in ethnic enclaves. In light of the economic recession and anti-Asian policies that the government encouraged, Asian American workers experienced brutal systemic and societal discrimination, with anti-Asian violence becoming common and anti-Asian rhetoric popular as ever. Bans and restrictions on Chinese and Japanese immigrants were also implemented.

Even after the turn of the twentieth century, discrimination against Asians was the norm. For instance, separate schools were established for Asian students. In light of the bans on several Asian and Pacific countries’ immigrants, there was an influx of Indian immigrants, predominantly Sikh, to British Canada. Shortly after, many of these Indian immigrants migrated to America. Similar to what occurred with the influxes of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, this Indian influx was referred to by offensive terms. Anti-immigration activists in America would call it the “Hindu Invasion” or the “Tide of the Turbans.” By 1924, the only country whose citizens were permitted to immigrate to America were Filipinos. However, as with all other countries, the Philippines was soon excluded as well in 1934 due to the Tydings-McDuffie Act.

The Second World War only offered further discrimination for Asian Americans, predominantly Japanese. Apart from their internment, Japanese Americans suffered from the anti-Japanese sentiment perpetuated by the government and the common man, including propaganda and threats of violence.

After the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the Immigration Act of 1965 finally lifted the bans that excluded Asian immigrants for decades, after which the Asian American population grew exponentially. Today, there are over twenty million Asian Americans proud to call the United States of America home.

In the 1970’s, Asian Americans first started holding significant offices in government, more than a century after their first arrival into the U.S. One of the first Asian-Americans to serve a significant government role was George Ariyoshi, a first-generation Japanese-American who served as the Democratic Governor of Hawaii from 1974-1986. Although Ariyoshi has lived in America his entire life, he claims that his heritage shaped his actions and responsibilities as Governor. Ariyoshi’s election to the office of Governor was a milestone, especially considering the discrimination Japanese-Americans faced during and after the Second World War.

Other inspiring firsts in terms of Asian American political representation include Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian voting member of Congress, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, the first Asian Cabinet member, and Governor Gary Locke, the first Chinese American Governor.

Embracing Culture

Apart from political affiliation and ideology, a key distinguishing factor that speaks volumes about an Asian American politician is how much he or she decides to embrace his or her Asian heritage. Generally, there have been two main means of addressing one’s Asian heritage when it comes to participation in politics. The politician either actively and proudly exhibits his or her ancestry and utilizes it as a story of the possibility that the United States can offer, or they somewhat discard it in an attempt to blend in with the majority demographic of their constituency.

Examples of both these methods of addressing Asian heritage are plentiful.

For example, GOP member Nikki Haley has frequently embraced and exhibited her heritage while serving as the Governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017 and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2018. On several occasions, Haley has spoken to Indian news channels, become involved with Indian-specific issues, and demonstrated her connection and attachment to her Indian and Sikh heritage. In an interview with Indian news channel NDTV, for example, when asked whether she felt obligated to observe the traditions of her parents, Haley said she “would never disown her Indian roots.” Furthermore, although Haley has converted to Methodist Christianity, she still observes several Sikh traditions. Haley also often utilizes the story of her parents as an example of the “American Dream.

The complete opposite can be seen in former Republican Louisiana Governor Piyush (Bobby) Jindal. Indian Americans – both liberal and conservative – have often called him a “huge disappointment” for distancing himself from his Indian heritage on multiple occasions. Jindal converted from Hinduism to Catholicism as a boy and, unlike Nikki Haley, does not observe any of his previous religion’s traditions. In addition, Jindal has stated that he wishes to be called “American” rather than “Indian American,” a statement that sparked major outrage in the Indian expat community as well as in India itself.

Drawing back to the present, Kamala Harris leans more towards the “parading” Asian heritage side, having been rather vocal about controversial Indian issues as well as her mother’s influence on her life, though she has received some criticism for identifying more as Black than Indian American. Additionally, like Nikki Haley, Harris is often showered with praise and support from the Indian American community. To them, the fact that Harris is of Indian descent is almost as significant as her political affiliation. However, as several opposition politicians and pundits, including President Donald Trump, perpetuate racially inspired birther claims, Harris may find herself obligated to “whitewash” herself or disaffiliate from the Indian community.

Through Teen Lenses: As an Asian American, how do you feel about Kamala Harris’s nomination, regardless of political affiliation? As she continues her political career, do you think she should embrace her Asian roots or try to “fit in” by distancing herself from them? Why or why not?

“I thought [Harris’s nomination] was good not only because she’s Asian but her values and overall agenda are good. She should [embrace her Asian roots] because we need Asian representation.” Afreen Reza, Sophomore at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“I don’t really have a strong opinion but I think that it’s cool that Asian Americans are becoming more prominent in American politics such as Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang.” Chris Li, Sophomore at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“If we are ignoring her political affiliation, I am happy that a woman of colour is on the presidential bracket for the first time. As she continues her political career, she should definitely embrace her cultural and ethnic roots more because she is going to destroy the chance of gaining minority support if she distances herself from her culture to “fit in.” Leadership qualities include reaching for the sky while staying on the ground, not forgetting your roots when convenient.” Jahnavee Chakravarty, Sophomore at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland