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In electing Kamala Harris -described by Barack Obama as “fearless“ -to the US Senate, voters tore down a colour barrier that had stood for as long as California statehood. Harris is the first Indian-American to make it to the upper house of American Congress. Born in Oakland, to an Indian mother and a Jamaican-American father, the 52-year-old is also the first black and Asian senator from California.
Her mother Shyamala Gopalan went to the US from Chennai in 1960 to study science, specifically endocrinology and complex mechanisms of cancer.
Harris is the sixth black individual to be elected to the senate, Obama being the fifth. She is also the second black woman in the nation's history to serve in the US senate. In 2003, she became the first woman elected as San Francisco's district attorney , and eight years later, took over as the first woman attorney general of California .
Considered a protege of Obama, Harris is expected to be a fierce advocate of India-US relationship. Her platform includes such issues as criminal justice and immigration reform, creating good-paying jobs, enacting family leave and equal pay policies, and tackling climate change.
1964- August 2020
Kamala Harris, Daughter of Immigrants, Is the Face of America’s Demographic Shift
Her parents’ arrival to Berkeley as young graduate students was the beginning of a historic wave of immigration from outside Europe that would change the United States in ways its leaders never imagined.
When Kamala Harris’s mother left India for California in 1958, the percentage of Americans who were immigrants was at its lowest point in over a century.
That was about to change.
Her arrival at Berkeley as a young graduate student — and that of another student, an immigrant from Jamaica whom she would marry — was the beginning of a historic wave of immigration from outside Europe that would transform the United States in ways its leaders never imagined. Now, the American-born children of these immigrants — people like Ms. Harris — are the face of this country’s demographic future.
Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice of Ms. Harris as his running mate has been celebrated as a milestone because she is the first Black woman and the first of Indian descent in American history to be on a major party’s presidential ticket. But her selection also highlights a remarkable shift in this country: the rise of a new wave of children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, as a growing political and cultural force, different from any that has come before. The last major influx of immigrants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. This time the surge comes from around the world, from India and Jamaica to China and Mexico and beyond.
In California, the state where Ms. Harris grew up and which she now represents in the Senate, about half of all children come from immigrant homes. Nationwide, for the first time in this country’s history, whites make up less than half of the population under the age of 16, the Brookings Institution has found; the trend is driven by larger numbers of Asians, Hispanics and people who are multiracial. Today, more than a quarter of American adults are immigrants or the American-born children of immigrants. About 25 million adults are American-born children of immigrants, representing about 10 percent of the adult population, according to Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center. By comparison the foreign-born portion of the population is still much larger — about 42 million adults, or roughly one in six of the country’s 250 million adults, Mr. Passel noted.
At 55, Ms. Harris is on the older side of this second generation of Americans whose parents came in those early years. But her family is part of a larger trend that has broad implications for the country’s identity, transforming a mostly white baby-boomer society into a multiethnic and racial patchwork.
Because of the influx of immigrants from outside Europe and their children, every successive generation in America in the past half-century has been less white than the one before: Boomers are 71.6 percent white, Millennials are 55 percent white, and post-Gen Z, those born after 2012, are 49.6 percent white, according William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
“The demography is moving forward,” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has studied these modern children of immigrants from the Caribbean, China, Central America, and Mexico. “This is the future in the U.S.” The immigrants who arrived about fifty years ago — people from countries like India, China and Korea — often had higher education, but rarely went into politics. Their children, now middle-aged adults, are the ones moving into American public life.
“When my parents came, it was like, ‘we just want to make it,’” said Suhas Subramanyam, who was born to Indian parents in Houston in the 1980s and in 2019 became the first Indian-American to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. “But the second generation, we want to make our mark on the world. I wanted to do more than just work at a law firm and make money. I feel very patriotic about America.”
There were only about 12,000 Indian immigrants in the United States around the time Ms. Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, arrived. Satish Korpe, an engineer who moved to Virginia in 1975, said there were so few Indian immigrants in the state when he got there that there was not a single Indian food store, and people drove to New Jersey to buy groceries.
“In the mid-1970s, if you ran into someone who was American, you might have been the first Indian person they’d ever seen,” he said. “Then in the 1980s, maybe you would be the fifth. And in the 1990s, the tenth.”
These changes trace back to the passage of the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the quotas that were established in the 1920s to keep America white and Protestant. The 1965 law banned discrimination based on ethnicity in the immigration system and prioritized entry for people with relatives already in the United States and those with special skills. In addition to opening the door to many more immigrants from India, the law also ended a strict quota on the number of immigrants from the British West Indies.
Previously about only 100 Jamaican immigrants a year were allowed into the country. And in 1960, around the time when Ms. Harris’s father Donald Harris began to settle in the United States, there were fewer than 25,000 Jamaican immigrants in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But by 2018, that number had increased to more than 733,000.
Amber Simon’s Jamaican mother came to the United States in 1984 at the invitation of an aunt. She eventually married a Black man from Alabama, and Ms. Simon, now 24, remembers growing up in Tampa, Fla. and feeling that her friends’ houses were different. They did not take off their shoes or have the same kind of respect for their parents that was the rule in her Jamaican household.
Her father taught her to conform to society, and to try not to stand out, and he talked to her about the dangers of the police. But her mother, who lived in Jamaica until she was 15, had none of those views.
“Half of me grew up oblivious to the fact that I was a minority, and half of me was really conscious of it,” said Ms. Simon, who began to write online about her thinking on race after the killing of George Floyd.
She visited Jamaica for the first time last year, and said she was stunned at how much it resembled her father’s living circumstances growing up: deeply poor. But she also gained an even greater respect for her mother, who, through force of will, completed her education and is now a project analyst for the federal government.
“I always say, if my Mom can overcome the obstacles she’s faced as an immigrant, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t have the success that I dream of,” said Ms. Simon, who is beginning an M.B.A. program next month. “There’s no excuse for me to not be exactly where I want to be in life.”
In 1970, when Ms. Harris was growing up and the effects of the 1965 law were not felt fully yet, America was still mostly a country of Black and white. Immigrants were less than 5 percent of the population. Ms. Harris’ parents divorced when she was 5, and her mother raised Ms. Harris and her sister as Black girls, because she knew American society would see them that way.
“My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters,” Ms. Harris wrote in her book, “The Truths We Hold.” Navigating the divide between Black and white can be difficult for the children of immigrants who are neither. Ghazala Hashmi grew up in southern Georgia, in the only Indian family in her small town. Her father had brought the family there after finishing his doctorate in the late 1960s.
“We were a minority of one in our school, always,” said Ms. Hashmi, 56, who is now a state senator in Virginia. “I never knew anybody who was like me. It was extremely isolating.”
Ms. Hashmi was in second grade when her school began to be integrated. She has clear memories of the awkward feeling of not fitting into a neat racial category, in a country where people clearly wanted to put her in one.
“I was very conscious as a child of being neither Black nor white,” she said. “The white children would not play with the Black children, and apparently I could play with either. Sometimes I could mediate. It was very formative to be part of that as an immigrant and a child of the South.”
Eventually more families came, and by the time her sister was born eight years later, there were more South Asian children to play with. Last fall, Ms. Hashmi, a former literature professor and a Democrat, flipped a State Senate seat in central Virginia. The tagline for her campaign, she said, was “Ghazala Hashmi is an American name.”
“I really needed people to understand that there was a more complex America that was growing,” she said, “that my name was part of a new American identity that had been emerging for 40 years, and we just hadn’t been conscious of it.”
These children of immigrants are mostly better off economically than immigrants. They earn more, are more educated, and are more likely to own a home, according to a 2013 Pew report. And they are more likely to marry a person of another race: Interracial marriage rates are especially high for second-generation Hispanics, at 26 percent, and among Asians, 23 percent, Pew found.
The cultural clout of immigrant families is set to grow even more given that America’s population is now growing at its lowest rate since 1919, because of a drop in births and an acceleration in deaths. If current trends continue, 93 percent of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children, Pew projected. They are also a growing political force: More than 23 million immigrants will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, Pew has found. That is roughly 10 percent of the nation’s overall electorate, a record high. And because they and their children have tended to vote for Democrats, the political winds are shifting in states like Arizona, Nevada, Virginia, Georgia and Texas.
Ashu Rai grew up in the 1970s about 70 miles east of where Ms. Harris was born. Her town had a Sikh temple that was a gathering place for South Asians from miles around. As a child, she played on the grass outside and went to potluck suppers at people’s houses after worship. But South Asians were still rare in her suburban life, and for a while as a teenager, Ms. Rai pretended to be Hispanic. “It was just easier to assimilate, rather than trying to explain what being from India meant,” said Ms. Rai, whose Indian parents went to Wyoming in 1969 to earn postgraduate degrees before moving to California.
Today Ms. Rai, a Democrat, feels proud of her Indian roots. She works in health care marketing, and organizes dance parties for L.G.B.T.Q. South Asians. She badly wanted Ms. Harris to win the presidential primary. So when the senator was picked for the ticket this week, Ms. Rai was elated.
“My first word when I found out? I think it was a swear word,” she said. “I was like, ‘she’s got it.’”
Her parents met in a Black Study Group
At an off-campus space at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1962, a tall, thin Jamaican Ph.D. student addressed a small crowd, drawing parallels between his native country and the United States.
He told the group, a roomful of Black students, that he had grown up observing British colonial power in Jamaica, the way a small number of whites had cultivated a “native Black elite” in order to mask extreme social inequality.
At 24, Donald J. Harris was already professorial, as reserved as the Anglican acolyte he had once been. But his ideas were edgy. One member of the audience found them so compelling that she came up to him after the speech and introduced herself.
She was a tiny Indian scientist wearing a sari and sandals — the only other foreign student to show up for a talk on race in America. She was, he recalled, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women.”
Shyamala Gopalan had been born the same year as Mr. Harris, in another British colony on the other side of the planet. But her view of the colonial system was more sheltered, the view of a senior civil servant’s daughter, she told him. His speech had raised questions for her. She wanted to hear more.
“This was all very interesting to me, and, I daresay, a bit charming,” recalled Mr. Harris, now 82 and an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford, in written answers to questions. “At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history.”
Senator Kamala Harris often tells the story of her parents’ romance. They were idealistic foreign graduate students who were swept up in the U.S. civil rights movement — a variation of the classic American immigration story of huddled masses welcomed on its shores. That description, however, barely scratches the surface of Berkeley in the early 1960s. The community where they met was a crucible of radical politics, as the trade-union left overlapped with early Black nationalist thinkers.
It brought a wave of Black undergraduates, many the descendants of sharecroppers or enslaved people who had migrated from Texas and Louisiana, into conversation with students from countries that had fought off colonial powers.
Members of the study group that drew them together in 1962, known as the Afro American Association, would help build the discipline of Black studies, introduce the holiday of Kwanzaa and establish the Black Panther Party.
Long after the particular intensity of the early ’60s passed, the community it created endured.
Senator Harris, who declined to comment for this story, was one of the more moderate Democrats in the 2020 field of presidential candidates, and has cast her political outlook in decidedly pragmatic terms.
“I’m not trying to restructure society,” she said last summer. “I’m just trying to take care of the issues that wake people up in the middle of the night.”
Still, at high-profile moments — including when she accepted the vice-presidential nomination — she has noted the lasting influence of her parents’ circle at Berkeley. For Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, those friendships would change everything.
‘I had to go there’
For decades, the brightest students from British colonies like Jamaica and India had been sent, by reflex, to Britain to pursue advanced degrees. But Donald Harris and Shyamala Gopalan were different. Each had a compelling reason to want an American education. In Ms. Gopalan’s case, the trouble was that she was a woman.
Ms. Gopalan, the oldest child in a high-achieving Tamil Brahmin family, wanted to be a biochemist. But at Lady Irwin College, founded by the British to provide an education in science to Indian women, she had been forced to settle for a degree in home science. Her brother and father thought it was hilarious.
“My father and I used to tease her like nobody’s business,” said her brother, Gopalan Balachandran, who would go on to earn a Ph.D. in computer science and economics. “We would say, ‘What do you study in home science? Do they teach you to set up plates for dinner?’ She used to get angry and laugh. She would say, ‘You don’t know what I’m studying.’”
His sister died in 2009. But in retrospect, he realizes she must have been seething.
“She would have been frustrated like hell,” he said. But she had a plan: In America — unlike India or the United Kingdom — it was still possible to apply for a degree in biochemistry, her brother said. She presented her father with a fait accompli: She had been admitted to the University of California at Berkeley.
Her father was astonished, her brother said, but not opposed. “He was only worried: None of us had been abroad. He said, ‘I don’t know anybody in the States. I certainly don’t know anybody in Berkeley.’ She said, ‘Father, don’t worry,’” he said. He offered to pay for her first year of studies.
Eight thousand miles away, in 1961, something similar occurred with Mr. Harris, who was seeking a doctorate in economics.
When he was awarded a prestigious scholarship administered by the British colonial government, it was assumed he would study in Britain, like the recipients who had preceded him.
But Mr. Harris didn’t want to go to Britain. His early education had marinated him in British culture, all of those obedient choruses of “Rule, Britannia.” (“Read the words, you’ll be astonished!” he said.) He began to see, he said, how Britain’s “static rigidity of pomp, ceremony and class” had been transplanted onto plantation society in Jamaica.
No, he was drawn to the United States.
As a teenager he had listened to big-band jazz music broadcast from the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, and stumbled onto a late-night rhythm and blues broadcast from WLAC in Nashville. To him, the United States looked — “from a distance and perhaps naïvely,” he said — like a “lively and evolving dynamic of a racially and ethnically complex society.”
U.C. Berkeley had come to his attention in a news story about student activists traveling to the South to campaign for civil rights. “Further investigation of information about this University convinced me I had to go there,” he said.
Using the scholarship to study in the United States was such a “grave departure from custom and tradition,” he said, that the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education wrote for advice to an eminent West Indian professor, Sir Arthur Lewis, who was teaching economics at Manchester University. The deliberation took so long that classes had already started when the economist’s letter of approval arrived. “I was overjoyed,” Mr. Harris recalled. Two weeks into the semester, he boarded a plane for San Francisco. A meeting had been set in motion.
Finding a group
Shyamala Gopalan fell into important friendships at Berkeley right away.
As she stood in line to register for classes, in the fall of 1959, the person standing behind her was Cedric Robinson, a Black teenager from Oakland.
In 1960, there were fewer than 100 Black students in a student body of 20,000, the historian Donna Murch writes in her book “Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party.”
Mr. Robinson, whose grandfather had fled Alabama in the 1920s to escape a lynching, was the first in his family to enroll in college. “As a Black kid from Oakland, he didn’t even know what one did to get into the university,” recalled his widow, Elizabeth.
The woman in front of him made an impression. Ms. Gopalan, his elder by two years, often wore a sari in those days, and acquaintances said they thought she came from royalty; that’s how she carried herself. When Mr. Robinson stepped up to the desk, the registrar assumed he was a graduate student from Africa, and asked, politely, if his country was also paying his tuition.
Mr. Robinson, who died in 2016, thought that was hilarious, said the historian Robin D.G. Kelley. He would tell that story over the years, as he went on to earn a master’s and a Ph.D., then tenure at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing five books along the way. He and Ms. Gopalan would form a lifelong friendship.
When he wrote his best-known book, “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,” in 1983, he listed the old friends who had helped him formulate his ideas. They were all Black, except for Ms. Gopalan.
They would both become part of a Black intellectual study group that met in the off-campus house of Mary Agnes Lewis, an anthropology student. The group, later known as the Afro American Association, was “the most foundational institution in the Black Power movement,” said Ms. Murch, who devotes two chapters to it in her book.
This was no casual book club. Reading was assigned, and if you failed to keep up with it you would pay. At one discussion on existentialism, a community college student named Huey Newton — the future co-founder of the Black Panther Party — was chastised for not having done the reading, recalled Margot Dashiell, 78, who went on to become a sociology professor at Laney College.
“He came back the next time and he was fully prepared,” she said. Those bare-bones gatherings — “there was a lot of floor-sitting,” she recalled — were her first exposure to the idea that American Black culture had its origins in Africa.
“We were getting a new language,” she said. “We were inventing a new language. The first new word was Afro-American. I had never heard it in my life. We were not going to be this thing that had no origin, Negro. We were going to be calling out our heritage.” Ms. Dashiell explained that they had all been raised to be “integrationists,” to fight for admission to white institutions. “This was a revolutionary turn of thought,” she said, “that we have differences but the differences are not bad.”
The group would later limit its membership to people of African descent, refusing admission to the white partner of a Black member, Ms. Murch writes.
But as a former colonial subject, and a person of color, there was no question that Shyamala Gopalan belonged, other members said in interviews.
“She was part of the real brotherhood and sisterhood. There was never an issue,” said Aubrey LaBrie, who went on to teach courses on Black nationalism at San Francisco State University. “She was just accepted as part of the group.”
As part of the group, Ms. Gopalan sometimes joked about the vastly different world she had left behind. Ms. Dashiell remembered her laughing with Mr. Robinson about a suitor who had approached her family about arranging a marriage, sending relatives scrambling to consult astrological charts. Foreign students were arriving in increasing numbers, representatives of newly independent states with nonwhite elites. The groups found each other naturally.
“They were people from somewhere else, who had a broader view of the world, and they were people of color,” said the historian Nell I. Painter, 78, whose father worked at Berkeley at the time. “I remember people from somewhere else as representing a kind of intellectual freedom.”
In 1961, when Mr. Harris arrived on campus, he, too, fell in with the study group right away.
On one of his first days at Berkeley, he said, he spotted a Black architecture student holding a hand-painted sign, staging a one-man demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, and introduced himself. The student turned out to be Kenneth Simmons, a “guiding light” in the Afro American Association, along with Ms. Lewis and Mr. Robinson, he said.
Mr. Harris described the study group as an oasis, his introduction “to the realities of African-American life in its truest and rawest form, its richness and complexity, wealth and poverty, hope and despair.” It was in that company, in the fall of 1962, that he met his future wife. “We talked then, continued to talk at a subsequent meeting, and at another, and another,” he said. The following year they were married. Until then Ms. Gopalan had expected to return to India, she reflected years later. “I never came to stay,” she told a reporter for SF Weekly. “It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came.”
As a couple, Don Harris and Shyamala Gopalan Harris stood out, with their upper-crust accents and air of intellectual confidence, their contemporaries said. Anne Williams, 76, who was still in her teens when they met, found Mr. Harris “reserved and academic in his presentation,” difficult to get to know. Ms. Gopalan was “warm” and “charming.”
“You could tell she was ‘for the people,’ quote unquote, even though she had an aura of royalty about her,” she said. “Here was a woman, deeply brown, and yet she could have flowed from one set to another in terms of race.” Baron Meghnad Desai, 80, an Indian-born economist, recalls meeting the couple on the steps of a house as they all made their way in to a dinner party. In those days, he said, “we were an argumentative lot. We could argue about politics in many countries.” Ms. Gopalan Harris was a passionate debater, “fiery and radical but not Marxist in any sense.” Her husband, he recalled, “did take a serious interest in radical political economy, but he was a calm and patient arguer.”
“There was no doubt about that, they were very much together, very much in love,” he said.
In those days, colonial powers were crumbling in all directions. In 1960, 17 African nations gained independence. The same year, Fidel Castro was received with open arms in Harlem, where he met with Malcolm X, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India.
“We did think all sorts of possibilities were there,” Mr. Desai said. “Governments were falling and left-wing governments were taking over. It was really moving and shaking stuff.”
Many in their circles saw a link between the civil rights struggle and independence movements outside the country, said Mr. LaBrie, a member of the study group who became a lifelong family friend. “It was just kind of a seamless flow between civil rights and those who supported the Cuban revolution,” the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and the Algerian revolution, Mr. LaBrie said. “There was an easy flow. People weren’t labeling themselves.” In 1963 and 1964, five members of the group joined a trip to Cuba organized by the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba, in defiance of a State Department travel ban, to see how Afro Cubans lived under Fidel Castro’s government. Ms. Williams and another member, James L. Lacy, recalled first hearing about the trip at a gathering organized by the Harrises.
“Those of us who called ourselves nationalists, we were very much encouraging the people of Cuba and South America and Central America to do what they were doing,” said Mr. Lacy, 85, a retired professor. Mr. Harris said he did not recall taking part in any activism around Cuba, which could have jeopardized their immigration status. “We were certainly very much aware of, and scrupulously careful about following, the rules and regulations governing our role as foreign students,” he wrote.
Protests around civil rights, however, were a big part of the young couple’s life. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, Senator Harris said that her parents “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
For foreign students — many coming from countries with strong left-wing student movements — the rise in activism made them feel at home, said the Indian economist Amartya Sen, 86, who was teaching at Berkeley at the time and befriended the couple.
“Suddenly, America felt less like an alien country,” said Mr. Sen, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1998. “Now they had a lot of friends, and they were growing roots.”
‘Those ties became the village’
By the time the couple’s first child, Kamala, was born in 1964, political tides had begun to shift again.
White students had jumped into protest with both feet, rejecting the establishment and the old-fashioned mores of the 1950s. Support for third-world liberation was giving way, gradually, to demands for the political right of free speech. In 1966, seemingly out of nowhere, an actor named Ronald Reagan awakened a sleepy conservative electorate and defeated California’s Democratic governor. The Harrises’ marriage would fray as Mr. Harris took short-term teaching positions at two different universities in Illinois. When he won a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin, Ms. Gopalan Harris settled, instead, with her children in Oakland and West Berkeley.
The break was apparent to their 5-year-old daughter.
In “The Truths We Hold,” her 2018 memoir, Senator Harris wrote, “I knew they loved each other very much, but it seemed like they had become like oil and water.” She wrote that “had they been a little older, a little more emotionally mature, maybe the marriage could have survived. But they were so young. My father was my mother’s first boyfriend.”
Mr. Harris’s career would flourish. A left-wing critic of neoclassical economic theory, he was a popular professor, and became the first Black scholar to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department. But a deep freeze had settled in the marriage.
Ms. Gopalan Harris, a research scientist who published influential work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972. The split left her so angry that, for years, she barely interacted with Mr. Harris. Senator Harris has recalled that, when she invited both her parents to her high school graduation, she feared that her mother would not show up.
“She was quite unhappy about the separation but she had already got used to that and she didn’t want to talk to Don after that,” said her brother, Mr. Balachandran. “When you love somebody, then love turns into very hard bitterness, you don’t even want to talk to them.” Mr. Harris has since expressed frustration at custody arrangements that, he said, brought his close contact with his daughters to “an abrupt halt.” His daughter has made little mention of him during the campaign, and he has declined previous interviews, explaining that “the celebrity-seeking business is not my thing, and I have tried hard to keep out of it.”
“He was not around after the divorce,” Meena Harris, Senator Harris’s niece, told The New Yorker. “Their experience and relationship with blackness is through being raised in these communities in Berkeley and Oakland, and not through the lens of being Caribbean.” Into the vacuum stepped Ms. Gopalan Harris’s old friends, connections from the Berkeley study group.
She was a single, working mother of two, far from her family. Not until her oldest daughter was in high school could she afford a down payment on her own home, something she desperately wanted, Senator Harris wrote in her memoir.
A web of support — from day care, to church, to godparents and piano lessons — radiated out from the Afro American Association. “Those ties became the village that supported her in rearing the children,” said Ms. Dashiell, the sociology professor who was a member of the discussion group. “I don’t mean financially. They surrounded those children.”
Mr. LaBrie introduced Ms. Gopalan Harris to his aunt, Regina Shelton, who ran a day care center in West Berkeley. Mrs. Shelton, who had been born in Louisiana, became a pillar of the young family’s life, eventually renting them an apartment upstairs from the day care center.
Ms. Gopalan Harris often worked late, recalled Carole Porter, 56, a childhood friend of Senator Harris, and had high expectations for her daughters.
“Shyamala didn’t play,” she said. “Being an immigrant, five feet tall, and having an accent — when things like that happen to you, and you face stuff, that toughens you up.”
But there was always a snack and a hug at Mrs. Shelton’s. If it got too late, the sleepy children would go to bed at her house, or Mrs. Shelton would send her daughters to tuck them in at home. One of Senator Harris’s favorite stories from childhood is of preparing a batch of lemon squares with salt instead of sugar; Mrs. Shelton, her face puckered, said they were delicious.
On Sunday mornings, Mrs. Shelton would take the girls to the 23rd Avenue Church of God, a Black Baptist church. This, Ms. Porter said, was what Shyamala wanted for them.
“She raised them to be Black women,” Ms. Porter said. “Shyamala really wanted them to have both.”
Ms. Dashiell said she was certain that some influence of the study group survived in the Harris children.
“The thinking within the association was deep,” she said. “You would look at, what are the underlying causes of the problems that we find ourselves in as Black people? And that is something that would have translated, through these families, to Kamala.”
In the years since, Senator Harris has often reflected that her immigrant mother’s chosen family — Black families one generation removed from the segregated South — powerfully shaped her as a politician. When she took the oath of office to become California’s attorney general, and then a U.S. Senator, she asked to lay her hand on Mrs. Shelton’s Bible.
“In office and into the fight,” she wrote in an essay last year, “I carry Mrs. Shelton with me always.”
The India connection
CHENNAI: One of Senator Kamala Harris ’ brightest childhood memories was walking down the beach hand in hand with her Indian grandfather.
Her grandfather, PV Gopalan, had served for decades in the Indian government, and his ritual, nearly every morning, was to meet up with his retired buddies and talk politics as they strolled along the beach in Besant Nagar, a seaside neighborhood in Chennai where brightly painted fishing boats line the sand and Hindu temples stare out at the sea. During her visits from the United States, Harris tagged along while the men discussed equal rights, corruption and the direction India was headed.
“I remember the stories that they would tell and the passion with which they spoke about the importance of democracy,” Harris said in a 2018 speech to an Indian-American group. “As I reflect on those moments in my life that have had the most impact on who I am today — I wasn’t conscious of it at the time — but it was those walks on the beach with my grandfather in Besant Nagar that had a profound impact on who I am today.”
Although Harris has been more understated about her Indian heritage than her experience as a Black woman, her path to US vice-presidential pick has also been guided by the values of her Indian-born mother, her Indian grandfather and her wider Indian family who have provided a lifelong support network that endures even from 8,000 miles away.
Her grandfather, wearing Coke-bottle glasses and often a necktie during strolls, may have looked like many other upper-crust Indian gentlemen. But he defied the conservative stereotypes of his era, embodying a progressive outlook on public service and unswerving support for women, especially in terms of their education, that was years ahead of his time.
He instilled great confidence in Harris ’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to America in the late 1950s young and alone and made a career as a breast cancer researcher before dying of cancer in 2009.
Harris remains close to her mother’s side of the family — her aunts and uncle can talk for hours from their homes in India about the bruising battles she has fought in San Francisco, Sacramento or Washington, giving the impression that they had ringside seats.
Her uncle, G Balachandran, who lives in New Delhi, recalled visiting Harris in California about 15 years ago when she was San Francisco’s district attorney and was taking heat for not seeking the death penalty for a man accused of killing a police officer. She considered the death penalty flawed on many levels, both high-minded and pragmatic: racial inequities being one and the cost of pursuing the cases being another. Despite intense pressure from police officers and some of the top politicians in the state, Harris didn’t back down.
“She got that from her mother,” her uncle said. “Shyamala always taught her: Don’t let anyone push you around.”
During a later race for California attorney general, Harris called her aunt Sarala Gopalan in Chennai and asked her to break coconuts for good luck at a Hindu temple overlooking the beach at Besant Nagar where she used to walk with her grandfather.
The aunt lined up 108 coconuts — an auspicious number in Hinduism — to be smashed. “And it takes a whole day to arrange that,” she said. Harris won the election, by the slimmest of margins.
That beach is now shut. With India hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and much of the country still locked down, the environs that Harris so fondly remembers are desolate. Last week a few sinewy, shirtless fishermen stood ankle deep in the waves and tugged hand lines, hoping for a fish.
Because of the foreign policy positions Harris has staked out as a senator, she has some detractors in India. But across the country she evokes enormous pride, particularly in the beachside community where she traces her roots.
“That family had an immaculate reputation,” said N Vyas, a retired doctor who was their upstairs neighbor. “They never raved about the great things that they have done in Delhi or something like that. They were straight-shooters — down-to-earth, happy people.”
Vyas’ wife, Jayanti, who is also a retired doctor and who was leaning in the doorway, shook her head with a knowing smile.
“We are not surprised,” she said of Harris ’ being named the first woman of color on the presidential ticket of a major US party.
“See, all the women in her family are strong personalities,” she said. “These are women who know what they are talking and what they are saying.”
The Gopalan story started in a small village south of Chennai called Painganadu, where Harris ’ grandfather was born in 1911. In terms of India’s caste system, the family was at the top of the heap. They were Tamil Brahmins, an elite subculture known as TamBrahms.
But Harris ’ uncle said that the family never looked down their noses at lower castes and that his parents valued, above all else, education.
The grandfather left the village as a young man to take a job as a stenographer for the British colonial government. Harris wrote in her memoir that he had been part of India’s independence movement, but other family members said he had never mentioned this. Had he openly campaigned, like Mohandas K. Gandhi or other freedom fighters, to break off from Britain, he might not have gotten too far with his British bosses.
After India’s independence in 1947, the grandfather continued as a civil servant for the new Indian government, and the Gopalans moved around a lot. Harris ’ mother, the eldest of four children, grew up like a military brat, adjusting to a new city every few years as her father was reposted.
Bright, determined and with a mellifluous voice that won her many singing prizes, Gopalan attended college in Delhi and studied home science, a vague field that touched on nutrition and children’s development. Her grandfather had higher hopes.
“What are you going to do with this home science degree, entertain guests?” he teased, according to Harris ’ uncle.
So when Gopalan won admission to a Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, to study nutrition and endocrinology (without anyone in the family knowing she had applied), her grandfather did not hesitate to pay, even though it was a lot of money for a civil servant.
“One thing that he strongly believed in was that, whether it is a son or a daughter, they must be equally educated,” said Harris ’ aunt, who became a well-known gynecologist. “I do not know whose influence it was, but this is how he was. He was very progressive.”
And she added, “He would do anything for us.”
Gopalan was only 19 when she arrived in Berkeley. Few Indians lived in the United States at the time, and she didn’t have many Indian friends.
“Whenever I would go to visit, she would say, ‘Bala, this is my neighbor and that is my old friend,’ pointing at Black Americans,” recalled her uncle, Balachandran, whose family nickname is Bala.
Gopalan quickly fell into a civil rights scene, marching in protests, being attacked by police officers with fire hoses and once, later on, racing away from a violent skirmish with Harris in a stroller. Berkeley was a hive of political activity.
It was also where she met Donald Harris , a graduate student from Jamaica who specialized in leftist economic theory. He was her first boyfriend. Balachandran chalked up their romance to “philosophical affinity.”
When the couple married, Harris ’ grandparents offered their blessings. The interracial dimension didn’t bother them, her aunt and uncle said. Harris ’ grandmother was so proud that she took out wedding announcements in The Illustrated Weekly, one of the classiest magazines of its day.
The couple soon had two daughters: Kamala , meaning “lotus” in Sanskrit, and Maya, meaning “illusion.” But the relationship didn’t last. Her mother filed for divorce when Harris was 7.
For Gopalan, it was important to maintain her Indian heritage. She introduced her daughters to Hindu mythology and South Indian dishes such as dosa and idli, and took them to a nearby Hindu temple where she occasionally sang. She also stayed close to her parents and flew back every few years to Chennai, on India’s southeast coast, where her parents had settled.
But as Harris explained in her memoir, published last year: “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls.”
Harris is a symbol of the fluid, multicultural society that is increasingly part of the American political landscape, and she has said that when she first ran for office, she struggled with trying to define herself for others.
“I don’t blame her,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, who focuses on Asian-American communities. “But I think in the course of her presidential campaign she became more comfortable talking about her identity.”
The reaction to Harris in India has been mixed. There has been excitement — and front-page newspaper articles. But there has also been suspicion.
Harris has expressed concern about Kashmir, whose statehood India’s central government revoked last year. And she criticized India’s foreign minister after he refused to meet with an Indian-American congresswoman who was also critical about Kashmir.
Kashmir is one of the most bitterly divisive issues in India. While many on India’s left have celebrated Harris ’ rise, others on the right have criticized her, calling her a sellout.
“It’s going to be hard to get an unequivocal hurrah, because Indian politics are polarized as well,” said Suhasini Haidar, a prominent Indian journalist.
Harris has not been back to India since her mother died 11 years ago. It had been her mother’s dying wish to return. In the end, Harris returned with her ashes.
It was obvious where they would go.
One sunny morning, Harris and her uncle walked down to the beach in Besant Nagar where she used to stroll with her grandfather all those years ago, and scattered the ashes on the waves.
Coconuts for good luck
Although Kamala Harris has been more understated about her Indian heritage than her experience as a black woman, her path to US vice-presidential pick has also been guided by the values of her Indian family. While in the fray for California attorney general in 2010, Harris called her aunt Sarala Gopalan in Chennai and asked her to break coconuts for good luck at a Hindu temple overlooking the beach at Besant Nagar. The aunt lined up 108 coconuts — an auspicious number — to be smashed. “It takes a whole day to arrange that,” Harris, who won the election, said in a 2018 speech. One of Harris’ brightest childhood memories was walking down the beach with her grandfather PV Gopalan. Harris tagged along with Gopalan, who had served for decades in the Indian government, as he discussed politics with his retired buddies. “I remember the stories that they would tell and the passion with which they spoke about the importance of democracy,” she was quoted as saying. NYT
The New York Times on the Real Kamala Harris
OAKLAND, Calif. — Just as California is so often viewed from afar as either glittering paradise or dystopian disaster, so Kamala Harris was crowned as the perfect Democrat for 2020.
Like her state, Senator Harris’s story up close is both more prosaic and more nuanced than the shiny image built in part on misperceptions about California. Now that she has dropped out of the presidential race, the legacy of her campaign may be what the candidacy illustrates about the complexity and reality of politics in the Golden State.
From her roots through her rise, Ms. Harris’s trajectory reflects touchstones of California. Her parents emigrated from India and Jamaica, drawn like so many to the world-class public university at Berkeley, where they became active in the civil rights movement. Ms. Harris was born in October 1964, the same month as the Free Speech Movement. After college in the East, she started law school in San Francisco in the fall when Californians overwhelmingly adopted English as the state’s official language. She entered politics amid the anti-immigrant fervor of Proposition 187 and came of age in the first large state where whites became a minority.
California has had, by design, weak political parties, epitomized by the current system that replaced traditional primaries with an election in which voters choose the “top two” candidates, who then face off on the November ballot. San Francisco is an anomaly, the one metropolis where politics is a sport. Political machines have flourished in the city since the late 19th century, when Christopher Buckley, known as the Blind Boss, consolidated power from the back room of his saloon by establishing a patronage system. A century later, Kamala Harris rooted herself in the political establishment and forged connections with help from her longtime mentor and onetime boyfriend Willie Brown, the powerful Assembly speaker and then San Francisco mayor.
Those connections helped the young prosecutor become a boldface name in the society pages and in the copy of the legendary columnist Herb Caen. Ms. Harris won her first race in 2003, unseating the incumbent district attorney, with support from law enforcement unions, The San Francisco Chronicle and the political and social elite of San Francisco. From the small city with outsize visibility, she built a national profile. In 2008, Ms. Harris was California co-chairwoman for her friend Barack Obama; within days of his historic victory, she announced her candidacy for California attorney general, a race still two years away. Oprah Winfrey put her on O magazine’s “Power List.” A column in USA Today pronounced her “the female Barack Obama,” “destined to become a commanding presence in the political life of this country.”
Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies about California politics is the assumption that its Democratic leaders are by definition die-hard liberals. By necessity, Democrats who win statewide have actually been moderates. That remains true even in an era when no Republican has won statewide since 2006. Last year, for example, Senator Dianne Feinstein trounced her liberal opponent, despite his endorsement by the state Democratic Party.
Even Gavin Newsom, the most liberal governor in decades, got his start in San Francisco by defeating a Green Party candidate for mayor, the same year Ms. Harris unseated the city’s progressive district attorney by running a tough-on-crime campaign. In her 2010 race for attorney general she arguably ran to the right of her Republican opponent on some issues. He championed efforts to ease the state’s three-strikes law and later supported a successful ballot initiative to that end; Ms. Harris, by then attorney general, declined to take a position.
As attorney general, she disappointed California liberals through both actions and the lack of action. That did not hamper her ability to burnish her national credentials. She addressed the 2012 Democratic National Convention in a prime-time slot. Her name was floated as a potential United States attorney general, even a Supreme Court justice.
Yet she remained largely unknown in California — a function of the staggering size of a state of almost 40 million where the principal way to gain exposure requires television ads in a dozen media markets, at a cost of upward of $4.5 million a week. When Ms. Harris ran for the United States Senate in 2016, six out of 10 registered voters had no impression of her, although she had been attorney general for almost six years. In recent polls, about a quarter of voters still had no opinion.
That reality undercut a key argument cited by pundits who labeled her an instant front-runner when she entered the presidential race. Their scenarios assumed she would do well in the delegate-rich California primary, moved up to March to have more impact on the race.
With weak party allegiances, Californians are notoriously independent voters, as many politicians have discovered. Jerry Brown won the California Democratic primary in his 1976 presidential campaign but lost the next two times he tried. His father, Gov. Pat Brown, ran as a favorite son and planned to turn the state’s delegates over to John Kennedy at the 1960 convention, only to be humiliated when almost half insisted on casting ballots for Adlai Stevenson.
And then there is the role of California in the age of President Trump. His victory coincided with Ms. Harris’s election to the Senate and fueled a sense of inevitability about her candidacy. She was the prosecutor who could take on the president. From the state that had become the heart of the resistance came the candidacy fueled by anti-Trump anger and California glitter.
At her January kickoff in Oakland, a huge crowd of all ages and races waved flags, pumped fists, teared up. They cheered her passion, her toughness and her rhetoric. But above all they were cheering for a woman who would take on the man whose name she never mentioned.
This, too, was not quite what it seemed. It was easy to conflate antipathy to Mr. Trump with support for Ms. Harris. By the time she appeared in Oakland eight months later at a low-key event to open her campaign office, the questions were about polls that showed her running a distant fourth in her home state, fourth even in the Bay Area, where they knew her best.
Her candidacy appeared to have no real rationale and no clear constituency. The penchant for zigzagging that marked her policy positions carried over to strategy, as she veered from positioning herself as the fallback candidate for the left, when conventional wisdom suggested the front-runners might falter, to fashioning herself as the option for moderates when that appeared a more likely lane. Her carefully crafted image crumbled under the scrutiny of a national campaign. The bright beacon of hope in a dismal time dissolved into sound bites and bumper sticker slogans. “Justice is on the ballot.” “Dude gotta go.”
Candidates come and go. California will continue to defy the Trump administration because the fights are about issues central to the state’s identity — the environment, immigration, women’s rights. Those are causes that historically have not only united the broad spectrum of California Democrats but also transcended party politics. Republican governors were environmental leaders.
Ms. Harris, the state’s junior senator, will gain greater recognition from her 2020 quest; whether that enhances her political future depends on what lessons she takes from her own campaign. If she emerges with a clearer sense of her own priorities and values and an ability to articulate them with conviction, she may be better equipped to navigate the complicated calculus of politics in her home state, at a time when California matters a great deal.