Kamala Harris: The inspiring story of many firsts

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Updated: Nov 08, 2020 10:50 AM

Harris was picked by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as his running mate in August, months after she suspended her own presidential dreams, saying she lacked the financial resources to continue her campaign.

Her victory indicates that no door is closed to Indian-Americans in public life in the country.

Known as the “female Obama”, first time Senator Kamala Devi Harris has scripted history by becoming first woman, Black and Indian-American vice president of the United States.

Harris was picked by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as his running mate in August, months after she suspended her own presidential dreams, saying she lacked the financial resources to continue her campaign.

A fierce critic-turned ally of her former rival Biden, the 56-year-old California Senator is one of only three Asian Americans in the Senate and she’s the first Indian-American ever to serve in the chamber.

Harris is known for many firsts. She has been a county district attorney; the district attorney for San Francisco – the first woman and first African-American and Indian-origin to be elected to the position.

She now has several firsts in her role as vice president also: the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Indian-American and the first Asian-American.

When Biden picked her as his running mate recognising the crucial role Black voters could play in his determined bid to defeat Donald Trump, she was the just the third woman to be selected as the vice president on a major party ticket. Then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 were the other two.

During the Obama era, she was popularly called the “female Obama”. A decade ago, journalist Gwen Ifill called Harris “the female Barack Obama” on the “Late Show With David Letterman”. Later, a small businessman from Willoughby Tony Pinto called her “a young, female version of the president”.

She is considered to be close to Barack Obama, the first black American President, who endorsed her in her various elections including that of the US Senate in 2016.

Harris was born to two immigrant parents: a Black father and an Indian mother. Her father, Donald Harris, was from Jamaica, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist from Chennai. She, however, defines herself simply as ‘American’.

After her parents divorced, Harris was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother. She says that her mother adopted black culture and immersed her two daughters – Kamala and her younger sister Maya – in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life. She often joined her mother on visits to India.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold. “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, proud black women.”

Harris was born in Oakland and grew up in Berkeley. She spent her high school years living in French-speaking Canada – her mother was teaching at McGill University in Montreal.

Her mother told her growing up, “Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” which is what drives Kamala every single day, according to the Biden-Harris joint campaign website.

“The first Black and Indian-American woman to represent California in the United States Senate, Kamala Harris grew up believing in the promise of America and fighting to make sure that promise is fulfilled for all Americans,” it says.

She attended college in the US, spending four years at Howard University, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life.

After Howard, she went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings, and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

She became the top prosecutor for San Francisco in 2003, before being elected the first woman and the first black person to serve as California’s attorney general in 2010, the top lawyer in America’s most populous state.

In her nearly two terms in office as attorney general, Harris gained a reputation as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party. She was elected as California’s junior US senator in 2017.

Harris has been married to her husband Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer, for the past six years. She is the stepmother of two children, Ella and Cole who are her “endless source of love and pure joy,” the website says.

President-elect Joe Biden has said that he would be honoured to be serving with Harris, who will “make history as the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country.”

In her victory speech, Harris said that while she may be the first woman to occupy the vice president’s office, she would not be the last.

Her victory indicates that no door is closed to Indian-Americans in public life in the country.

“Harris knows the Black American experience. She knows the South Asian-American experience. She knows the immigrant experience. She knows the aspirational power of the American dream…” wrote Neil Makhija, Executive Director of IMPACT, in an op-ed published by CNN during the presidential campaign.

Around 1.3 million Indian-Americans were voters in this year’s election, with nearly 200,000 in battleground states like Pennsylvania and 125,000 in Michigan. It is believed that Indian-American voters played crucial role in the key battleground states.

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