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Kamala Harris and a history of trying to define 'Asian American'

"What it meant to be Asian was defined over time historically through laws on Asian exclusion on immigration and then also Asian exclusion from citizenship," researcher Karthick Ramakrishnan said.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority South Central Regional Conference in New Orleans on April 19, 2019.Gerald Herbert / AP file

The identity of Sen. Kamala Harris, who will debate Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, is part of a long discussion of who gets to be considered Asian American and who is too often left out of the group.

Harris' Asian American ethnic background — she is multiracial — hasn't always been recognized by the American public. When Joe Biden announced Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate in August, The New York Times and the Associated Press noted that Harris would be the first Black woman to be on a major party presidential ticket in social media posts, but left out the possibility that she could be the first Asian American vice president in the nation's history. Similarly, a BuzzFeed article published on Tuesday examines how Harris will become the first Black woman at a vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, but makes no single mention of her Indian descent or Asian American identity.

Image:  Shyamala Gopalan and Kamala Harris
Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, center, with Kamala Harris, as she takes the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, left, during inauguration ceremonies on Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco.George Nikitin / AP file

The failure of many to acknowledge Harris' Asian American identity has left many South Asian American women feeling that their heritage isn't being properly recognized. But as research points out, Asian America itself hasn't always been inclusive of those of South Asian descent.

Scholars argue that by disregarding more inclusivity in the Asian American community, people seek to restrict the potential strength and unity in the group.

The South Asian American population is one of the fastest-growing segments within Asian America, according to AAPI Data. However, about 15 percent of Asian Americans believe Indians are less likely to be Asian American. When asked about Pakistanis, 27 percent shared that belief, as well. But when looking at Koreans and Filipinos, about 6 percent hold that view.

The exclusion of South Asians in the Asian American community is further apparent when looking at attitudes among non-Asians. About 42 percent of whites, 35 percent of Latinx people and 34 percent of Black Americans don't identify Indians as Asian, with even higher percentages recorded when they are asked about Pakistanis.

Perhaps one of the more glaring examples of exclusivity from the Asian American label is the disparity between how Harris and fellow former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang were seen in the public's eye. Some have erroneously referred to Yang as the "first Asian American candidate," when not only have others, like former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who's of Indian descent, have run in the past, but Harris herself was also in the same candidate class.

In Harris' case, Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, acknowledged that Harris hasn't always been seen as Asian American in part because of how she has presented herself throughout the election cycle. She emphasized her experience as a young Black girl who integrated into a majority-white class, in the tradition of many other Black children at the time, Dhingra said. In contrast, Yang leaned into aspects of the "model minority" stereotype, joking on the debate stage that "I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors." However, Dhingra said, that the overall hesitance to always include South Asians as part of the larger Asian American identity played into how many people framed Harris' experiences.

Much of the messiness of Asian America as a label stretches back centuries, with the early beginnings of the category lying in part in a legal framework that ostracized those of Asian descent from citizenship and a place in America, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside.

Among the earliest legislation to codify naturalized citizenship was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person" who had been in the U.S. for two years, keeping other populations of color ineligible for citizenship. After the Civil War, citizenship was expanded to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent"; however; those of Asian descent remained ineligible.

The concept was further emphasized by the establishment in 1917 of an "Asiatic Barred Zone," which demarcated areas of Asia as those from which immigrants weren't allowed admission into the U.S. A few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrants of Japanese descent were excluded from naturalization, and soon after, the courts declared the same for Indian immigrants, largely due to their non-whiteness.

"It was exclusion from whiteness," Ramakrishnan said. "What it meant to be Asian was defined over time historically through laws on Asian exclusion on immigration and then also Asian exclusion from citizenship."

Ellen Wu, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University, said the late 1960s marked a watershed moment for activists who made the conscious decision to take on the "Asian American" label as a statement. They aimed to signal their shared histories of racism, as well as imperial domination. Dhingra emphasized that the movement was led by U.S.-born East Asian Americans who fought to distance themselves from the word "Oriental."

"Inspired by the Black Power movement, they recognized the significance of how we label ourselves and are referred to by others," Dhingra said.

Wu added that with "America" as part of the label, movement participants declared their place in the country while remaining cognizant of the U.S.' history of oppression and exploitation.

"Nonetheless, the United States was where they considered home," she said.

Over the next decade, Asian Americans would seek to be recognized by this label, approaching government agencies and engaging in dialogue with policymakers to show that the communities were worthy of attention and assistance, Wu said. With time, the group expanded to include newer arrivals from Samoa, Guam, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, as well as Southeast Asian refugees and South Asian populations.

"What these communities had in common at the time were what we might call social welfare struggles in need of attention: elder care, health care, bilingual education and hiring discrimination, to name a few," Wu said.

Some say that with so many subgroups under one umbrella, the term risks obscuring the diversity of experience among Asian Americans, Wu said, particularly because mainstream U.S. culture doesn't allow room for people of color to be seen as unique individuals as it is.

"So Black and brown people get lumped together, treated as interchangeable, often with only a token presence," she said. "So it's difficult to get through that there are multiple 'Asian American' positions or voices on any given issue, for example. That Asians don't all move in lockstep, act or think or look alike."

Due to the stereotype of the East Asian-centric model minority myth, the struggles of specific groups have been papered over, advocates say, with data lumping all groups together, while East Asian "success stories," like Nicholas Kristof's 2015 article "The Asian Advantage," have become the dominant narrative.

"The model minority myth chooses to highlight the successful immigrant examples and brush aside the high rates of poverty," Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the social services nonprofit Asian American Federation, previously told HuffPost.

However, the recognition of an "Asian America" has its perks, given how the distribution of power, resources and opportunities correspond with race in the U.S., Wu said. Furthermore, Dhingra said there are indeed commonalities and relevant shared histories that could lead to more unity and combined power. The killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was fatally beaten by two white autoworkers who thought he was Japanese, for example, finds a parallel in the attacks committed by the hate group Dotbusters of New Jersey, which targeted Indian Americans.

The hate crimes that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are connected to Covid-19-related racism in the way both are "rooted in the sense of Asians as inherent threats," Dhingra said. While it's important to identify unique, meaningful differences in experiences among subgroups, Dhingra said including all Asian Americans fosters more solidarity.

"I spent years researching the lives of Korean and Indian Americans. I learned that while there are religious, cultural, linguistic and historical differences, what connects them is even stronger. They faced similar stereotypes in the workplace, had similar upbringings in their parents' small businesses, had similar experiences in the home and more," he said. "We can create more unity within Asian America by recognizing the similarities as Asian Americans that lie beneath the surface of our differences."

Ramakrishnan said the concept of Asian American representation can be divided into "descriptive," meaning physically representative of a group, and "substantive," meaning representative of the interests of a group. During the Democratic National Convention in August, Harris spoke about her childhood growing up with an Indian immigrant mother. Yang didn't refer to his Asian American heritage, but he did make a nod to his "MATH" slogan, a rallying cry that divided Asian Americans.

"Andrew Yang, he represented Asian America descriptively," Ramakrishnan said. Harris "actually brought up her Indian upbringings. She talked about her 'chittis.' So it seems that she wasn't running away from any of that identity. And she brought up issues like immigration that are high-priority for Asian American advocacy groups."

Yang divided many Asian Americans throughout his run, particularly when he invoked Asian stereotypes onstage. He drew further controversy after writing an op-ed in The Washington Post urging Asian Americans to "show our Americanness."

"We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis," he wrote.

For Ramakrishnan, talking about the Asian American community requires specificity when it comes to issues that disproportionately affect certain subgroups or illustrate the stances of certain subgroups. Affirmative action, for example, is overwhelmingly supported by Asian Americans; however, a large segment of Chinese Americans oppose those programs.

Strength, intercommunity allyship and inclusion come with showing up for one another, he said, citing Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and an outspoken advocate against Covid-19 hate incidents who is South Asian, as an example, as well as the work of the Japanese American Citizens League.

"What Japanese Americans and the Japanese American Citizens League have done is to consistently show up for different groups," he said. "They consistently show up on the side of justice when communities are being attacked."