Race, caste and Kamala

Kamala Harris should be critiqued or celebrated not according to a faulty and disingenuous understanding of her lineage, but on the basis of her actual policy positions and future governing vision.

Kamala Harris in a campaign event, February 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Kamala Devi Harris’s selection as the first woman of color on a major party ticket has triggered an avalanche of discussion, debate and vitriol regarding her identity. As expected, the right has resorted to anti-immigrant and anti-Black attacks straight out of the anti-Obama playbook. Criticism from the left has been more nuanced but no less problematic. One camp, those associated with the hashtag #ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) movement, have questioned whether as the biracial daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrant parents, Harris is really a Black American. Individuals fighting against India’s caste system, meanwhile, have focused on her Brahmin lineage, accusing Harris and her mother’s family of being supporters of Brahminical oppression.

Both claims have roots in legitimate debates about the role of race and caste in modern life, a debate that waxes and wanes, but that has gotten renewed attention with the publication of Isabelle Wilkerson’s latest book, Caste, which adapts the language of caste to understand America’s racial hierarchy. But, both are also disingenuous attacks on the candidate’s family that purposefully ignore their individual statements and actions in favor of a disturbing biological essentialism that shares more in common with their right wing counterparts.

This confusion has to do with the difficulty of analogizing race and caste systems across very different national contexts, specifically, the United States, Jamaica, and India. Regarding her Black identity, some critics have suggested that Kamala having a Jamaican father, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford, disqualifies her claim to American Blackness as Jamaicans did not experience the horrors of chattel slavery and Jim Crow that their counterparts in the United States were subjected to. These critics point to an article Donald Harris wrote for Jamaica Global in which he acknowledged his part-descent from a white Jamaican slaveowner.

Part of the challenge of understanding Kamala’s identity is the distinct histories of racial classification that exist in Jamaica and the US. Racial orders can look very different across national contexts: in the US, an apartheid system based on a division of racial groups and in Jamaica, a pigmentocracy built on colorism. Blacks in the US were subjected to a strict racial binary wherein anyone with a single drop of African blood was categorized as Black, the so-called “one-drop rule.” In Jamaica, where most of the population has African blood thanks to the large number of Africans imported to work in Jamaica’s plantation economy, the racial hierarchy is more of fluid spectrum in which a higher percentage of European blood (usually) implies a higher status in the Jamaican racial order. For Donald to acknowledge his white ancestry does not imply an abdication of his Black identity in the US or even Jamaica. Indeed, much of his academic work, especially in the 1970s, focuses on Black power struggles from a critical though sympathetic perspective. To deny that he, or Jamaica, were also products of the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is ahistorical and parochial, critiques that can also be leveled against the entire #ADOS movement and its supporters.

India’s caste system presents a thornier and more complex analogy. There are two dimensions to this. First, while not widely known outside of South Asia, India too is divided along racial lines. In the north, people often claim Aryan or Caucasian identity while southerners claim to be Dravidians, or the descendants of the indigenous, pre-Hindu Indus Valley civilization. This Aryan/Dravidian racial divide is not just an academic debate but an enduring prejudice with many North Indians referring to all South Indians as “Madrasis” and often as “Kaalus” (Blacks), both of which are meant as derogatory.

This is why a North Indian like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (née Nimrata Randhawa)  claiming to be “white,” as she did on her 2001 voter registration form, is actually more consistent with Indian understandings of race than what her critics suggest. Haley, in fact, is not the first North Indian to suggest that her Aryan racial identity should qualify her as white in the United States. In 1919, Bhagat Singh Thind, a high-caste North Indian went to court to argue that being of Aryan descent should qualify him as white and hence eligible for US citizenship. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which in a remarkable decision agreed to his “scientific” claim of Aryan-ness but rejected his petition on the basis that it wasn’t how the “common man” understood American whiteness.

Geneticists have recently settled some of these debates. Some 65,000 years ago, humans who migrated out of Africa arrived in South Asia. These out of Africa migrants eventually mixed with pre-historic migrants from West Asia producing the Ancestral South Indians (ASIs). The ASI or Dravidian population was well established in large, complex cities that characterized the Harappan civilization once spread across modern day India and Pakistan. By showing that migrants from Central Asia arrived in South Asia from the north some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago overrunning the Harrapan civilization, what in common parlance is referred to as the “Aryan migration,” geneticists have confirmed the makeup of modern South Asians. What the genetic records shows is that after a brief period of mixture, the two groups separated with Ancestral North Indians (ANIs) distributed across the north and the ASIs concentrating in the southern part of the Indian peninsula. Yet while a major cleavage in Indian politics and society—many South Indian political parties explicitly incorporate variants of “Dravidian” in their names and South Indian secession remains a fantasy for many Dravidian nationalists—caste is far more relevant for people’s lives.

How do race and caste intersect in the Indian context? This is a contentious and ongoing debate. Many South Indians and Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables) view the caste system as reflecting the imposition of Aryan/Hindu identity upon the indigenous, darker skinned population. In this view, the caste system was set up to discriminate against Dalits based on their skin color. Some have tied this to the concept of “varna” in Hindu texts, a term that can mean color but also may be interpreted as occupation. Those who identify as racially Dravidian also incorporate caste identities into their worldview, arguing that all Brahmins, even those who live in the South, are Aryans and hence invaders from the north.

So where does Kamala Harris’s family fit into India’s racial/caste imaginary? Hailing from the state of Tamil Nadu, the wellspring of Dravidian politics, they clearly identify as South Indians. But as Brahmins, they also benefited from the privilege of belonging to the dominant caste and would be viewed by racial outsiders by at least that portion of Dravidian nationalists who view all South Indian Brahmins as Aryans.

Yet this is not the whole story. Not much is known about Kamala Harris’s grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, who served as part of the diplomatic service for the Indian government in Zambia and elsewhere. What is known suggests that he was progressive by even modern Indian standards and his children, including Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala’s mother, defied caste taboos in multiple ways, including Shyamala’s marriage to Donald. More relevantly, Shyamala, who migrated to the US in 1958 to pursue a graduate degree, was a staunch advocate for equality who participated in the struggles for civil rights and was a close confidant of Black radicals like Cedric Robinson.

Ultimately the left should eschew an obsession with Harris’s lineage, which errs too closely to the racial and caste biological essentialism more common on the right. If anything, we should encourage Harris to be more like her parents, especially her mother Shyamala, a trailblazer whose influence Harris frequently cites as formative. Harris, who will undoubtedly face unfair identity-based critiques from the right, should be critiqued or celebrated not according to a faulty and disingenuous understanding of her lineage but on the basis of her actual policy positions and future governing vision.

Further Reading