The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kamala Harris’s spot on the debate stage signals promise for American democracy

Her historic candidacy brings multiple marginal identities into the national conversation at a critical time.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, speaks Oct. 2 during a voter mobilization drive-in event at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Before the president’s hospitalization, the Trump campaign had spent weeks doubling down on its strategy of kindling White racial resentment, with the president appearing to encourage white nationalists to “stand by” at the first debate. One of the themes at President Trump’s rallies has been the threat that as president, Joe Biden would “turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” and Trump complained that Rep. Ilhan Omar — a refugee turned U.S. citizen — “is telling us how to run our country.”

The suggestion that a person born abroad, especially if they aren’t White, isn’t really American has a long history, shaped by American racial hierarchies and ideas of citizenship. At Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a Black and South Asian woman whose parents were immigrants, will stand on the stage opposite Vice President Pence. Her historic candidacy brings multiple marginal identities into the national conversation at a critical time and may offer a powerful symbolic counterpoint to this politics of White racial resentment.

The history of immigration and citizenship law is one of exclusion, and this has shaped our country’s racial hierarchies, contributing to the idea that foreign-born, non-White people are provisional or insufficiently “American.” At the heart of these policies has been a long history of anti-Asian — including anti-South Asian — discrimination and exclusion.

When Shyamala Gopalan, Harris’s mother, reached the United States from India as a graduate student in 1958, it was just over a decade since the country had started allowing citizenship to be granted to immigrants from India and some other parts of Asia. Exclusion of Indian immigrants from citizenship alongside other Asian immigrants reflected their shared experience of racialization in the United States.

Since 1790, only “free white persons” were eligible to naturalize as citizens. Naturalization was extended to “persons of African nativity or African descent” in 1870, after the Civil War. Yet Asians in the United States born elsewhere remained ineligible for citizenship and were excluded from the civic life of the nation, while the emerging federal immigration system was built around the exclusion of Asian people. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barred almost all Chinese people from entering the United States. Restrictionists succeeded in extending the ban on immigrants to nearly all Asian countries in a designated “Asiatic Barred Zone” in 1917.

Immigrant plaintiffs hailing from different parts of Asia, including India, Japan, China, Korea, Syria and other countries, filed suit in U.S. courts to challenge exclusion from naturalizing and to acquire citizenship themselves. Many of these plaintiffs claimed whiteness, and therefore eligibility for citizenship on that basis.

But in 1923, the Supreme Court issued a decision in United States v. Thind that declared that Indians were not White and thus not eligible for citizenship. The court said: “The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” The court’s reasoning was clear: Asians, in this case Indians, were too racially and culturally different from the European-descended majority to become a part of the American society, particularly of its civic and democratic fabric that is an essential function of citizenship. Europeans, regardless of nationality, could come to belong, but Asians, because of race, could not.

It was not until the 1940s and 1950s that restrictive naturalization and immigration laws based on this pernicious racist thinking began to be rolled back. The geopolitics of World War II and intense lobbying by Asian and Indian Americans pushed the U.S. to grant naturalization rights to Indians and Filipinos living in the United States. Indian immigrant community leaders such as Mubarek Ali Khan, J.J. Singh and Ibrahim Choudry played an important role in lobbying the U.S. Congress to lift the naturalization restriction. The formal racial restriction on Asian naturalization was completely lifted only in 1952 through the McCarran-Walter Act — which otherwise maintained racial quotas limiting Asian migration, and thus limited the number of people who would be able to naturalize as citizens.

Yet even as the law changed and more Asian people arrived in the United States, the politics of White racial domination continued to shape how they were treated. Those admitted tended to be highly educated professionals who came from relatively privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. Harris’s mother Shyamala Gopalan, for instance, not only came from a family of civil servants in India, a relatively privileged position, but also belonged to an “upper caste” Brahman community that provided her access, mobility and respectability in a caste-oppressive society — even as she had to navigate significant barriers as a woman seeking higher education abroad.

The trend of admitting highly educated and professional immigrants intensified after the last vestiges of Asian exclusion were lifted through the Hart-Celler Act in 1965 and migration from Asia increased sharply. In the context of racial unrest in the 1960s, Asian Americans became thought of as “model minorities” in the U.S. racial hierarchy. Pointing to their successes was a way to minimize the role played by persistent racism and white supremacy in the society — a politically useful way for the White-dominated racial order to help channel racial discontent.

As a result, the term “model minority” was a double-edged sword, erasing diversity within Asian American communities and helping perpetuate anti-Black racism. Groups that were seen earlier as undesirable were now contrasted with Black Americans to show that the promise of economic mobility and family stability were alive and well in America, shifting blame for anti-Black racism onto Black people themselves.

It also obscured many examples of Asian and Black American solidarity. The term “Asian American” itself was coined in California by those within the Asian American community inspired by the Black Power movement. Activists situated the emerging Asian American identity in the context of the fight for racial equality led by Black Americans as well as anti-colonial and antiwar movements globally. Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris’s participation in the civil rights movement as students at Berkeley was an example of this racial solidarity.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, South Asians were again targeted and racialized as “the other” in American society. Muslims bore the brunt of state-sanctioned targeting, but South Asians of various religions and nationalities endured racial hostility and discrimination in public spaces. A shocking incident came in 2012, with the attack on a Sikh gurdwara (temple) by a white supremacist gunman in Oak Creek, Wis., leading to six deaths.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have continued to feed White racial resentment and to target Asian Americans and South Asian Americans. Cuts to highly skilled temporary worker (H1B) visas, the Muslim ban and efforts to cut family immigration have all affected South Asian immigrants and their families. And hate crimes are on the rise. In 2017 a gunman killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian-born technology worker in Kansas, after berating him about his immigration status. In 2020, fueled by Trump’s effort to link Asians and covid-19, anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed even further.

This context makes Harris’s appearance on the vice-presidential debate stage all the more important. For historical reasons, women who are Asian American, South Asian American and Black have been framed as marginal to American identity — something Trump returns to again and again in his comments about immigrants, refugees and people of color. Yet Harris is the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and the identities she inhabits point to the possibilities of solidarity between different racial minorities to contend with the politics of White racial resentment.