The Formidable First
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Black and South Asian students confront a nation as Kamala Harris enters the West Wing. By Victor Omojola
Kamala Harris has had no shortage of meme-inspiring moments during her ascent to the Vice Presidency. She danced with a drumline, shared a celebratory call with her running mate, and reminded her predecessor that she was, in fact, speaking. These moments are amusing, but bring with them a jarring and troublesome heaviness: the weight of the First. In a 2012 article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the First as a force that simultaneously destroys and constructs the idea of what is politically possible. “Before Barack Obama, the ‘black president’ lived in the African American imagination as a kind of cosmic joke, a phantom of all that could never be,” he wrote.
For better or for worse, someone who becomes the First lodges themselves in the imaginations of their constituents in new and mutable ways. The discourse about Harris, the first Black, South Asian, or woman Vice President, is especially pertinent to young Black and South Asian Americans with aspirations for careers in politics. A large number of such individuals call Columbia home, and their views of Harris reveal as much about her as they do about the new political climate that young people are forging every day.
Renuka Balakrishnan, BC ’24, a Massachusetts native who worked on former Congressman Joe Kennedy III’s Senate campaign last summer, smiled as she recalled the anticipation that she and her friends felt in the weeks leading up to the day Joe Biden announced his running mate. Balakrishnan is passionate about social justice issues facing South Asian Americans and minority communities in general. “We'd seen all these lists that people were making and they were all with these women of color and we were so excited to see someone ascend to that level—that unprecedented level,” she said.
Kathan Reddy, CC ’24, Columbia College Student Council’s first-year Vice President, shares Balakrishnan’s commitment to serving the South Asian community, and both are strongly considering majoring in Political Science. “Personally, I was just really excited,” Reddy said. “The only representation that I really had as a South Asian is Bobby Jindal from Louisiana, Nikki Haley, Ajit Pai, most recently, in the FCC, who are all pretty right-leaning Americans who I really just did not agree with on any sort of policy level.”
In the United States, marginalized groups are all too familiar with the concept of the First. The acquisition of this mantle is always an inspiring occasion, but the prize only exists thanks to a harrowing history. Within the decade following the end of the Civil War, for example, the U.S. saw its first two Black senators, Mississippians Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce. But the racist terror against Black Americans that dominated the ensuing century prevented another Black American from reaching the Senate until 1967, when Massachusetts native Edward Brooke made the group a trio.
The fact that Harris can claim three First titles even after the likes of historic figures such as Revels, Bruce, Patsy Mink, and Carol Moseley Braun is a testament to just how large and lasting the chasm of opportunity between people of color and white Americans in politics is. At the same time, examining the detailed history of their relentless battles to earn a seat at the table helps us both to understand the immense strength of America’s marginalized and to measure how far they—and, if you’re willing to extend the claim, the country—have come.
For Balakrishan and many other Columbia students, that movement-based history is personal. “I think every single Brown family these days has a Kamala Harris story where they're very convinced that they've met her,” she joked. “I was talking to my grandfather the other day, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I used to see her all the time in India.’” She added, “As much as I tried not to be inspired, I was inspired.” Beyond the amusement, familial anecdotes like these are profound: The reality of rigidly oppressive systems in this country so besets Balakrishan that she finds herself dueling with an instinctual, generationally-inflected response.
Indeed, for minorities in the United States, the idea of the First is a double-edged sword, and Kamala Harris may represent the thinnest blade in history. As Reddy suggested, Harris is the most progressive of the prominent South Asian policymakers in the United States. In 2019, GovTrack, a website that ranks lawmakers’ political stances based on their voting records, named then-Senator Harris the most liberal of any race or ethnicity. But Harris’s tenures as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California drew significant criticism from the left during the campaign. In a discussion with Democracy Now!, University of San Francisco School of Law professor Lara Bazelon cited the fact that Harris prosecuted 1,900 marijuana cases while serving as DA as cause for serious concern. Furthermore, everyone remembers the night Harris scathingly interrogated Joe Biden’s busing record during the first Democratic debate only to receive her own interrogation from Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who went after her controversial prosecutorial record more generally later that evening.
This is likely why Zenayah Roaché, CC ’24, was reluctant to describe Kamala Harris as an inspirational figure. “I feel like, for those reasons specifically, she would not be an inspiration,” she said. “To me, that's more sort of a photo op inspiration.”
The campus discourse about Harris’s ascent falls into two main categories. In the first, students claim that regardless of Harris’s controversial history as a prosecutor, this moment is an important one, especially for marginalized groups, showing just how far our country has come. In the second, students contend that her centrist faults represent everything that America’s progressive social movements have fought against. They claim that Harris’s assumption of the First constitutes no more than empty identity politics masquerading as progress.
Roaché’s interest in politics is largely motivated by her passion for education reform, sparked by her parents, who espoused the importance of academics from a young age. She frowned as she described the annoyance with which she remembered “watching one of her speeches from 2010 about truancy and just throwing kids and parents in jail for just not going.”
There exists a popular retort that the Vice President had to make concessions on social issues in order to advance her own career, and that now that she is at the precipice of political influence, she can effect more change than ever before. I asked Roaché if she bought into such an explanation. She was not fully convinced, explaining that though she believes in the process of reinventing oneself, the fact that Harris now largely ignores her controversial past greatly frustrates her. Asked about how Harris should confront those controversies today, she said, “I think avoiding them entirely just continues that path of negligence and privilege, essentially.”
Soham Mehta, CC ’24, an Arizonian with an interest in politics nurtured by phone banking experience for Senator Mark Kelly and other forms of civic activism in his home state, is not simply perturbed by Harris’s past. Mehta can imagine little potential for change in her future. “We’ve seen a consistent pattern of ambitiousness and, in accumulating power, I think that that’s been her brand,” he said. Mehta takes issue with the way Harris ascended to her current role in the first place, claiming, “I think she’s gained power by cozying up to a lot of people in the donor class. I don’t think that’s personally inspirational. I think she’s caved on a lot of policy as Attorney General and Senator.”
Myesha Choudhury, BC ’23, buttressed both Roaché’s and Mehta’s points. “I agree that in pictures, she looks great,” she said. Along with Mehta, Choudhury was quite critical of the idea of Harris as an inspiration. “I still don't really want to ignore her history of anti-Blackness. I think it was kind of disappointing to me, in a way, to see the way that South Asian people immediately glorified her as being this huge progressive for South Asians and Black Americans and women of color, just because she is one.”
Choudhury’s disappointment stems from what she sees as a failure of the South Asian community to recognize how their experiences with oppression differ from those of Black Americans. She feels that it is easier for the former to forgive the Vice President’s record as a prosecutor because the various faults of the criminal justice system do not affect them in the same way.
I spoke to Nikhil Lahiri, CC ’22, and Choudhury in a joint discussion because they both sit on the executive board of Club Zamana, one of Columbia’s South Asian student organizations. Choudhury serves as Political Chair, Lahiri as Co-President. Though he agreed with Choudury’s point, Lahiri asserted, “I don’t think that we should undersell how it is actually pretty incredible that we have now elected, first of all, a woman and a South Asian and a Black woman to the vice presidency.” Like Reddy, Lahiri went on to cite the lack of progressive lawmakers of South Asian descent as he defended Harris’s status as an inspiration.
Regardless of their attitudes towards our current Vice President, the students I spoke to, it seems, will not be compromised in pursuits of authentic justice in their own professional careers, as many argue Harris has been. Reddy feels as though this tendency is largely a generational one and will not have as strong a grip on his own future endeavours, saying, “I think that just, generationally, I’m a lot better equipped to critique the system and understand how marginalization stuff works.”
Similarly, Lahiri, who will be working in the Human Rights Bureau of the State Department this summer, feels more empowered to lean into his identity and advocate for South Asian Americans and other minorities. Interestingly, he partly attributes the boldness he feels in this position to Harris herself: “I think in the last 10 years, South Asians have been pretty disengaged from politics and public life simply because they don't want to disturb the peace,” he said. “My hope is that seeing more figures like Kamala Harris ... will at least engage South Asians in public affairs in the U.S. to create multiple imaginations of [who] a South Asian public figure could be.”
Committed as they are, these activists and future politicians are still students, and many with whom I spoke exhibited mixed emotions when tasked with evaluating the importance of the election of Kamala Harris. This seems to originate, at least in part, from the fact that they know the issues that face them because of their skin color or background will not go away anytime soon.
It is important that individuals implicated most consistently in the weight of the First are allowed to come to terms, themselves, with the concept’s irony. They should be allowed to experience the raw and throbbing cognitive dissonance of seeing someone who looks like them hold the very seat of power that has historically hindered their communities, as well as to painstakingly evaluate the personal and political worth of uplifting someone who has not always uplifted them.
Regardless of where they were in this process, none of the students I spoke with displayed one ounce of complacency. In fact, even those with the highest praise for the Vice President questioned the notion that the Biden-Harris administration will significantly reduce inequality. For example, despite confidently classifying Harris as an inspiration, when asked how optimistic she was that the Biden administration could implement real change for minorities, Balakrishnan still only rated her optimism a six and a half out of ten. “Previous administrations, I would have been like, negative 10. So I think that's really good,” she added. As these students imagine what their Vice President might do to help their communities over the next four years, one hopes Kamala Harris will look back at them for some inspiration, herself.