Kamala Harris | A woman with many firsts to her name

The first black and Indian American woman on a major party ticket, she goes to the poll with a record of controversies and achievements

Updated - November 28, 2021 01:02 pm IST

Published - August 15, 2020 07:08 pm IST

When U.S. Senator Kamala Harris was picked to be the running mate of presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, Joe Biden, she became the first black and Indian American woman on a major party presidential ticket in U.S. history.

Ms. Harris was born in 1964, to the late Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher from Chennai, and Donald Harris, an economics professor from Jaimaca. Students at the University of California at Berkeley, a campus known for its activism, Ms. Gopalan and Mr. Harris were involved in the civil rights movement. That is the world Ms. Harris entered. She has recalled being taken in a pram to civil rights marches.

Also read: Kamala Harris’ nomination adds ‘fuel to fire’ for China-U.S. conflict: Chinese observers

Her parents divorced when she was a child, and Ms. Harris and her younger sister Maya were primarily raised by their mother, visiting their father on weekends and during the summer holidays. The Harris children grew up around their mother’s friends, many of whom were civil rights activists and intellectuals.

Ms. Harris has talked about being deeply influenced by her maternal grandfather P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant, and grandmother, Rajam Gopalan. Ms. Harris said her grandfather would take her on his walks along the beach in India and she would hear him and his friends talk about democracy. She has also spoken of being inspired by her grandmother’s involvement in women’s rights.

Shyamala Gopalan raised her children with a sense of “pride” in her South Asian roots and a “strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture”, Ms. Harris writes in her book, The Truths We Hold . Her mother knew that American society would see the Harris children as black girls and was determined to make sure they would grow up to be “confident, proud black women”.

Also read: Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate | Reactions: Indian-American groups laud historic selection

Ms. Harris attended the ‘historically black’ Howard University where she majored in economics and political science. After getting a law degree from UC Hastings, Ms. Harris began working as a prosecutor in Oakland. She has described wanting to change the system from inside and had to defend her employment choice with friends and family “as one would a thesis.”

Controversial record

In 2004, Ms. Harris became San Francisco’s District Attorney (DA) — the first black woman to hold the position. In 2011 she became the first female Attorney General (AG) of California. Ms. Harris had indicated that she wanted to be a “progressive prosecutor” and some of her actions in her early years as a prosecutor are in line with that description.

Also read: Kamala takes a strong stand on rights, but not dogmatic: uncle

For instance, as San Francisco DA, she created the Back on Track programme, in which first time drug offenders could avoid jail time by finishing high school or getting a job. She also mitigated the consequences of a law that said could lock someone up for 25 years for committing a third felony by insisting that the DA’s office only bring charges on a third felony if it was violent or serious. However, in her later years, she was criticised for her “tough on crime” and pro-police, pro-establishment type actions. As California’s AG, she was criticised for not adequately investigating charges of prosecutorial misconduct and defending convictions that involved police officers inserting false evidence.

Ms. Harris’s changing record on the death penalty, which she personally opposes due to its finality and disproportionate application to minorities, has also been criticised. As DA in 2004, she refused to seek the death penalty in the 2004 killing of a police officer. A decade later, however, as AG, she appealed a judge’s ruling that the State’s death penalty was unconstitutional. Ms. Harris argued that it was her professional duty to defend the State’s laws regardless of her personal beliefs.

Another controversy in her history stems from a relationship in 1994 that Ms. Harris had with California politician Willie Brown, which raised questions of significant conflicts of interest when he helped her get positions on two state government bodies.

In recent years, Ms. Harris emerged as a strong proponent of criminal justice reform. Her proposals announced during the Democratic primaries included policies that would legalise marijuana, abolish solitary confinement, private prisons, cash bail and the death penalty.


As a U.S. Senator since 2016, she has served on powerful committees on Intelligence and Homeland Security. One of the things she is known for is her prosecutorial style of questioning at Senate hearings. Her interrogation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation is cited both by her admirers and critics (including, recently, U.S. President Donald Trump).

Following the police killings of African Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Ms. Harris co-sponsored the Senate’s Justice in Police Act in June. She also co-sponsored a Bill to make lynching a federal crime.

After the pandemic hit, Ms. Harris introduced legislation to create a task force to address the racial and ethnic disparities in the impact of COVID-19 and the response to it. In 2019, Ms. Harris and Republican Mike Lee introduced legislation that would result in an increase in country-wise caps for green cards, a move that would benefit citizens of countries with green card application backlogs, like India and China.

In terms of foreign policy, Ms. Harris has said she would work with China on common interests — like climate change, while addressing the country’s human rights abuses such as with China’s Uighur minority. The situation is considerably more complex now than at the start of the Democratic primary season with a more aggressive and assertive China and a more damaged U.S.-China relationship. Ms. Harris is an advocate of a closer relationship with the Europeans and reaffirming support for Ukraine against Russian aggression, i.e., she is in alignment with traditional U.S. foreign policy in these respects.

In an August 2019 interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, Ms. Harris said the community of post-war institutions were among the greatest U.S foreign policy accomplishments (like Mr. Biden, she wants America back in the Paris Agreement on climate). The biggest foreign policy mistake, as per Ms. Harris, was America “jeopardising” the progress made via these institutions by engaging in “ failed wars” that have “destabilised the regions in which they have been fought”. In this respect, Ms Harris appears to share with progressive Democrats an instinct not to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts.


Speaking in Delaware last week, Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden — at their first appearance together since the V-P announcement — emphasised the Trump administration’s botched response to the pandemic, the state of the U.S. economy with more than 16 million unemployed and race relations. Mr. Biden’s economic recovery plan for America, with the theme “build back better” will likely be the focus of the initial days of a Biden-Harris administration.

Ms Harris outlined other priorities if elected to office: a clean energy program, building on the Affordable Care Act ( she and Mr Biden differed on their approaches to healthcare during the primaries), protecting women’s abortion rights, criminal justice reform and strengthening voting rights in the U.S.

At the moment, the Biden-Harris duo has nationwide lead over the Trump-Pence team. Should they win in November, Ms. Harris will be well on her way to being a serious contender for the leadership of the Democratic party as well as the U.S. presidency.

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