Kamala Harris, Bobby Jindal, and the construction of Indian American identity in political campaigns

Madhavi Reddi

Second year PhD student at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a graduate research fellow at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. She studies identity and representation (focusing on the Indian diaspora) through the lens of entertainment media, art, and politics.

Twitter: @madhavi_reddi

Section 3: Candidates and the campaign

Democratic Vice President elect Kamala Harris’s public embrace of her multi-ethnic identity in the 2020 presidential race starkly contrasts former Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s presentation (or rather, neglect) of his racial identity in 2015. Identity has had an increasingly important role to play in U.S. politics, contributing to the ever-expanding divide between Republicans and Democrats. The differing presentation of identity between these two Indian American candidates illustrates the divide in racial politics between the parties. As Lilliana Mason articulates in Uncivil Agreement, race is one of the many social identities through which American political parties have become sorted – “with Democrats now firmly aligned with identities such as liberal, secular, urban, low-income, Hispanic, and black” and “Republicans now solidly conservative, middle class or wealthy, rural, churchgoing, and white”.

One underrepresented, left-leaning racial-ethnic group that has had increased visibility in the 2020 election thanks to Kamala Harris are Asian Americans. Her appeals to the South Asian American community through references of her Indian immigrant roots in addition to the South Asian voter outreach efforts of the Biden-Harris campaign seemed to have energized this increasingly politically active population. Towards the end of her presidential campaign, Harris released a video with Indian American celebrity Mindy Kaling in which they made masala dosas and bonded over their shared South Indian heritage. Harris performed various “isms” of Indian culture such as addressing Kaling’s father as “uncle,” and celebrating the fact that he stored spices in Taster’s Choice Jars (a unique commonality amongst Indians in the diaspora). Recently, Harris’s use of the Tamil word “chitti” meaning “mother’s younger sister” in her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention sparked a wave of excitement, especially amongst Tamil Americans. It set off the creation of the Chitti Brigade, “a political sisterhood of 150-200 members stretching across 20 states” committed to the election of Biden-Harris.

In her 2020 study, Sara Sadhwani found that a co-ethnic candidate on the ballot stimulates Indian American voter turnout. If this is the case, then we should have expected more support from the Indian American community during the campaign of the only other Indian American to run for the White House, Bobby Jindal. However Sadhwani notes, “For Harris, if Indian Americans perceive her as sharing their identity as an Indian, she will probably see not only strong support but a boost in voter turnout from Indian Americans.”

Jindal’s campaign did not include any direct appeals to Indian Americans that would enable them to perceive him as “sharing their identity,” nor did he promote his own Indian heritage. While Harris shared a sense of pride in her Indian roots, speaking frequently about her Indian immigrant mother and celebrating immigrants as an integral part of America, Jindal focused on the elimination of hyphenated identities, the need for immigrants to assimilate, and the belief that race does not matter in the election of a candidate. Jindal eclipsed his status as a racial minority in the Republican party by embodying a conservative, and very prominently, a Christian identity, that would appeal to his majority white base. Members of the Indian American community on both the Left and the Right criticized this dissociation with his Indian immigrant background. Celebrities such as comedian Hari Kondabolu coined #JindalSoWhite, while comedian Hasan Minaj placed Jindal on the “Mount Rushmore of shitty Indians” in an episode of Patriot ActSampat Shivangi, a physician and founding member of the Republican Indian Council and the Republican Indian National Council said, “We were supporting him all these years because he’s one of us. … It hurts when somebody says that I am no more Indian-American. A lot of people felt that he used Indian-Americans to rise up to where he is. Once he got in, he just abandoned all of us.”

Given the existing literature on affective polarization and social sorting, it makes sense why Harris and Jindal approached their presentation of ethnic identity so differently. Scholars suggest that candidates attempt to take on the identity of their constituents to increase their chances of being perceived as a legitimate representation of their party. In considering the Democratic party’s more celebratory approach to diversity and immigration compared to Republicans, Harris is enabled by the discursive framework around diversity that is part of the Democratic party rhetoric but is unavailable to Jindal as a member of the Republican party. Nevertheless, Harris and Jindal present a case through which to understand the role of racial and ethnic identity in American presidential politics. More broadly, this presidential race highlighted the massive polarization in the American electorate, and elucidated the ways in which non-white candidates of each party are likely to present themselves in future elections. This will be increasingly important to examine as America is projected to move towards a non-white majority in the coming decades.