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Amid historic race, voters of color wrestle with Harris’ personal and political identities

Rochelle Fortier Nwadibia has followed Kamala Harris’ political ascent as the now California senator repeatedly made history, from her time as San Francisco’s district attorney to her nomination as vice president.

An attorney based in San Francisco, Fortier Nwadibia, 57, said she is “thrilled” to see Harris reach yet another milestone in her career, as the first Black woman, first Indian American and first Asian American to be on a major party presidential ticket.

“It’s just the magnitude of what she brings to the ticket,” said Fortier Nwadibia, who is Black.

Harris became the first Black person and the first woman to serve as district attorney of San Francisco in 2004. She achieved another set of firsts in 2011, becoming the first Black person, first Asian American and first woman to serve as California attorney general.

Harris is the daughter of a Tamil Indian mother and a Jamaican father who both immigrated to the U.S.

But for Tammy Van, 24, and Kahmali Rose, 33, of Massachusetts, Harris’ race does not factor into their assessment of her vice presidential candidacy. They find her record as a prosecutor and attorney general to be harmful for communities of color.

“It just seemed like, of course that’s who [Biden] would select; someone who checked off the identity boxes but still supports the same sort of ideology that she holds,” said Rose, who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary, and, like Harris, he is half Jamaican.

When Biden announced Harris as his running mate in August, it was amid political and cultural battles over race and racism, identity and representation. Harris’ racial identity quickly became a major part of the conversation around her candidacy. For many women, Biden’s choice of Harris felt like recognition. For many Black women, it was seen as a nod of gratitude for their loyalty to the Democratic Party.

But as the Biden-Harris campaign works to expand its appeal among young and more progressive voters less than four weeks from the election, a number of people told PBS NewsHour they don’t see the current Democratic ticket as a sign of progress, and are concerned that some of the promises being made to appeal to people of color will not be followed through on.

Debate over identity resonates with multiracial voters

When Harris was first announced as Biden’s running mate, many people did not know how to describe her as a history-making figure. Some had only known of her as a Black woman. Others debated whether she should be referred to as “African American” because of her Jamaican roots. There were also members of the Black and Indian communities who outright rejected Harris’ authenticity, while others said her actions as a public official have not served those communities.

This cultural balancing act is common for many multiracial people in the U.S., said Danielle Casarez Lemi, a fellow with Southern Methodist University who researches identity, race and gender in American politics. This “obsession” with pressuring people to fit neatly into one identity category, Casarez Lemi said, stems from the country’s past prohibition on interracial relationships as well as the ways historically underrepresented groups have been categorized. The “one drop” rule enacted by Southern states in the early 1900s stated that a person with any Black blood at all would be considered Black. It wasn’t until 2000 that people could select more than one race on the U.S.Census.

“When we see people who are difficult to assign to how we understand what it means to be white, Black and Hispanic … a lot of people are compelled to ask, ‘What are you?’ And then they have all these other questions to assess your authenticity,” Casarez Lemi said.

These types of questions have become familiar to Susan Velez-Johnson, 56, a lawyer based in Florida who is half Black and half Filipino. “I absolutely did feel pressure, you know, to pick one [identity] or the other. … I much more identify with my Black side, because it’s so much more obvious,” Johnson-Velez said, adding that she doesn’t “understand the need to parse it out in such a detailed way,” referring to the discussion of Harris’ cultural background.

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Harris was born in Oakland, California, and grew up attending both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple. In her 2019 autobiography Harris wrote about her mother’s recognition that Black identity had a particular significance in U.S. society.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Harris wrote in the book.

Harris gravitated toward prominent institutions of Black culture. She attended the historically Black college Howard University and pledged the country’s first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

It’s not uncommon for biracial or multiracial Americans to have stronger ties to their Black identity because of the Black community’s specific racial history in the U.S., said Shanti Parikh, 52, a Black and Indian woman who is an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. African Americans’ long and unique history in the country fostered a strong political commitment that Parikh says motivated her own social action and her work.

Still, Harris has publicly discussed her Indian history as well. In 2009, she spoke with the newspaper India Abroad about the influence of her Indian heritage on her life and career. This year she appeared on the Los Angeles Times’ podcast Asian Enough. But some Asian American voters have been slower to recognize that part of Harris’ ancestry.

Tanzila Ahmed, 41, a South Asian American political strategist who lives in California, recalled publishing an article about the importance of Harris’ run for the state attorney general in 2008. During that time, Ahmed received pushback from some readers who felt Harris had not done enough to represent herself as Asian.

Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a non-partisan group focused on increasing civic engagement, said one of the organization’s surveys during Harris’ 2016 Senate campaign indicated most voters did not know about Harris’ Asian roots. The organization found an increase in support for Harris when asked a question that explicitly shared her ethnic background, Chen said.

With Harris’ background now front and center, members of both communities are rallying behind her. The Biden campaign raised $26 million within the 24 hours after the announcement.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, U.S. Senator and Democratic candidate for Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff celebrate after Joe Biden accepted the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination during the 4th and final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, as participants from across the country are hosted over video links from the originally planned site of the convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 20, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Where personal and political identity collide

When Harris addressed the country to formally accept her vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August, she shared details of her background and upbringing, reflecting on a kind of American story that is often underrepresented on the national political stage.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much excitement and smiles among a coalition of women who considers themselves a base of, you know, politically active women of color,” Parikh said. Harris’ candidacy helped Parikh’s Indian relatives’ see what achievements are possible in the U.S. for a member of their community, she said.

But for many progressives, celebrating Harris’ identity can only go so far.

“Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity, while maneuvering against her political identity,” Derecka Purnell, a Black lawyer and activist, wrote in a column for the Guardian discussing her own feelings of being torn between defending Harris against racist or misogynistic comments and holding her accountable as a politician. “The defense against racist, sexist attacks must not interfere with the necessary offense required to push the Biden-Harris political ticket, for people who choose to play the electoral politics game.”

Harris’ emergence on the national political stage has come with sharp criticism of her time as a California prosecutor and attorney general. Wendi Muse, 36, a doctoral student at New York University, said what stands out most is Harris’ position overseeing several controversial convictions in California. One of those cases is the 2010 conviction of Jamal Trulove for murder during Harris’ tenure as San Francisco district attorney. Trulove served six and a half years in prison before he was acquitted in 2015 after a jury found that two officers fabricated evidence against him and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. Last year the city settled with Trulove for $13.1 million.

Harris has also been criticized for championing a California state law that punished parents of habitually truant schoolchildren. “Those data points to me are the things that I would much rather focus on,” said Sharmin Hossain, 28, a Bangladeshi Muslim who is the political director of a South Asian advocacy group called Equality Labs. “What kind of Black and South Asian person is she, you know? How does she show up to the poorest people within her community?”

On social media, Indian Americans have also questioned how Harris will approach her relationship with the Indian government and her stance on the decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan over the region of Kashmir, a majority-Muslim area in northern India.

READ MORE: In new videos for Biden, Obama and Harris make appeal to Black voters

Locally, others have praised Harris for working to help marginalized groups. San Francisco public defender Niki Solis described Harris as “the most progressive prosecutor in the state,” in an opinion column for USA Today. Solis wrote that Harris refused to seek the death penalty in a number of cases, gave lighter charges for marijuana sales and facilitated the creation of the city’s “Back on Track” program that provides support for non-violent offenders reentering society.

But those efforts don’t go far enough for some voters. Van, Rose and Muse said they will not be voting for the Biden-Harris ticket in November, opting instead to support third party and down-ballot candidates. Alicia Crosby, 34, a justice educator in North Carolina, shares some of their concerns about Biden and Harris’ records, but sees her decision to vote for them as a “form of harm reduction” from President Donald Trump’s administration. Similarly, Hossain of Equality Labs said she plans to “fight for the greater good” in voting against Trump.

Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, which advocates for Black candidates, said she can understand some of the skepticism voters may have, but believes progressives have an opportunity to work with Biden or Harris on the issues they care about. “We can’t just get them elected without also making sure that we are shepherding them through the accountability process of … creating policies that will actually create that systematic change,” she said.

Though Biden continues to face questions about how far he will go to champion causes supported by the Democratic Party’s growing progressive faction, he has shown some signs of shifting leftward. He has toned down his tough on crime rhetoric from the 1990s, pledging to end the War on Drugs, and proposed a plan for tuition-free public colleges and universities similar to that of his former primary competitor Sanders.

Harris has also shifted her approach over the years. During her campaign for California attorney general in 2010, she opposed the statewide measure to legalize recreational marijuana. But during her presidential bid in 2019 she called for legalizing and regulating marijuana. Her tenure as attorney general was marked by a reticence to intervene in police killings of civilians. By the end of her time holding the office in 2016, she had moved to expand her office’s powers to investigate police misconduct. In the Senate, Harris became a vocal champion for some criminal justice and police reform measures, including co-sponsoring the Senate version of the Justice in Policing Act that among other things sought to establish a national misconduct registry and reform qualified immunity.

For some, Harris’ nomination offers hope that there will be another receptive official in the White House. “I have appreciated Sen. Harris’s willingness to listen, to sit down, be in conversation, to answer tough questions and to deal with pushback,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the civil rights organization Color of Change. “In a world where we have far too many politicians that don’t think they’re supposed to hear from the public … I have experienced Sen. Harris to have a lot of humility and willingness to be in conversation.”