Why some Pakistani-American voters' anxiety over Kamala Harris is unjustified

Dismissing Harris over her Indian heritage could backfire when it comes to the cause of equality and justice in the US.
Published October 6, 2020

Many Pakistani-Americans — who have consistently opposed Donald Trump over his anti-immigrant, anti-minority, and anti-women rhetoric — are wondering whether to vote for his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in the upcoming US Presidential Elections on November 3rd, 2020. Their apprehension stems from the selection of the Democrat’s vice-presidential running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. The irony is that Senator Harris as an African American woman, born to immigrant parents, personifies the values of diversity that most Pakistani-Americans advocate.

Senator Harris and the Kashmir Issue

The topic of Kashmir is naturally near and dear to the hearts of many Pakistani-Americans. Since she was born to an Indian mother, some Pakistani-American voters are worried that Senator Harris might somehow be partial to Narendra Modi’s policies in Kashmir if Joe Biden were to become the next US President. On the top of the ticket, Vice President Joe Biden himself has expressed disappointment over not just India’s revocation of Article 370 but also on the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the National Register of Citizens. However, here the questions are not being raised about the candidate but his running mate.

Three simple facts can thwart any concerns about Senator Harris being compliant with current Indian policies. First, Harris, born in the United States, identifies herself as primarily an African-American, Christian woman — an elected representative — not an Indian diaspora member. Second, even policymakers and members of Indian descent in the Democratic Party — whether they be Muslims, Christians, Hindus, or Sikhs — have adhered to the party’s position of deriding Modi’s human rights violations in Kashmir and the infringement of minority rights in India. And third, Harris is on the record for having said: “We’ve to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

Elections are about contrast, comparison, and choice. With India’s size and purchasing power, a US President choosing to maintain harmonious trade relations with that country is understandable. Having said that, President Trump has been unabashed in his support of Modi’s radical and anti-secular policies. Trump remains unmoved by a series of human rights violations in Kashmir — and towards minorities — perpetrated by the Modi administration. He instead chose to celebrate a “Howdy Modi” event with the Indian premier when he visited Houston in 2019.

Moreover, the Trump Organization has established Indian financial interests with the launch of Trump Towers. For a President to blatantly be benefiting directly from economic engagement with a foreign country is unheard of in US history. Setting aside the ideal and just on the merit of Trump’s disregard for human rights, who is likely to be pro-Modi: The Trump administration or the Biden administration?

Start with the values

People vote on what they value as best for them, their families, communities, and the world at large. Not just on the matter of Kashmir, but also on opportunities for their children, a Democratic ticket promises relief from Donald Trump’s drive to create a caste system in America based on race. Polls have consistently shown that in terms of bringing the US together as a nation and improving race relations, Americans feel that a Biden administration would do a far better job than Trump.

Senator Harris’ rise to the Democratic Party’s highest levels also reflects the fantastic opportunities that lie ahead for the next generation of minorities — including Pakistani Americans. The immigrant story that Harris’ life highlights is not much different from the aspirational values Pakistani-American parents coach their sons and daughters to adopt.

So what are the choices?

The only way for Pakistani-Americans to exert influence on American policies is to show up consistently at elections — not to stay on the sidelines and potentially sit out the most important election of a generation over their ambivalence on foreign policy matters. Staying at home for the elections sends a clear signal to the politicians to not take their South Asian, Muslim, or Pakistani-American constituents seriously in the future because they won’t affect election results.

And how could one not equate voting for Trump over Biden with leaving the knee of white supremacy on the necks of our next generation? Trump’s Muslim ban was swift after he took office in 2017 — knee-capping the analogy that barking dogs in politics seldom bite. The Muslim ban was challenged in courts — and eventually watered down — but continued to present hardships to many Muslims returning to their homes, workplaces, or educational institutions in America from overseas.

What if, after his re-election, Trump revisits another Muslim ban or some similar discriminatory policy? Who would stand up to his discriminatory policies in the legal system if — now with the demise of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — he manages to place on a delicately balanced US Supreme Court a conservative Justice who keeps offering the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt on policy challenges?

It’s about Donald

The election is a referendum on Donald Trump and his regressive policies that have harmed America's social fabric and emboldened right-wing nationalists like Modi around the world. It is not about Senator Kamala Harris — and anyone making it about her Indian heritage could well risk the political equivalence of cutting off their nose to spite their face. By focusing on a person’s origin instead of their deeds or values, we risk the same error we accuse the likes of Modi making — letting prejudice cloud our judgment.