“Kamala Auntie”: On the Vulgarity of Bourgeois Identity Politics in 2020

Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris for his running mate kicked off a flurry of think pieces in the media. Some of these opinions have attacked the anti-Black and casteist attitudes still prevalent among South Asians in the subcontinent and in the global diaspora.

The former prosecutor and attorney general-turned-2020 Democratic vice-presidential nominee has been propped up in much the same way as other people of color who have run for elected office. Black radicals have compared Harris’ rise to Barack Obama’s. As the first Black U.S. president, Obama regularly shamed poor and working-class African/Black people in the United States, invaded and destroyed the most prosperous African country of Libya, and bailed out Wall Street using $700 billion of public money while presiding over the steepest fall in U.S. Black household wealth. And that list makes up the beginning of the devastation Obama caused.

One thing that distinguishes Harris from Obama is while her father is an African from Jamaica, her mother is South Asian. After Biden’s announcement, the reaction among South Asians straddled the continuum. While some South Asians were overjoyed at being “represented,” others denounced her lack of action on immigrant issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Meanwhile, others outright disapproved of her because of her African ancestry and raised questions about her mother’s caste. Now, we can unpack why anti-Blackness exists in South Asian communities, but that would be a diversion. In this article, I examine why South Asians’ newfound love for Harris really isn’t a surprise. To do that, we must delve into the heart of the contradiction that lies in Harris’ so-called leadership.

As African revolutionary Ahjamu Umi recently wrote, it is understandable that people who feel alone or who are neglected or shunned in a society would feel a sense of pride when someone who looks like them appears to have “made it.” It is important to be sensitive to that phenomenon, lest we alienate people we might want to bring closer to us. Surely, South Asians, while the most financially successful ethnic group in the United States, still must deal with the racial profiling that began after the September 11 attacks for anyone who “looked Muslim” and the impact of British colonization all these decades later. However, Umi points out it is our duty to correctly determine inside of which system people are trying to “make it.” Indeed, we must name our enemies. And our primary enemy here is capitalism, not anti-Blackness.

Suraj Yengde, a Dalit post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, has done groundbreaking work on the impact of caste in India. Yengde has noted Dalits who live in slums face constant violence in the form of police brutality, gang crimes and a humiliating poverty many U.S. residents simply cannot imagine. However, what Yengde also points out is some Dalits who have attained a middle-class lifestyle have turned their backs on their people. What then determines the brutality Dalits and otherwise humiliated people face? It is class.

To further understand why class is the primary contradiction in the rise of Harris, we can look to the writings of Ajamu Baraka, who co-founded the U.S. Human Rights Network and is the national organizer at the Black Alliance for Peace. Baraka has theorized class equally weights race, gender, ability and other identity markers. The reason for this lies in the objective reality of capitalism, which forces oppression onto people. This reality is more brutal for people who had already been oppressed in class societies because of their gender or other identity markers. As long as capitalism remains the primary way human labor is organized, class will remain the primary oppressive factor.

The rulers understand class matters. That is exactly why Harris’ identity as a woman of color has been propped up to cover for her decades-long loyalty to the ruling class, locking up working-class and poor people and deporting migrants.

For the most part, it appears South Asians who have knowingly or unknowingly aligned with the neoliberal elites because of their own class interests or class ignorance have embraced Harris as “Kamala Auntie.” Auntie is normally added to the names of older South Asian women as a sign of respect. But a person who has dedicated her adulthood to locking up and deporting people is not worthy of the title. Herein lies bourgeois identity politics, a vulgar departure from the original identity politics created by radical African women in the 1970s.

So it’s clear a woman of color serving as vice president would not make the bombs being dropped over innocent people around the world any less painful. Neither would her ascendancy to the White House lessen the impact of structural violence in the United States. Until colonized peoples commit ourselves to a working-class internationalism that objectively assesses so-called leaders, our peoples will be duped again.

• First Published in Black Agenda Report

Julie Kuttappan is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist of South Asian descent. She has advised the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) since its founding, co-coordinates the BAP Supporter Network and is a tenant organizer. Read other articles by Julie.