“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”—Amanda Gorman, Junior Poet Laureate
As these words were spoken on January 20, 2021, we could hear the shattering of so many glass ceilings: Kamala Devi Harris, the first woman of mixed descent, the first African American, the first Indian-American was sworn into the highest office in the land—Vice president of the United States!
Our own California Senator, who embodies the entire spectrum of AAUW ideals from gender equity to women’s empowerment, had been picked to partner with Joe Biden, our 46th President as the 49th Vice-President.
I am truly amazed at how Kamala’s upbringing and her parents’ involvement in civil rights demonstrations in the late 1960s shaped her into the person she became. As they say, geography often shapes your destiny. Kamala Harris would join her parents in her stroller as a toddler shouting “Fweedom.” These experiences strengthened her interest in issues of justice, equality, and civil rights. They have shaped the woman we see today—not through proxy power but earned on her own based on merit, service, and hard work.
A family pushing against biases—A South Asian woman and a black man
Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, another norm-breaking woman, had arrived in the U.S. from India in 1958. She was a 19-year-old graduate student in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. Gopalan received her PhD in 1964. She was a biologist whose work on the progesterone receptor gene stimulated work in breast cancer research. She conducted research in UC Berkeley’s Department of Zoology and Cancer Research Lab. She worked as a breast cancer researcher at University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin. She worked for 16 years at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research and McGill University Faculty of Medicine. She served as a peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health and as a site visit team member for the Federal Advisory Committee. She also served on the President’s Special Commission on Breast Cancer. She mentored dozens of students in her lab. For her last decade of research, Shyamala worked in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She passed away on Feb 11, 2009.
As a woman of South Asian descent, Shyamala broke many barriers when she married Donald Harris. She chose who she was going to marry instead having an arranged marriage within her upper-caste Brahmin background, and she married a black man.
Kamala’s father, Donald J. Harris, is a Stanford University professor emeritus of economics, who arrived in the U.S. from British Jamaica in 1961 for graduate study at UC Berkeley. He received a PhD in economics in 1966. He met his former wife, Shyamalan Gopalan, through the civil rights movement. Harris was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1966 to 1967 and at Northwestern University from 1967 to 1968. He moved to the University of Wisconsin, Madison as an associate professor in 1968. In 1972, he joined the faculty of Stanford University as a professor of economics. He directed the Consortium Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies in 1986-1987, and he was a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil in 1990 and 1991, and in Mexico in 1992. In 1998, he retired from Stanford, becoming a professor emeritus. On a personal note, he was an advisor to my son-in-law during his term at Stanford in the 1990s.
Influence of desegregation and culture on Kamala
Along with her younger sister, Maya, Harris lived in Berkeley, California. She lived briefly on Milvia Street, in central Berkeley, and then in a duplex on Bancroft Way in West Berkeley; it was an area often called “the flatlands,” with a significant Black population. When Harris began kindergarten, she was bused as part of Berkeley’s comprehensive desegregation program to Thousand Oaks Elementary School, a public school in a more prosperous neighborhood in northern Berkeley. Thousand Oaks had previously been 95 percent white, and after the desegregation plan went into effect became 40 percent Black. This was her famous line “and that little girl was me” directed towards Joe Biden in one of their debates (since he had opposed bussing).
A neighbor, Mrs. Sheldon, regularly took the Harris girls to an African American church in Oakland where they sang in the children’s choir. Kamala Harris used Mrs. Sheldon’s bible and the bible used by Justice Thurgood Marshall to take her oath of office.
Kamala and Maya’s mother introduced them to Hindu mythology and took them to a nearby Hindu temple. As children, Kamala and her sister visited their mother’s family in Madras (now Chennai) several times. She says she has been strongly influenced by her maternal grandfather P. V. Gopalan, a retired Indian civil servant whose progressive views on democracy and women’s rights impressed her. Harris has remained in touch with her Indian aunts and an uncle throughout her adult life. Harris has also visited her father’s family in Jamaica. You will all remember her famous line thanking her “chittis” (aunts) in her acceptance speech. This gave rise to a groundswell group called Kamala’s chitti gang, comprised of local south Asian women, who did a lot of fundraising for her.
Kamala’s parents divorced when she was seven. She has said that when she and her sister visited their father in Palo Alto on weekends, other children in the neighborhood were not allowed to play with them because they were black. When she was twelve, Harris and her sister moved with their mother to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where Shyamala had accepted a research and teaching position at the McGill University-affiliated Jewish General Hospital. Harris attended a French-speaking primary school, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, and then graduated from Westmount High School in Quebec in 1981.
Breaking norms as a legislator and prosecutor
After high school, Harris attended Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, she interned as a mail room clerk for California senator Alan Cranston, chaired the economics society, led the debate team, and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Harris graduated from Howard in 1986 with a degree in political science and economics, then returned to California to attend law school at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Since law school, Harris has been breaking norms with some bold legislative and prosecutorial moves.
In 1994, California Assembly speaker Willie Brown appointed her to the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and later to the California Medical Assistance Commission. In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco. In 2008, Harris issued citations against six parents whose children missed at least fifty days of school, the first time San Francisco prosecuted adults for student truancy. February 2012, Harris announced an agreement with Apple, Amazon, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion to mandate that apps sold in their stores display prominent privacy policies informing users of what private information they were sharing and with whom.
In 2016, Harris announced wide-sweeping arrests of more than fifty members of the Mexican Mafia, a.k.a. La Eme, seizing more than sixty firearms, more than $95,000 in cash, and $1.6 million worth of methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana in Riverside County.
The First Gentleman Douglas Emhoff is the husband of Kamala Harris. He was born to Jewish parents, Michael and Barbara Emhoff in Brooklyn, New York. He lived in New Jersey from 1969 to 1981, moving with his family to California when he was 17. Emhoff graduated from the California State University, Northridge, and USC Gould School of Law. Emhoff is an entertainment litigator and began his career at Pillsbury Winthrop’s litigation group. Cole and Emma Emhoff are Kamala’s step kids. Kamala Harris loves to cook Sunday dinner and her step kids lovingly call her “Momala.”
A new beginning
In the span of two weeks, we saw both the ugly face of democracy in the insurrection at the Capitol and the beautiful promise of a new beginning with the inauguration of Joe Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice-president of The (not so) United States of America. We hope to see unity, truth, and a system of meritocracy and justice take their rightful place in our society.
Books by Kamala Harris: Smart on Crime, 2009; The Truths We Hold and Superheroes Are Everywhere, Oct 2019
Article prepared by Asha Bajaj, Public Policy Chair