I am not a fan of identity politics, the slots that a candidate checks off in terms of delineated demographic characteristics. For me its the policies that are of paramount importance. That does not mean that I am not pleased and supportive when someone whose group identity has never been represented in high office breaks through that perceived barrier and achieves it. But identity should only play a significant role if all other things are roughly equal.
But it seems that identity politics matters to many people, especially the political consultant class, and Kamal Harris’s selection by Joe Biden seems to be very beneficial to the Democratic ticket and a source of concern to Trump’s campaign. This is because she is someone whom many diverse subgroups can identify with.
The biggest demographic that she hits, of course, is that of women. It is absurd to talk about a segment that makes up the majority of the population as a demographic group but that is because sixty years after women started becoming heads of state in other parts of the world and that has happened so routinely that it is not even notable anymore. There have been female heads of state in countries hat have majorities in all the major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The US is an outlier in not having had a woman in either of the two top positions of government. It boggles the mind that only three women before Harris were even in the running of the two major parties. The US is way, way behind the rest of the world when it comes to gender equality, or even significant representation, in government, so I can see Harris having great appeal to women and men who think that achieving such equality is a good thing.
Another group is of course the African American community. This is a group that the Trump campaign has been assiduously courting at least in terms of its rhetoric although its policies have harmed them greatly. That they view her appeal to that demographic with concern can be seen by surrogates suggesting that she is ‘not really black’ because her parents were both immigrants, her mother from India and her father from Jamaica. But that will not gain traction because the black community has clearly embraced her as one of their own and the reasons are not hard to discern. Unlike people like Tiger Woods who distanced themselves from their black connections, Harris has embraced her black identity from long ago, attending Howard University, the leading historically black college, and while there joining Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest sorority for black women that was founded in 1908 at Howard.
While her status as the child of immigrants resonates with the immigrant community in general, there are more specific appeals. Harris’s Jamaican roots strongly overlap with the significant numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean that are concentrated in key states like Florida, as can be seen from the response as soon as her name was announced.
Calls from Caribbean radio show hosts flooded the Biden campaign from South Florida. And a jolt of excitement shot through the crowd of early vote poll workers at the Lauderdhill Mall, in the midst of Broward County’s growing Jamaican community.
That feeling stretches beyond the Jamaican-American community and the more traditional African American community, shared by those in South Florida with roots in Haiti, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana. They comprise a growing and varied Black West Indian diaspora community, a little-discussed but increasingly influential slice of the electorate of the nation’s biggest swing state.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, census estimates and political studies peg the diverse Black community — nicknamed the Caribbean Massive by some — at more than 2.5 million, including hundreds of thousands of Florida voters. That’s crucial in a battleground state where elections are often decided by less than a percentage point.
The West Indian influence in Broward County is so strong that the International Cricket Council sanctioned a new Fort Lauderdale stadium. The project manager is Chandradath Singh, a Broward resident who was Trinidad and Tobago’s consul in Miami before serving as the nation’s ambassador to India and China.
Singh estimated Florida has more than 2 million people with roots in the English-speaking West Indies. And Harris’ Indian ancestry on her mother’s side gives her added salience in the Caribbean: Many Indians were brought to the West Indies as indentured servants after slavery ended.
Her Indian roots overlap with the large South Asian community in the US. The more financially successful members of that community have tended to align themselves with Republicans and Trump, as could be seen in the rallies held by them for Trump during the 2016 election. This is because they have greatly benefited from the tax policies favoring the rich that Republicans have pushed trough, and also because they tend to be socially conservative. But despite this, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the Indian American vote by 70% and in 2018 young people in that community in particular were galvanized to vote against Trump.
Within the immigrant community, there is likely to be a generational divide, with the older parents more likely to stick with Trump while their children support Biden-Harris.
“There is a very tight connection between Haitian Americans in South Florida and Jamaican Americans in South Florida,” said Hans Mardy, a Haitian-American Republican activist from Miami. “We are one when it comes to our struggle. We fought the same war. We have the same Bible. What is good for one immigrant, is good for us all.”
Mardy, like many Haitian-Americans, said he’s struggling to support Trump after he called the island a “shithole.” Democrats are determined not to let the community forget about it or Trump’s hardline immigration policies that have particular salience in South Florida. Mardy said his three adult daughters are all excited about voting for Biden with Harris on the ticket.
This is why I think that the Trump campaign has a very difficult path to tread. Attacking Harris as ‘not really black’ or as ‘not really American’ and even resurrecting the birther lie risks seriously infuriating all these communities and having them rally to the Democratic ticket even more.