Dass, the owner of Lavanya, an Indian apparel store on 74th Street for almost a quarter century, described the Clintons as having a close relationship with the Indian-American community, owing in part to what he said was Bill Clinton’s support of India when he was president.
Now that a woman with Indian roots, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is running in the 2020 presidential race, Dass, a Democrat, will have some decisions to make.
Harris, who kicked off her campaign in her hometown of Oakland in late January, was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.
Community leaders say many Indian Americans and South Asians remain unaware of Harris’ Indian heritage, even with a Sanskrit first name like Kamala, which means “lotus,” and with frequent coverage of her in Indian ethnic media.
“They think of her as black,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corp. in Jackson Heights, an organization that advocates for the housing needs of New York City’s South Asian community.
In interviews with Indian-American immigrant shop owners and clerks along 74th Street, a busy thoroughfare dotted with jewelry and Indian apparel stores that Hillary Clinton visited before the 2016 New York presidential primary, many who spoke to NBC News said they didn’t follow politics or knew little or nothing about Harris.
If elected, Harris, 54, would make history in several categories: she would be the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Asian American and the first Indian American to serve as president.
In interviews with NBC News after Harris announced her bid, Indian Americans generally said they were excited to see a woman of Indian descent run for president, even as parts of the community were unaware that her late mother was an immigrant from India.
In her recently released biography, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris writes about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, leaving India at the age of 19 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, and about her parents meeting and falling in love there while taking part in the civil rights movement.
“My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots,” Harris writes.
M.R. Rangaswami, an Indian-American community leader in San Francisco, said he attended Harris’ presidential campaign kickoff in Oakland and noted that Harris brought up her Jamaican father and Indian mother at the beginning of her speech.
Still, for Indian Americans, a group for which Democratic party identification is strongest among Asian Americans, Harris appears to lack the same name recognition as some 2016 presidential contenders.
Compared to 2020 presidential candidates who have announced their runs and were included in the survey, Harris’ favorability (52 percent) among Asian Indians fared better than Booker’s (42 percent) but fell short of Warren’s (56 percent).
Part of the unfamiliarity with Harris in Queens might be because she’s from California, whereas Hillary Clinton was the first lady and a senator from New York with a strong presence in the city, Ramakrishnan said.
As the election cycle progresses, Seecharran said she believes the South Asian community will generally back Harris once they learn her heritage, adding that people tend to vote along ethnic lines.
When Harris was running for the California Senate seat, Rangaswami said he and other Indian Americans briefed her on the community’s views toward immigration, education and relations with India.
Done Katch’ng up but want to read more? Read more here.