As we approach inauguration day for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, it’s the perfect time to consider what this means for the Indian diaspora across the United States. A drive for achievement and success is a quintessential Indian-American trait, implanted in our brains by parents who preach the benefits of education and the rewards of academic success.
Many Indian Americans have made their mark after immigrating to this country. We have at least four Nobel Laureates. Several major corporations in the US, such as Google (Sundar Pichai), Microsoft (Satya Nadella), MasterCard (Ajaypal Singh Banga), IBM (Arvind Krishna), Palo Alto Networks (Nikesh Arora), Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) and Wayfair (Niraj Shah) have Indian American CEOs. Indira Nooyi was Pepsi Cola’s CEO from 2006-2018, and the first Indian American female CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Indian American journalists like Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta are household names across the globe. And we have novelists like Soman Chainani and Ethiopian-born Abraham Verghese, film and television stars like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj, and other artists of Indian-American heritage who have made a name for themselves on the U.S. landscape.
Indian-Americans have also had a huge impact in medicine in the US. It has been estimated that one in seven American physicians is of Indian descent. Numerous Indian American physicians are currently involved in the frontline battle against COVID-19. So it comes as no surprise that Joe Biden has appointed three of them to his COVID-19 task force, namely Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General under Obama who will chair it, and Dr. Atul Gawande and Dr. Celine Gounder who are on the team.
When I arrived in the U.S. in the early nineties, Indian-American voices seemed absent from political discourse, even as other immigrant communities were making gains.
Fast forward several election cycles: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is part Indian, the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, who arrived in the U.S. from Chennai, India, when she was 19 years old.
Over the years, we have seen a few Indian-American politicians on the national scene. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian-American, the first Indian-American,and the first member of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected to the United States Congress. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1957-1963. There is a current group in Congress – they call themselves “the Samosa Caucus” – that includes Premila Jayapal (Seattle), Raja Krishnamoorthy (Chicago), Ami Berra (Sacramento) and Ro Khanna (Silicon Valley).
But Kamala Harris’s rapid rise to senator and then vice president is a phenomenon in itself, and even though she is only half-Indian, like many fellow Indian-Americans of my generation, I choose to celebrate it. Since she was raised by her Indian mother, it’s reasonable to assume that some Indian values rubbed off on her and blended in a unique fashion with those she acquired from her African-American relatives.
So, why does it matter? Aren’t we all Americans, and isn’t race immaterial? I wish it were, but the reality is that it is not. Politicians, the media and even our own employers categorize us by age, gender and ethnicity; that’s the reality of American life. So if the headlines scream, “first Black, first Indian woman becomes vice president,” then I’m delighted to join the chorus of those who rejoice in this accomplishment as a step forward in our complex and fascinating national journey.
Krishna Sudhir is a cardiologist and he author of The Prince of Typgar Series, modern fantasy fiction for young adults inspired by traditional Indian mythology.