Since President Biden’s election last November, there has been widespread coverage of his Cabinet nominations and administrative appointees, which are considered to be the most diverse in history. This increase in representation began with his choice of a South Asian and Black Vice-President, Kamala Harris. He went on to appoint more South Asian Americans from all over the Indian subcontinent to high-level administrative positions in the Cabinet, press corps and National Security Council.
There are only four Indian Americans in Congress right now: Ami Bera (CA-7), Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-8), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7) and Ro Khanna (CA-17). They refer to themselves as the “Samosa Caucus” and are popular in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Biden nominated at least 20 South Asians for White House roles, increasing visibility for a demographic group that is often seen as apolitical. But this raises a question for South Asian Americans about whether an increase in visibility among top government positions is enough.
For some South Asians, seeing someone who looks like them in government or on the ballot is inspiring. Sri Mylavarapu ’22, a political science major whose parents moved to the US from Andhra Pradesh, India, expressed feelings of encouragement.
“It is incredible to see the amount of South Asians who are in Biden’s cabinet,” she said. “It is really encouraging, as someone who wants to enter politics in the future, that there is now a space being made for South Asians when historically, there hasn’t been.”
Political science Professor Maneesh Arora expressed a similar sentiment, noting that this increase in appointees will not only increase representation, but could also result in a recognition of the desires of the South Asian community.
“I think that bringing people into the administration, having Kamala Harris there as a conduit, these things can lead to an understanding of what the preferences and needs of the South Asian community are, whether it comes to domestic politics or foreign affairs or international relations,” Arora said.
Aizah Rao ’23, one of the co-presidents of Wellesley’s Pakistani Student Association, on the other hand, is concerned about the limitations of this representation. More specifically, many government appointees have come from a privileged background and may not have a first-hand understanding of the systemic issues that plague minorities today.
“On one hand, it is really great to see people like you who are being represented in the government, but at the same time … a lot of the representation we see includes people that came from relatively comfortable backgrounds,” Rao said. “I would like to see more people who did not come from that kind of background because they can understand more of the systemic issues than someone who may not have had to deal with them as much.”
Despite the progress that an increased representation demonstrates, many do not believe that it is enough by itself.
“In this day and age, people at the higher level might think it is enough to just have representation, but in order to truly be diverse, you … have to be willing to … meaningfully engage in issues in these said countries,” Mylavarapu said.
Beyond representation, many individuals expressed a desire for the administration to not only engage in meaningful dialogue with the South Asian community, but also to raise awareness of the issues in South Asian countries. Professor Arora, for example, emphasized that this open communication is vital to demonstrating care for the frequently overlooked South Asian community, especially considering the increased anti-South Asian American sentiment since the Sept. 11 attacks. 20 years later, South Asian Americans continue to fall victim to violent hate crimes, employment discrimination and racial profiling.
“A lot of South Asians, as other Asian Americans, are often not involved in politics because the political parties are not doing a good job of reaching out to those communities,” Arora said. “You’re also getting inadequate representation because our politicians and political parties don’t know what the needs of that community are.”
Like Arora, Mylavarapu emphasizes the importance of increasing awareness about issues surrounding the South Asian community.
“The average voter in the US could be a lot more informed of what’s happening in South Asia, and I think that as an administration it is always important to raise awareness about these issues and make voters aware of what is happening,” she said.
Arora outlined two unique forms of representation that voters in the US contend with: substantive and descriptive representation. He explained that substantive representation answers the question of whether the views of people elected to office match the views of constituents, whereas descriptive representation focuses on whether they physically look like their constituents.
Last year, he and a colleague conducted a survey of 1,000 Indian American voters and found some compelling patterns regarding the Indian American electorate’s views on representation.
“Indian Americans saw it as really important to have others who look like them running for and elected to office in a way that other groups sometimes don’t find quite as important,” he explained. “We found in our survey that having this kind of descriptive representation was mobilizing to South Asian voters.”
Mylavarapu also believes that representation would bolster voter turnout, expressing a belief that if South Asian voters see descriptive representation, they will be more inclined to cast their vote about important issues and show up to the polls.
In addition to greater voter participation, there may be a rise in South Asians running for elected office. The rise of an Indian American woman to the role of vice president has proven that there is a place for South Asians in the US government.
“Having more South Asian people coming into these positions … will open up the gate for more people to start running and gain popularity among their communities and help them go up the ladder and get into these positions where they can make a positive difference,” Rao said.
Arora also sees a bright future for South Asian political participation.
“I think that what we’re going to see … is the South Asian community becoming a greater force in American politics,” he said. “I think that starts … with representation at these higher ranks, including these really great work that Biden and Harris are doing of picking a lot of South Asians for their cabinet positions.”