Why Representation Isn’t Everything: Kamala Harris

 /  Feb. 19, 2021, 5:23 p.m.

Kamala Harris as Attorney General in 2011.

In the United States, Sikhs are not well known. Sikhism is an Indian religion centered in the Punjab region of northern India. Sikhism has 25 million followers worldwide and roughly 700,000 followers residing in the United States.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sikhs in America have been the victims of hate crimes because they are often mistaken for Muslims. Sikhs traditionally do not shave their heads or cut their beards because they view hair as a gift from God and a source of pride. Sikh men also traditionally wear turbans, leading many Westerners to mistake them for Muslim men.

Kamala Harris, the first South Asian vice president in American history, has played her own role in discrimination against Sikh people in the United States. Harris’ record as the Attorney General of California from 2011 to 2017 has already come under scrutiny concerning her anti-Black actions. However, few articles discuss Harris’ role in a case discriminating against a Sikh man. While Harris embraced her Indian identity on the campaign trail, her actions in this case make clear the limits of minority representation in government.

The Case

Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a Sikh man, moved to the United States from India in 2001. He previously served in the Indian Navy—Sikhs have a long history of military service in India. In 2005, Oberoi applied for a job as a prison guard in California.

Oberoi cleared all necessary tests for becoming a correctional officer, but the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied him the position because he refused to shave his beard for religious reasons. Since 2004, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) maintained a policy for corrections officers “that gas masks must fit tightly to protect correctional officers from tear gas and pepper spray sometimes used to quell inmate uprisings.” In 2008, Oberoi won an appeal in California’s State Personnel Board, which determined that the CDCR “discriminated against [the] Complainant on the basis of his religion.”

Oberoi continued litigation against the state. Soon after, Harris’ role in the case began. In one of the first cases of her tenure as Attorney General, Harris represented the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and argued in 2011 that Oberoi should not be employed unless he first shaved his beard. Some argue that Harris was simply doing her job to represent the state. However, according to Rajdeep Singh Jolly, a Sikh lawyer and activist, in her position, “Harris had the authority to drop the case or promote changes to the policy.” 

Her arguments in court led to widespread outcry from civil rights organizations. In January 2011, thiry-four civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, wrote a letter to then Californian governor Jerry Brown lamenting the state’s efforts to undermine Oberoi’s rights. The rights groups considered Harris’ “adversarial posture in this case to be demeaning to religious minorities and utterly inconsistent with . . . [the Attorney General’s] obligation to defend civil rights for all Californians.”

Oberoi’s lawyer and the various civil rights organizations advocating for Oberoi demonstrated numerous inconsistencies within Harris’ anti-religious freedom argument. They argued that Sikhs have been able to wear gas masks in compliance with safety requirements in the US Army, as well as in armed forces worldwide. Furthermore, the letter pointed out that “beard exemptions were allowed for individuals with medical needs.”

The state ultimately reached a settlement with Oberoi after civil rights groups attracted increased scrutiny to the state. Oberoi won compensation for lost wages and discrimination, as well as a managerial position in the CDCR. The settlement did not change the rule about corrections officers being banned from having beards for religious reasons, however.

The Limits of Representation

Harmeet Dhillon, Oberoi’s lawyer, stated in an interview with the Daily Caller that “what I take away from that is [Harris] will only do the right thing when there is political scrutiny from her allies on it.” 

“All of the same facts were there throughout those four years,” she added in this interview. “The case law didn’t change, the facts didn’t change, only the political circumstances changed, and that’s what finally led to the case resolving and my client being hired by the CDCR.”

The Oberoi lawsuit demonstrates the limits of minority representation. Harris is quick to use her Indian identity as an opportunity for photo-ops and to gain political capital, but she fought against the religious rights of an Indian man until it was no longer politically expedient to continue. Similarly, as previously mentioned, many criticize Harris for embracing her Black identity on the campaign trail but failing to address her prosecutorial record and history of anti-Black policies. 

One of the most common arguments in favor of minority representation in politics is that political figures from a minority background would be more aware, sensitive, and empathetic to the issues that plague their ethnic or racial communities. Ethnic, racial, or religious minority politicians are seen as agents of change who will ensure that often overlooked issues will garner attention in Washington. Unfortunately, Harris, who does not represent her racial or ethnic communities on many crucial political issues, reduces the value of representation in politics.

To be clear, minority representation matters, even when it does not result in policy change. For example, minority representation in politics is important for deconstructing stereotypes about minority groups and inspiring young minorities to run for office. However, the example of Harris provides a clear lesson to voters and activists: minority representation is a means to an end, and we must remain vigilant that politicians stand up on substantive issues even as racial and ethnic diversity in government increases.

The image used in this article exists in the public domain. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Sukhm Kang


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