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As Kamala Harris shatters barriers, why we still hear little about her Jamaican-American father

In a country where the family lives of prominent politicians are dissected, the vice president’s relationship with Donald Harris, 82, remains something of a missing link in her biography

With COVID-19 precautions in place, the live audience for this week’s U.S. presidential inauguration was a pared-down version of the usual crowd.

But amidst the ex-presidents, judges, family members and other VIPs on the podium in Washington, there was at least one notable absence.

Nowhere to be seen was Kamala Harris’s sole surviving parent, father Donald, as Harris shattered centuries-old racial and gender barriers to become America’s vice president.

The immigrant success story of her endocrinologist mother from India, with its unique Canadian chapter, is now well known to anyone who follows American politics.

But the new vice president rarely says much about Donald Harris, equally successful as a Stanford University economist, who divorced Harris’s mother when the daughter was just seven.

He has lamented that biased California courts gave full custody of his daughters to their mother; another family member has said “he was not around after the divorce.”

Berkeley was a hotbed of radicalism at the time, and they got to know each other at events promoting African-American civil rights.

The couple married in 1963, with Kamala born in 1964 and her sister Maya two years later.

Within eight years they were divorced and living in different cities, the girls staying with their mother.

Donald Harris’ grandmother Iris, pictured with Kamala. Photo by Jamaica Global

The original relationship between father and daughter “came to an abrupt halt in 1972,” Harris wrote in a 2019 article about the family’s Jamaican heritage.

“After a hard-fought custody battle in the family court of Oakland, California,” he said, the judge imposed a settlement based on “the false assumption that fathers cannot handle parenting.”

Nevertheless, he said, “I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children or reneging on my responsibilities as their father.”

But with her comment to the New Yorker about Donald’s absences after the divorce, Kamala Harris’s niece Meena hinted at more complexities. And Shyamala’s brother, Gopalan Balachandran, told the Times that his sister was so angry after the split she refused even to talk to Donald.

Regardless, the vice president’s family narrative usually diverts at this point into a tale of how a single mother raised two daughters while pursuing an academic career as a breast cancer researcher, which included a stint at McGIll University when Kamala was in high school. The vice president also has a Canadian aunt and uncle, Chinni and Shankar Subash.

When the father’s name has arisen recently, controversy often ensued.

Asked during a 2019 radio interview whether she favoured legalizing marijuana, Kamala Harris laughingly replied: ““Half my family’s from Jamaica—are you kidding me?”

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Her father was not amused, writing in a newspaper for the Jamaican diaspora his parents would be spinning in their graves to see their proud heritage “being connected, in any way, jokingly or not, with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker, and in the pursuit of identity politics.”

“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Kamala told a New Yorker journalist about the rebuke. She went on to “glumly” say she was happy to talk about her father. “ ‘But, ya know,’ ” the magazine quoted Harris as adding. “She raised her eyebrows, and said nothing.”

Meanwhile, in that article about the family’s Jamaican history, the elder Harris mentioned in passing that one of their ancestors was white slave owner Hamilton Brown. The comment was seized on by conservative publications in the U.S., who accused the politician of hypocrisy on race relations. Fact-checking organization Snopes said it could find no evidence backing up the father’s contention, but noted that even if true, it meant that another of their maternal ancestors was a slave likely coerced into sexual relations with a white man.

As for Donald Harris himself, Fazzari said he was “very engaging” as a teacher.

Despite an analytical, almost mathematical approach to economics, “he had a kind of informality you associate with Jamaican culture,” said the economist. “I remember him being a friendly mentor without being your buddy-buddy …You weren’t going to go out and spend all night at the bar with him.”

A “Post-Keynesian” theorist, Harris was a leading figure in the small group of economists who posited alternative visions to neo-classical mainstream thinking about markets, and focused on the importance of income distribution long before income inequality became a widespread concern, said Fazzari.

A 1976 article in the Stanford Daily student paper described him as a “Marxist scholar,” and said detractors felt he was “too charismatic, a pied piper leading students astray from neo-classical economics.”

But if he and Kamala are, as it seems, somewhat estranged, the full reasons are hazy. In a country where the family lives of prominent politicians are dissected in minute detail, the vice president’s relationship with Donald Harris, 82, remains something of a missing link in her biography.

Kamala Harris, flanked by her husband Doug Emhoff, is sworn in as the 49th US Vice President by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

“It seems pretty clear that he wants to stay out of the limelight,” says Steven Fazzari, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a doctoral student of Harris’s in the 1980s. “It’s a bit unusual, but it could be what he wants, and she’s respecting itHe’s the academic’s academic. He’s very thoughtful, very deep in his thinking. Rather abstract and theoretical.”

Kamala Harris put it more bluntly in a 2003 interview, one of the few times she’s talked about the man publicly. “My father is a good guy,” she told SF Weekly, “but we are not close.”

Neither Donald Harris, now a retired professor emeritus, nor the White House responded to requests for comment.

In one of his own rare pronouncements since his daughter entered presidential politics, he seemed to confirm Fazzari’s suspicions. “The celebrity-seeking business is not my thing, and I have tried hard to keep out of it,” Harris told the New York Times.

As the vice president has often related, her father was an international student from Jamaica when he met Shyamala Gopalan, a science student from India, at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in 1962.

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