When Joe Biden announced that he had chosen Kamala Harris as his running mate, she became the first black woman and first Asian to ever appear on the Presidential ticket. In many ways, the Harris pick was the most obvious choice for Biden. Called the “female Obama” by some and “the best looking Attorney General in the country” by Barack Obama, the California Senator is famous for her base-friendly questioning of Trump administration officials.
Harris is perfectly positioned to help excite Democrats behind a candidate that some see as more representative of the party’s past. It’s perhaps unsurprising that it took Republican commentators less than 24 hours to take aim at her record as a prosecutor and legislator. While of course, political attacks on a person’s record are fair game during a political campaign, what has most surprised me is the quickness of some commentators to criticize Harris on the way she presents her heritage.
The California Senator, daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother, would represent a historic first for two different communities, both of which have embraced her as one of their own.
Yet, conservative commentator Mark Levin felt the need to open his show by opining that Harris isn’t really African-American. “The Volokh Conspiracy,” a blog hosted on “Reason,” also decided to weigh in on the question of Harris’ ethnicity. And Dinesh D’Souza decided that because Harris’ great-grandfather was a Northern Irish plantation owner by the name of
While these attacks are an attempt to tamp down enthusiasm for the first black woman on a Presidential ticket, they aren’t likely to succeed. They demonstrate widespread ignorance about black history and the black community among conservatives, and will – if anything – merely serve to galvanize black support for Harris. Descent from a slave owner is nothing remarkable for a black person. From Sally Hemings to Frederick Douglass, this partial European parentage has never been sufficient for those seeking to deny freedom and liberty to others based on their heritage. It is a sick joke to claim that the Harris’ aren’t black simply because they, unlike most, actually know which slave owner they are descended from.
It is a sick joke to claim that the Harris’ aren’t black simply because they, unlike most, actually know which slave owner they are descended from.
The claim that Jamaicans aren’t black is also ridiculous on its own. When Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice became the first black man and woman to serve as Secretaries of State, no one popped up to claim that they were Jamaican, and thus not African-American. Jamaicans have always been considered a part of the black community, and more specifically, the African Diaspora.
The man who is in many ways considered the founding father of black Nationalism, Marcus Garvey, was Jamaican, along with figures like Louis Farrakhan, Bob Marley, Biggie Smalls, Mike Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Patrick Ewing, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Susan Rice. Jamaican-Americans have become so closely affiliated with overall black American culture that people can go years without realizing that their black coworker or friend is also Jamaican.
So what will happen when Harris is subject to these kinds of attacks from conservative commentators? If we rewind to 2008, it’s easy to see. Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan student and a white woman from Kansas, was also attacked by conservatives as inauthentically black. President Trump himself suggested that Obama was not authentically American, and might have been born in Kenya. These tactics did very little to dissuade black Americans from enthusiastically supporting Obama. Even today, I walk by homes in my neighborhood where the Obamas appear in the window, their presence a source of pride.
Conservatives are fond of claiming to care more about the content of a politician’s character than they are the color of their skin. They decry affirmative action programs and identity politics. Yet, if this is true, why obsess over the details of Senator Harris’ racial makeup? It is this selective interest in race, to use as a cudgel in political warfare, not as another culture about which they might learn, that produces 80 point margins for Democratic candidates in the black community. As things stand, many conservative and moderate black Americans are unwilling to vote for party candidates that consistently treat them with such contempt and offer ineffective and misleading history from people like D’Souza as truth.
Dan Pearson is a South Philadelphia based urban policy enthusiast, political activist, and dad. @DanPearson266
Correction: an initial version of this piece stated that the Volokh Conspiracy was authored by the writers at Reason, not hosted on Reason.