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The Arbiters of Race

By Stacy Fitzgerald

Who gets to decide Kamala Harris’s Race?

Following what many characterized as an impressive debate performance last week, Sen. Kamala Harris came under attack this weekend on Twitter by critics who refute her claim of being a Black American.

Harris, who was born in Oakland, CA to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, is no doubt a natural born American citizen, but critics argued, she is not black. If this line of attack seems familiar, it is.

It’s like the “birther” claims leveled at President Barack Obama before and after becoming a U.S. president. In each case, the attacks are wrong and rooted in racist ideology that shouldn’t be tolerated in America.

Seeking to Divide and Delegitimize

We’ve seen this kind of attack on bi-racial and multiracial candidates before. Often, they’re a deliberate, thinly disguised attempt from White Evangelicals on the right to delegitimize and divide. Obama wasn’t black because he was born to a white mother (despite having a Black father).

This weekend, the attack was amplified by Donald Trump, Jr., who retweeted and then deleted a tweet attempting to stir this pot.

Harris isn’t Black (or American), because she was born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father (although, again, she was born in the United States – a natural citizen). But when it comes to race and ethnicity, who gets to be the ultimate arbiter?

What Makes One Black?

America historically has defined any person with any known Black African ancestry as Black. In fact, in the Jim Crow South it became known as the “one-drop” rule, meaning that a single drop of “black blood” make’s a person Black.

By virtue of the fact that her father is a Jamaican of African Ancestry, Harris meets the standard definition of Black in America. Moreover, Harris herself identifies as a Black American, not as an Indian American nor as a Jamaican American.

Generally, being a person of part African descent born in America makes you a Black American. Except, of course when there is a reason for the opposition to dispute your race, like a hotly contested political campaign. In that case, it’s almost obligatory for the right to question the “legitimacy” of the Black candidate for any reason, be it race, nationality or citizenship or even religion.

If you can’t attack a Black person’s qualification, the next best option is to attack their heritage, as was done with Obama.

An All Too Familiar Tactic Met with Sharp Push Back

White Americans can’t have it both ways.

If their historical definition of Black, means a person who has any African ancestry, then Kamala Harris meets that threshold. You can’t then subsequently argue that she isn’t Black or “black enough” because she has an Indian mother and a Jamaican father --especially when that Jamaican father is of African ancestry. Having lighter skin does not negate her African lineage either.

How is it that Harris can have African ancestry, self-identify as Black and yet still have her racial identity questioned

Such attacks on Harris' race are another way that predominantly white, right wing operatives particularly seek to divide and delegitimize qualified candidates of color, pointing to their biracial or multiracial background or “otherness” as a sign of their supposed inferiority.

Thankfully, Democratic politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Harris called out last week on his anti-busing stance decades ago, rallied to Harris’s defense, sharply criticizing the birther claims for what they are: racist attempts to smear Harris and her racial identity.

It’s predictable that these attacks will continue. Let’s just hope that we also see a continued groundswell of opposition against the racism that fuels them in the first place.

Stacy Fitzgerald

Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.

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