Posted on February 20, 2019

Why Some African Americans Are Questioning Kamala Harris’s Blackness

Eugene Scott, Washington Post, February 14, 2019

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is running to become the first black female president. But in the early days of the campaign, she’s had to answer questions about the “legitimacy” of her “blackness.”

Online, stories have circulated suggesting that Harris is not African American because her parents are immigrants and she spent some of her childhood in Canada. During an appearance on “The Breakfast Club” radio show Monday, hosts DJ Envy and Charlamagne Tha God asked Harris about that.

Harris pushed back. “I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black,” she said. “I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”


“I think they don’t understand who black people are,” Harris said. “I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are. Because right now, frankly, I’m focused on, for example, an initiative that I have that is called the LIFT Act that is about lifting folks out of poverty.”

Harris has had some different life experiences than many black Americans. Her father is a Jamaican immigrant; her mother is a Tamil Indian immigrant. Her husband is a white man from New York. While she was born in Oakland — a city with a rich history of African American activism — Harris spent her early childhood in Berkeley, Calif., and worshiped at a Hindu temple in addition to attending black Baptist services. She attended high school in Montreal before returning to the United States for college at Howard University, a historically black college.

These differences may help explain why some voters want to know more about her background. Some want to know that she understands some of the issues affecting black Americans since the emancipation of slaves. {snip}

“This whole argument that we’re saying she’s not black is really ridiculous,” Yvette Carnell, co-founder of the American Descendants of Slavery movement, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re saying there is a difference in the justice demands for people who are descendants of slaves in this country and those who were enslaved in Jamaica.”


“Kamala Harris doesn’t have that in her lineage. She’s anchored in two affluent, immigrant parents. It’s really simple. So since Kamala Harris doesn’t have this experience in her background, or a track record that expresses this understanding, and she announced during MLK Week, at Howard University, of course she’s going to get pressed HARD on the specificity of her ADOS [American Descendants of Slavery] Agenda.”


Days after Harris launched her campaign, Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, tweeted a thread on why some voters are asking questions about Harris’s black experience.


President Barack Obama — the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father who came to the United States for college — faced similar questions when he entered the presidential race in 2008. {snip}


And at the end of 2007, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was viewed more favorably than Obama by African American voters. Politico published a survey showing that Clinton was rated favorably by 83 percent of respondents while Obama was rated favorably by 74 percent of African American voters.


As of now, Harris’s approach has been to dismiss those asking questions and call them divisive.

“This is the same thing they did to Barack,” she said in her “Breakfast Club” interview. “This is not new to us, and so I think that we know what they are trying to do. They are trying to do what has been happening over the last two years, which is powerful voices trying to sow hate and division, and so we need to recognize when we’re being played.”

But that might not be enough. Many voters are still quite unfamiliar with Harris. They want to know if the former prosecutor’s politics on criminal justice and immigration align with one of the most influential voting blocs in the Democratic Party.