Here we go again. Birtherism is back.
Just as the original birthers rose up in 2008 to raise what turned out to be bogus questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, new birthers appeared online after presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ impressive Democratic debate performance Thursday to question whether she’s really black.
Joining them, at least briefly, was Donald Trump Jr.
The president’s eldest son retweeted, then deleted, a black right-wing activist’s tweet during the Democratic debate that falsely claimed Sen. Harris was not black enough to be discussing the plight of black Americans.
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“Kamala Harris is implying she is descended from American Black Slaves,” said the tweet posted by Ali Alexander, a rising figure in a hive of right-wing media personalities. “She’s not. She comes from Jamaican Slave Owners. That’s fine. She’s not an American Black. Period.”
President Trump’s former campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson also chimed in, claiming Harris was not African enough to run as a minority presidential candidate. “While Obama is actually African American — Harris is not,” she tweeted, even though people of African descent have predominated Jamaica for centuries. “Who is best to speak for the AA (African American) Community?”
Who, I wonder, appointed Pierson and Alexander — who also has gone by the names Ali Akbar and Ali Abdul Razaq Akbar, according to various reports — to be chief of the race police? Harris, a first-term senator and former prosecutor from California who was born in Oakland, is the biracial daughter of a Jamaican father and a Tamil Indian mother. Except for her high school years in Montreal, she has been a Californian.
But the resurrection of the “Who’s black enough?” or “Who’s too black?” question for the first time since Obama’s election tells us less about the candidates than it does about the rest of us Americans. We’re a diverse mulligan stew of a society that still is coming to grips with our turbulent racial history and new questions — and anxieties for some — about our national identity.
We’ve seen similarly groundless origin questions raised about Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican born in Canada; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat born in American Samoa; and even the late Sen. John McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, as soon as each of them ran for president.
But, as an old saying goes, all is fair in love, war and presidential campaigns. Social media researcher Caroline Orr found that Harris’ presence in the debate led to a surge in tweets that challenged how black or American she was. Some were posted by accounts that Buzzfeed identified as bots. Harris can draw some modest satisfaction from this ironic sign of her success. She is smeared online because she matters.
Frankly, I don’t claim to speak for all African Americans, but in my experience, blackness and other similar identity issues are determined by two factors: how we see ourselves and what others see when they see us.
Harris’ debate argument was extraordinarily effective partly because of her recounting that as a child she was categorized by how others saw her and her sister.
“Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents (said she) couldn’t play with us because she — because we were black,” she said.
Personal experience was similarly central to her criticism of Joe Biden, who served as vice president to the nation’s first black president but has drawn criticism from some of his rivals for opposing federally forced busing for school integration — and for expressing a willingness to work with other lawmakers who hold views with which he disagrees, including a couple of prominent segregationist senators.
Citing her personal experience, Harris found Biden’s busing opposition and cooperation with segregationists to be “hurtful,” she said. She recalled, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Although some have criticized her of playing the race card to win her argument — and spark an overnight surge in her poll ratings and campaign donations — her story worked. It got her point across because she and her sister were being judged, as Martin Luther King Jr., famously said, by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.
Amid bots and tweets, voters decide for themselves whether race matters in their vote. With that in mind, as Harris said in a March radio interview, we the voters “need to recognize when we’re being played.”