Yes, Kamala Harris is Black. And African-American. And Indian-American. Die Mad About It.
Kamala Harris is currently serving as the junior senator from the state of California. On August 11th, she became the first Black and first South Asian person (of any gender) to be selected as the Vice Presidential candidate. A few things:
- While the terms “Black” and “African-American” cannot always be used interchangeably, using either of those terms in reference to Black people who were born in the United States is usually correct. Pretending that California-born Kamala Harris is “Black” but somehow not “African-American” is ridiculous on its face.
- And speaking of the term “African-American”…the “American” part actually matters. When I (or any other Black person) identify as “African-American,” I am telling you two things about myself. I am telling you that (1) I trace my ancestry back to the people of sub-Saharan Africa and (2) that I am an American citizen.
- Slavery wasn’t just a thing in America. In fact, the majority of Africans who were enslaved and trafficked out of Africa, never made it to the mainland of North America.
According to historian Henry Louis Gates, only about 400,000 Africans were transported to the North American mainland. And the majority of enslaved Africans, regardless of where they actually ended up doing forced labor, passed through Caribbean islands like Jamaica while the ships carrying them picked up and dropped off supplies. Donald Harris, Senator Harris’s father, is a descendant of the many Africans dropped off in Jamaica.
- Because Jamaica served as a stop on the Columbian Exchange (aka the Middle Passage or the Triangle Trade), black people are not indigenous to the island. The people who were inhabiting the island at the time of the arrival of European explorers were the Taino people.
- Most members of the African Diaspora can trace descent back to white slave holders. Because of the systemic sexual exploitation and rape of enslaved black women, most black people have detectable European ancestry, hence Donald Harris’ (unverifiable but likely true) claim of descent from slave owners. This long running history of “race mixing”in “The New World” resulted in a large population of mixed-race people.
- When Kamala Harris identifies as a Black woman she isn’t being deceptive about her ancestry. Under the laws and social customs colloquially known as the “one-drop rule,” anyone with any percentage of black ancestry was considered black, regardless of their physical appearance. This practice was adopted during the early days of slavery as the United States was looking to enlarge its pool of cheap labor while avoiding trafficking people directly from Africa; broadening the definition of who was “Black,” that is, those legally eligible for slavery, helped slave holders increase the number of slaves within the system.
- When the prevailing racial hierarchy, a hierarchy that privileged white people, began to solidify, white supremacists introduced ideas promoting racial purity of white people into the public discourse. This narrowing definition of whiteness prevented many mixed-race people from identifying as white. In twenty-first century America, bi- or multiracial black people can now choose their identities. Some, like Barack Obama, choose to identify solely as black. Others, like Meghan Markle, call themselves biracial. Others, like Senator Harris, place equal emphasis on both racial identities. None of these choices are “wrong.”
- The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, established birthright citizenship for anyone “born or naturalized in the United States.” Anyone who was born in Oakland, California is an American citizen, regardless of the citizenship status of their parents.
Why am I telling you these things — things that you most likely already knew? Since Kamala Harris ran for US Senate in 2016, denizens of social media’s darker corners have engaged in a whispering campaign regarding Senator Harris’ race and nationality. People identifying as “ADOS” (American Descendants of Slaves), Trump supporters, and leftists are all using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to promulgate suspicion about Harris’ eligibility for the second highest office in the land and her willingness to promote causes like racial justice.
Some of these people are cynically exploiting the class, gender, color, and generational divides within the Black community, hoping to peel off a few black voters from the Democratic base in the run-up to the 2020 election. Others are doing this naively because, living relatively privileged existences under a white supremacist society, they never had to understand the complex nuances of racial identity.
But it doesn’t matter. Kamala Harris is Black and Indian. Or African-American. Or just plain black. And she will become the first woman to serve as Vice President of the United States no matter what she calls herself.