State of America

Storm in a US teacup: Just how (African) American is Kamala Harris?

Storm in a US teacup: Just how (African) American is Kamala Harris?
Democrat Kamala Harris reacts shortly before getting up and walking out with two other Democratic Senators during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 28 September 2018 (reissued 21 January 2019). Kamala Harris has been selected by Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden as his VP pick. (EPA-EFE/Michael Reynolds)

The celebrations were hardly over when the ‘legitimacy’ of Kamala Harris being American enough to run for the land’s highest office was called into question. Another hot topic was whether she could be called African American.

South Africans will not be surprised to hear that the announcement of a biracial woman as running mate to the potential next president of the US was met with questions as to the exact nature of her racial identity and background. While the US media was focussed on Kamala Harris’s achievements, many ordinary Americans were either celebrating or questioning her racial and cultural heritage.

Kamala Devi Harris may just have become the most famous “blindian” in history after being named as the vice presidential running mate to Joe Biden on 11 August 2020. Yes, that is a word – blindian. Like blasian. Black plus Indian equals blindian. Black plus Asian equals blasian. If you don’t have an urban dictionary handy, google #blindian and you will find a plethora of tweets, (most recently about Harris), referencing people of black and Indian descent.

Harris was born on 24 October 1964 in Oakland, California, to immigrant parents who had come to America to further their respective educations. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, was born in India. She died of colon cancer in 2008. Harris’s father, Donald Harris, is from Jamaica – the 81-year-old is an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University. Harris also has a younger sister, Maya, who ran her presidential campaign. In an article, Marie Claire magazine called Maya Harris “Kamala’s ‘Bobby Kennedy’”.

The fact that Harris’ parents were not born in the US has recently been used to suggest that she is not eligible to run for America’s highest office. Political pundits are calling these comments reminiscent of claims that former President Barack Obama was also ineligible to be at the helm of the country as he was allegedly not born in the US. This saw the rise in 2008 of a movement or ideology called birtherism, which successfully propogated the idea that Obama was born in Kenya, to the extent that to this day, many Republicans still believe the former president was not born in the US.

An op-ed in Newsweek last week, questioning Harris’s citizenship, was swiftly followed by an apology. According to an editor: “The op-ed was never intended to spark or to take part in the racist lie of birtherism, the conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimising Barack Obama, but we should have recognised the potential, even probability that that could happen.” The op-ed by law Professor John Eastman suggested that Harris, because her parents were immigrants, did not qualify as a “natural born” citizen.

Unsurprisingly, the day after publication of the op-ed, US President Donald Trump called Eastman “a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer”.

Constitutional scholars and experts, however, lambasted Newsweek and Eastman as irresponsible, racist and wrong. Which led Trump to say during a media briefing on Saturday, 15 August: “I have nothing to do with that. I read something about it.” When pushed, he told a reporter: “Don’t tell me what I know,” and would not expressly state or confirm that Harris is eligible.

According to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States (Section 1):

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State where they reside…”

Harris left California for Washington to study political science and economics at Howard University, America’s most famous historically black university. She says she understood her mother’s insistence that she needed to better understand the realities of being a black woman, having grown up in middle-class white California. With a BA degree under her belt, she went back to California, earning a law degree from Hastings College and went to work as a prosecutor in San Francisco. In 2004, she became District Attorney in San Francisco, leading the department she had joined a decade earlier. In 2011, she became California’s Attorney General.

Harris is not afraid of hard work and does not lack ambition – she was elected to the senate in 2016 and competed for a nomination as president in the Democratic primary field in 2019. She dropped out of the presidential race in early December 2019 when she ran out of funds to support her campaign.

Earlier, at a Democratic presidential primary debate in June 2019, without being called on – in other words, the nasty woman was speaking out of turn – Harris said: “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.” She then went on to berate Biden for comments he had made suggesting questionable attitudes about race.

Some Americans have argued that Harris is not black, or at least, not African American as she is not descended from African American slaves and therefore cannot claim to be African American. This argument demonstrates the complex relationship the US has with race and its history of slavery. There is traditionally not much space for biracialism in the American race tapestry, rooted as it is in the (in)famous “one-drop rule”. The one-drop rule or principle of hypodescent basically means if you look slightly black/African, then you are black. Hypodescent means you are “assigned” to the “subordinate” race group from which you are descended.

The one-drop rule dates back to the 1660s and only fell away in 1967, when it was ruled unconstitutional. A recent Harvard study shows the lasting effects of the one-drop rule on American society, like for example, in 1985 a Louisiana Court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as white on her passport.

Also in 2011, Halle Berry famously cited the one-drop rule when she defined her daughter as black during a custody battle with the child’s white father.

Indians (from Asia) account for around 5,000,000 of a total of 350,000,000 Americans, making Harris a double minority. Indians also do not have the best track record with race and racism as famous author Arundhati Roy attests: “Look at the Indian obsession with fair skin. It is one of the most sickening things about us… I’ve seen it happen on the streets with black friends. And sometimes, it comes from people whose skin colour is really no different!”

Shyamala Gopalan Harris was clearly well aware of the many shades of racism that stalked the world and wanted to ground her daughters in their “blackness” as that would be how a hypodescent-minded world in general, and America in particular, would view them.

Given all of the above, it is probably safe to say that Kamala Harris is “as American as apple pie” or, “blackity-black” black. DM


An Wentzel is Daily Maverick Night Editor and specialist reporter, she is currently marooned in the US due to Covid-19.


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