Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his prospective Vice President has Republicans all in a tizzy because they clearly fear that she will be a very effective running mate. Harris checks so many diversity boxes—female, African American, South Asian, Jamaican, child of immigrants and more—that Republicans are right to be scared of how successfully she is likely to appeal to multiple demographic groups who will identify with her personal story. And this is not even to mention that she is whip-smart, an experienced campaigner, and a skilled former prosecutor who will clearly and effectively lay out the case against four more years of Whiney Donny and Sycophanty Mikey.
So naturally, Republicans are questioning both the legitimacy of Harris’ claim to be African American, and even whether she is a “natural-born citizen” (or even a citizen at all!) who is eligible to be Vice President. Because after all … what else they got besides racism?
So let’s set the record straight.
Is Kamala Harris African American?
In immediate response to the announcement of her selection as Biden’s running mate, the right-wing blogosphere went crazy with suggestions that Harris is somehow falsely assuming the identity of African American because her Black father was born in Jamaica, not in the United States.
Nowhere has it been decreed to my knowledge that to be African American you must be a direct descendant of persons held in chattel slavery in the United States. (Okay, there is an American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement that advocates for a narrower, lineage-based identity based on the experience of having descended from Africans who were enslaved in the United States, but Harris has never claimed to be ADOS.) You may recall that Barack Obama, too, was sometimes criticized (by both Blacks and whites) for not being “black enough.” But let’s get real. We still operate under the “one-drop rule” in the United States. Harris is at least partially descended on her father’s side from people who originated in Africa, and she is an American. If she herself has decided that this makes her an African American, then that’s the end of the story.
Interestingly, Harris wrote in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, that her Indian mother (who basically raised Kamala and her sister alone after her parents divorced when Kamala was eight years old) “understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”
For this reason, her mother made a point of embedding herself and her daughters in the Black community in the East Bay area of California where they lived in the 1960s and early 1970s, including participating in civil rights marches, attending a Black Baptist church in Oakland, and being active members in local community organizations in the predominantly Black neighborhood where they lived. When it came time to choose a college, Harris decided to attend Howard University, the famous historically Black university in Washington, D.C. So to the extent that being African American is also a cultural identity, there is no doubt that this is where Harris has always lived. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”
What if Harris is a Descendant of Slave Owners?
Critics have also sought to undercut Harris’ African American bona fides by claiming that she is a descendent of “Jamaican slave owners.” Specifically, the infamous Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-born, far-right political provocateur, said on Fox News on August 11, 2020 that “Kamala Harris seems to be descended less from the legacy of, let’s say, Frederick Douglass, than she is from the legacy of the plantation itself.”
Seriously? Let’s take a closer look.
In 2018, Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote an article in 2018 for Jamaica Global (a website for the global Jamaican diaspora) in which he disclosed that he was descended from a prominent slave owner in Jamaica. Though it has not been definitively confirmed, there is indeed evidence to suggest that Kamala Harris had an Irish great-great-great-great-great grandfather named Hamilton Brown who owned slaves in Jamaica. Harris’ father wrote about his roots going back, in his lifetime, to his paternal grandmother, Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown) and his maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan).
It is bitterly ironic that anyone could believe that this somehow “discredits” Harris’ claim to self-identify as African American. (Whose permission does she need, anyway?) I’m not sure what the Irishman Hamilton Brown looked like, but I’m guessing his complexion was somewhat fairer than those of Harris’ two great-grandmothers on her father’s side, who both appear to be of mixed African and European ancestry. Did Republicans miss the memo about white slave owners routinely fathering mixed race children through coerced sex with enslaved African women? Have they not heard of Sally Hemings?
This ridiculous argument doesn’t deserve another second’s attention.
Birtherism Again? Really?
As an immigration lawyer whose day job is spent interpreting, arguing and applying U.S. immigration and nationality laws, the “birtherism” argument waged against Barack Obama (largely by none other than Donald Trump) would get me especially incensed. Well, birtherism is raising its ugly head again, this time wielded against Kamala Harris.
In an opinion piece published in Newsweek on August 12, 2020, John C. Eastman, a California law professor who really should know better, raised the question of whether Kamala Harris is a “natural born citizen” (a requirement for holding the position of either President or Vice President) since her parents were both immigrants, and it was unclear whether they had naturalized as U.S. citizens before she was born. For the record: their immigration status at the time she was born on U.S. soil is irrelevant, unless they were diplomats who were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. government. (Spoiler alert: they were not diplomats. Her mother was a cancer researcher and her father is an economist.)
Newsweek subsequently published an “Editor’s Note” in response to readers having complained about this apparent attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory, writing, “Dr. Eastman was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya.” No, of course it doesn’t.
In any case, the damage was done. In fact, a few days earlier, a Facebook post along the same lines had already gone viral.
Facebook did not take the false claim down, but it did add links to a number of fact-checking articles to clarify that there is no truth to the claim that the fact of having foreign-born parents disqualifies Harris from serving as Vice President or President (since the VP’s first job is to be ready to serve as President if the President dies or is incapacitated).
To be clear: the United States recognizes two forms of birthright citizenship: jus soli (Latin for “right of the land”), meaning citizenship by right conferred on anyone born on U.S. soil, and jus sanguinis (“right of the blood”), or citizenship by descent, i.e., by virtue of the U.S. citizenship of one’s mother or father, regardless of one’s place of birth. Even if Harris’ parents were not yet naturalized citizens at the time of her birth, she was born on U.S. soil—in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964—and was thus a U.S. citizen at birth.
Barack Obama, of course, was relentlessly attacked by the right wing on “birtherism” grounds, even though he, too, was born in the United States and was therefore a U.S. citizen at birth, end of story. (See the Fourteenth Amendment.) The idea was to suggest that our first Black president was somehow an “illegitimate” president—and these similar attacks against Harris reveal a similar discomfort (no, a better word is rage) among some white people at the fact that a person who is not white can ascend to the highest office in the land. It’s despicable and it’s racist.
On a final note, I’ll just mention that the closer call when Obama was running against John McCain in 2008 was always McCain himself, who due to an odd gap in the law was actually not a U.S. citizen at birth, but acquired U.S. citizenship retroactively thanks to Congressional action granting citizenship to certain children born of U.S. citizen parents in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone before it was an official U.S. territory. I actually think this was part of the genesis of the birther movement against Obama: it was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from McCain’s potential ineligibility for the presidency by pointing to the Black guy with the Muslim middle name and the Kenyan father.