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Kamala Harris' VP Bid Sparks Debate About Racial Identity09:41
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Sen. Kamala Harris. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Sen. Kamala Harris. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Sen. Kamala Harris is the third woman and first Black and South Asian woman to be nominated for vice president on a major party ticket.

Joe Biden’s announcement of her candidacy has sparked debates about her dual racial identities, complicated by the social and once legal principle in this country, the one-drop rule, that asserts any person with even one Black ancestor is considered Black.

Although Harris identifies herself as a Black and Indian, it's clear from political commentators to posts on social media that her identities are hitting a chord with people, and exposing the limits of how we understand and imagine race in the U.S.

Scholars, including Crystal Marie Fleming, professor of sociology and Africana studies at State University of New York Stony Brook and author of "How to Be Less Stupid About Race,” have argued that in the U.S., the Black-white binary has stifled our understanding of race.

“Human diversity is incredibly complex,” she says.

When Americans view Harris physically, “it's not always apparent to people that she is also of Asian heritage,” Fleming says. “So race has a lot to do with how people view you, how they categorize you.”

Harris’ racial identity is mixed — she’s South Asain and Black, but of Caribbean origin, which means her ancestry has no direct connection to U.S. slavery.

“There are ways in which people's appearance and the ideas and misconceptions that we have about ancestry contribute to debate or disagreement over what exactly she represents and who she represents,” Fleming says.

Interview Highlights

On the Black and white race binary in the U.S.

“… The Black-white binary creates a lot of misconceptions, misunderstandings, but also the idea of race itself is inherently problematic, nonsensical because it's a made up idea that was basically and is still part of racism and a system of power.”

On the one-drop rule, which essentially erased other ancestries during slavery as a way of asserting white supremacy. Although there are no laws in place regarding the one-drop rule today, the idea still exists socially

“Well, the one-drop rule is also known as the rule of hypodescent. .. [It’s] this idea that — already even saying it sounds like nonsense — one drop of Black blood … means you're Black. One of the most important things to understand about this one-drop rule is that the United States is an outlier with regard to the ways in which we think about being of recent African descent. In the Caribbean and basically everywhere besides the United States, so throughout Latin America, throughout much of the world, there's a lot more recognition of intermediate categories between Black and white and of different kinds of mixtures, different kinds of terms and categories that are used to refer to people beyond the Black and white binary.

“But yes, in the United States, being viewed as phenotypically Black — so your appearance connoting because of your skin tone or your hair features — that you are African American or of recent African ancestry, no matter what else you are, that has been part of our system of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. But white supremacy manifests differently in different societies. But that has been and still is a core part of our system.”

On what’s driving the emotional reaction to the questioning of Harris' identity, specifically from Black and South Asian people

“I think there are many things. I think there's a real desire among many people to feel represented and to feel represented at the seat of power. And I think certainly people who are South Asian want that aspect of her identity to be recognized. Although I have read, you know, some South Asian writers and observers point out that there's a lot of anti-Blackness within Asian communities, including South Asian communities, and so there's some irony in these desires to recognize that aspect of her identity. But I do think that that is also genuine among many people, that they want their identities to be represented.

“But I think also there is emotion on the part of some Black people and African Americans, these categories overlap and diverge in different ways, but sort of about what it means to be Black in 2020 given everything that we're going through with the recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests. And I will speak for myself in saying that I have noticed that in these recent years, to the extent that there has been a Black person on a national ticket, whether it's Barack Obama or now Kamala Harris, I think it is interesting that it has had — maybe had to be someone — who was mixed in terms of their ethnic identities and biracial. And I think it's questionable whether even in 2020 or four years from now or eight years from now, would it be possible for a Black person to be on the national ticket in this country without also having a biracial identity? I don't know.

“But I think we're also getting to a point in our society where there's more and more recognition of the multiplicity of identities and communities that we have. So Naomi Osaka is someone who has risen to prominence in recent years. And this is a Black and Asian woman. And I think we have to acknowledge that there are far more interconnections between our communities than we typically recognize, although traditionally our racial and ethnic discourse has been so simplistic and so reduced to the Black-white binary.”

On whether she sees a deeper evolution happening in regards to understanding multi-racial identities and Blackness in the U.S.

“I think it's very complicated. The complicated thing is that sometimes there is an emphasis on mixture for people who identify as biracial or multiracial that is problematic, frankly, because it also relies on the notion that there are mixed people and then there are people who are not mixed as though, you know, mono-racial identity or mono-ethnic heritage actually exists.

“So when I talk about human diversity, I'm not just talking about people who identify as biracial or multiracial or who have parents who have different identities. We go back far enough, we see that our ancestries are intertwined. And so it's very important to, when I talk about racial stupidity in my book and in my work, it's really important to kind of problematize these conceptions of race and ethnicity that perpetuate the myth that there's racial purity among some people and racial mixture, among others — it's not true. And the idea of racial purity is also part of the system and ideology of racism.”

On Trump’s false birther conspiracy against Harris, which he also used against Barack Obama

“Well, it's really clear that Donald Trump embraces a form of white nationalism. And unfortunately, white nationalism, with regards to citizenship and political participation, this has been a core value of the United States for centuries. And so Trump is not an outlier with regards to our history of racism and immigration and citizenship. So what's really going on when people who are racialized as nonwhite or a person of color or Black and they're questioned about whether they belong here, whether they can vote here, whether they were really born here — this is about a white nationalist entitlement to this country, to this land, to this political system.

“This country's very first immigration law around naturalization was the Naturalization Act of 1790 — and it was an explicitly racist law. It basically said that if you wanted to naturalize in this country, become a naturalized citizen, you had to be a free white person. And so whiteness has been defined in our laws and in our policies as the gateway to citizenship, the gateway to voting, the gateway to political participation since the beginning of our country.

“So when Trump or any other politician engages in that kind of white nationalist attack on Black people and people of color, they are invoking this aspect of our history, which has been core to our politics for so long and is really only in very recent decades being challenged and being mobilized against through anti-racism and through a civil rights movement. I mean, of course, civil rights movements have been going on also for centuries. But it's really only the last few decades and since the mid-20th century that we have a wide scale sort of distancing officially in this country from white nationalism, even though in practice and in ideology, we see the persistence of white nationalist ideals.”


Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 14, 2020.

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