As Kamala Harris Makes History, Conservatives Try To Pick Apart Her Identity Kamala Harris is the first Black woman and the first South Asian to be chosen as a vice presidential candidate by a major party. Many conservative commentators are picking apart her identity.

As Harris Launches Candidacy, Conservatives Take Aim At Her Black And Indian Heritage

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/902277417/902277418" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the first Black and Asian American woman on a presidential ticket, Kamala Harris is making history, something presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden noted yesterday when he introduced her as his running mate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: And this morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today - today - just maybe they're seeing themselves for the first time in a new way.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Folkenflik reports on how the media covered this election.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Harris brings a lot of firsts. She's the first Black woman nominated on a national ticket from a major party, she's the first Asian American, and she's the daughter of immigrants. The New York Times and USA Today gave the news full historic treatment, dominating the front pages of each with striking photos that could be in movie ads. Here's MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski. She's a strong critic of President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: (Laughter) So this is just a great Joe Biden trait. He's not afraid of having a strong woman by his side.

FOLKENFLIK: In the conservative media, however, Harris' identity was often wielded against her. On Fox News, longtime Republican operative Ari Fleischer suggested Black Americans simply didn't embrace Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARI FLEISCHER: She's just not that historically exciting to African Americans. She certainly wasn't during the primary. And that was one of the biggest reasons Biden picked her. He needs that boost in African American turnout in order to win. I don't see it.

FOLKENFLIK: That argument was fleshed out more by Mark Levin, a conservative legal pundit, speaking here hours after the pick was named.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK LEVIN: Kamala Harris is not an African American. She is Indian and Jamaican. Jamaica's part of the Caribbean; India is out there near China.

FOLKENFLIK: Out there near China as a description of India is its own special brand of geographic dismissiveness, yet Kamala Harris - the daughter of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica - was born in Oakland, Calif. She grew up in Berkeley before moving to Montreal. Though herself Asian, her mother brought Harris up with a strong sense of Black identity. Harris went to a leading historically Black college, Howard University, even pledged AKA, a premier Black sorority.

Now, back to Mark Levin, who has a weekly show on Fox News, though this is from the opening to his show on the conservative outlet TheBlaze, focusing like a laser beam on Harris' identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEVIN: Her ancestry does not go back to American slavery. To the best of my knowledge, her history doesn't go back to slavery at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Cornell University historian Margaret Washington has spent her career studying the American South and slavery. She says Levin seems to be intentionally missing the point.

MARGARET WASHINGTON: The Americas represent two hemispheres, and Jamaica was a slave society. And so why is she any less African American than I am? We are all Americans, and those of us who have African heritage are African Americans.

FOLKENFLIK: Washington argues Levin and others are cynically seeking to deploy Harris' multifaceted identity against her.

WASHINGTON: I think it's a way of characterizing people who are biracial as not really being Black. That's what they did with Obama. I think that's what they're attempting with Kamala Harris.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, Harris herself was born in Oakland. Right on schedule, Newsweek just published a column by a conservative law professor arguing that Harris isn't eligible to run for vice president because her parents were immigrants. It's a revival of the playbook deployed by large segments of the conservative media that indulged racist claims against America's first Black president.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.