Right-wing pundits and bots alike have been focusing their efforts on discrediting Senator Kamala Harris’s lived experience as a Black woman, after she made waves during the second Democratic primary debate night on June 27. “As the only Black person on stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said, following a moment when moderators asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the race relations problems in his police department in South Bend, Indiana. She then focused her message on former Vice President Joe Biden, confronting him about the ways the anti-discrimination policy he’d lobbied against had personally affected her.
Shortly after, Donald Trump, Jr. retweeted a racist message that attempted to discredit Harris, and her identity as a Black American. Ali Alexander, a member of the alt-right, claimed that “Kamala Harris is implying she is descended from American Black Slaves.” He also claimed that because her parents are Jamaican and Indian, she can’t represent the African American experience. “She’s not. She comes from Jamaican Slave Owners. That’s fine. She’s not an American Black. Period.”
The Senator was born in Oakland, California, in 1964; she has always been a Black American woman. As the Washington Post pointed out in February of this year, Harris’s autobiography The Truths We Hold details the ways in which her mother, Shyamala Gopalin, “understood very well that 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, proud black women.”
Trump later deleted the tweet and his spokesperson, Andy Surabian, told the New York Times he did so because Twitter users didn’t understand Trump’s message.
“Don’s tweet was simply him asking if it was true that Kamala Harris was half-Indian because it’s not something he had ever heard before,” Surabian said, “and once he saw that folks were misconstruing the intent of his tweet, he quickly deleted it.”
Caroline Orr, a behavioral scientist who studies the spread of misinformation, noted that a number of Twitter accounts questioning Harris’s identity — including the one Don Jr. retweeted — could have been sent from bots.
“What a weird coincidence that a group of accounts, starting with Ali, decided to tweet the exact same thing (verbatim) about Kamala Harris within minutes of each other tonight,” she tweeted. According to Newsweek, Alexander later claimed the analysis “makes no sense.”
But nothing on the Internet dies quickly. Before Trump deleted his message, plenty of folks had grabbed screenshots and Harris’s Democratic rivals came to her defense saying that this is the same racist rhetoric of birtherism now-President Donald Trump and other conservatives used against President Barack Obama. The conspiracy theory — that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. (he was), which would have disqualified him from legally becoming president — is overtly racist and xenophobic. No one has accused white candidates of being born outside of the country, and even after Obama released his birth certificate, Trump continued peddling the lie. Eventually, he falsely claimed Hillary Clinton was behind the conspiracy.
While Harris hasn’t yet commented on Don, Jr.’s tweet, she did tell the Breakfast Club in February that attacks against her identity and her parents are “the same thing they did to Barack.”
“This is not new to us — we know what they’re trying to do,” Harris said. “They’re trying to do what has been happening the last two years, which is powerful voices trying to sow hate and division among us. We need to recognize when we’re being played.”
Unlike Harris, most of her Democratic rivals have tweeted about the racist attacks made against the candidate. Here’s how they responded.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
“The same forces of hatred rooted in ‘birtherism’ that questioned Barack Obama’s American citizenship, and even his racial identity, are now being used against Senator Kamala Harris,” Biden tweeted. “It’s disgusting and we have to call it out when we see it. Racism has no place in America.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker
Booker might have had the most to the point response.
“.@KamalaHarris doesn’t have shit to prove,” he tweeted, quoting a tweet from the New York Times linking to the story about Don Jr.’s retweet.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee
“The coordinated smear campaign on Senator @KamalaHarris is racist and vile,” Inslee tweeted. “The Trump family is peddling birtherism again and it’s incumbent on all of us to speak out against it.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
“This is racism,” Gillibrand tweeted, quoting a tweet by Rachel Maddow that linked to a Daily Beast story about Don Jr.’s tweet. “It was wrong before, and it’s wrong now. We won’t allow it again.”
Ohio Representative Tim Ryan
“The attack on @KamalaHarris is racist and we can't allow it to go unchecked,” Ryan tweeted. “We have a responsibility to call out this birtherism and the continued spread of misinformation.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg
“The presidential competitive field is stronger because Kamala Harris has been powerfully voicing her Black American experience,” Buttigieg tweeted, quoting a tweet from the New York Times linking to the story about Don Jr.’s retweet. “Her first-generation story embodies the American dream. It’s long past time to end these racist, birther-style attacks.”
Former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke
“There's a long history of black Americans being told they don't belong — and millions are kept down and shut out to this day,” O’Rourke tweeted, quoting a tweet by BuzzFeed News Communications Director Matt Mittenthal linking to the story about Don Jr.’s retweet. “@KamalaHarris is an American. Period. And all of us must call out attempts to question her identity for what they are: racist.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar
“These troll-fueled racist attacks on Senator @KamalaHarris are unacceptable,” Klobuchar tweeted. “We are better than this (Russia is not) and stand united against this type of vile behavior.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren
“The attacks against @KamalaHarris are racist and ugly,” Warren tweeted. “We all have an obligation to speak out and say so. And it’s within the power and obligation of tech companies to stop these vile lies dead in their tracks.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
“Donald Trump Jr. is a racist too,” Sanders tweeted, quoting a tweet from the New York Times linking to the story about Don Jr.’s retweet. “Shocker.”