Harris and Racial Labels

There are different, and not equally good, reasons to talk about labels.

Any discussion of race and racial labels is fraught and complicated, as anyone paying attention knows. It also the kind of thing I tend to want to avoid, but this struck me from Glenn Reynolds:

I’m somewhere between amused and bemused that the progressives who insisted that Biden must pick a “woman of color” or “African American” woman are all like, “how dare you discuss what Sen. Harris’ race is, she’s just an American!” This is how American racial categories roll. The left wants everyone to be categorized by the government, but for the categories to never be discussed because they are so obviously arbitrary, counter-productive, absurd and ultimately indefensible.

This strikes me as disingenuous at best, since clearly a) most supporters are not saying “how dare you discuss what Sen. Harris’ race is” (indeed, quite the opposite), and b) opponents are not raising the issue so as to debate the racial categories the US government uses on forms.

Here’s the problem: there are two main ways that race and labels are discussed in American politics. One way is an attempt to find inclusive space for all Americans that acknowledges our differences and especially attempts to deal with long-existing disparities and injustices. This is why it matters that a female person of color is about to officially be on a major party ticket. It is also why it is necessary and important to want the government to keep track of things like race and ethnicity.

The other way to talk about race, and I put Reynolds’ amused-to-bemused observation into this category, is to downplay its significance so as to downplay the effect of past injustices or to pretend like the problems are all solved.

Along those lines you get nonsense like Mark Levin yesterday:

How does Levin think that persons of African descent came to Jamaica in the first place? (And, it should be noted, that Jamaica is in the Americas). But, of course, this isn’t about history nor geography or even about accurate semantics, it is just about using the politics of labels against Harris so as to allow racists in his audience some vague right to dismiss the significance both of the historic nature of the choice and of Harris’ own lived experiences.

Or, Dinesh D’Souza:

Again: this is about denigration and dismissiveness about the importance of race in American society and politics. It is, again, about given racists in the audience a method to attack and dismiss Harris’ race.

And let’s face facts: a very important reason why we continually have discussions about the right labels to attach to certain groups, especially Black Americans, is because labels have long been used against them.

Plessy v. Ferguson, a case about segregated rail cars focused on Homer Plessy as an “octoroon” (a person 1/8th black and 7/8th white) and therefore required very specific labeling and categorization. The Court affirmed the law’s legal labeling and that segregation was fine as long as it was “equal”. That ruling was the law of the land until 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education (and that ruling hardly fixed the issue).

Let’s not forget that Jim Crow was about labeling people and treating them differently based on labels. (As was a whole lot of de facto segregation).

We debate the usage of black, Black, person of color, Africa-American (not to mention colored, Negro, and other words I won’t share) because there has been an ongoing and relentless attempt to define white as normal and to define non-whiteness as a something different and inferior. Whites don’t have to worry about what the broader society labels them because the law never punished them for being white.* And, fundamentally, because they have not been labeled in anywhere near the same way. The only ones I can think of (cracker and honky) hardly have had the same kind of social and political significance that labels used against persons of color, specifically those of African descent.

Let me note, too, that the fact that Harris is Jamaican/East Asian by descent does not mean she was protected from racism or the effects of race throughout her life as a citizen growing up in the United States. Racists and other cultural and institutional forces linked to race do not check your lineage before determining how you will be viewed and treated (as many Sikhs will tell you, especially right after 9/11).

The essential bottom line is this: if someone wants to talk about labels and race do they do so to mock, denigrate, or downplay? Or do they do so out of an interest in furthering respect, equality, and justice?


*And no, affirmative action programs do not punish people for being white, lest someone want to go that route.

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FILED UNDER: Kamala Harris, Race and Politics, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    Indeed. I think back to how Barack Obama responded to questions over whether he was black enough:

    Obama’s blackness has come up plenty of times before. He’s often asked whether he’s “black enough” by the African American community and his stock response – the one he deftly delivered during the CNN-YouTube Democratic Presidential debate – has been to joke that folks never ask that question when he’s trying to catch a cab in New York.

    link

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  2. mattbernius says:

    Bravo on all counts.

    The modern understanding of Race is a constantly evolving/emerging social construction.* But that doesn’t make its impact and legacy any less real (despite all the calls to be “color blind”).

    On a related note, I have to wonder how all of these attacks on Harris’ race are ultimately going to have an unintended effect of actually helping her appear “more Black” to folks in the Democratic base who are currently on the fence about her.

    Also, beyond being an important representational pick, it’s noted that confrontational BIPoC women also tend to bring out the absolute worst in the current President. I wonder the degree that fit into the broader calculus as well.

    * – Before anyone questions the real-world validity of social constructs, let’s not forget that currency (even currency based on physical standards like gold) is also a social construct and no one questions it’s profound ability to structure most aspects of our lives.

    9
  3. mattbernius says:

    I know Fox is vile but Dinesh D’Souza questioning whether Kamala Harris can truly claim to be Black given that her Jamaican father could trace his ancestry to a prominent slaveowner is a whole new level.

    Also of note, there a Conservative Media Complex “mega brains” who are using the fact that Harris father claims desendence from a slaveowner as proof that either (a) she should be canceled or (b) that the left are hypocrites over wanting to remove memorials to the confederacy or folks related to the establishment of the North Atlantic Slave trade (like Columbus).

    Some days I can’t even.

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  4. KM says:

    I think we need to acknowledge there are two type of groups asking this question: those in the in-group trying to ascertain or enforce group purity and those in the out-group hypocritically using a label to attack. We all know who the out-group is; like in Obama’s example, they’re only asking if Harris is Black enough to rile up the in-group since she was certainly Black enough for them before. They don’t matter to this conversation since they are clearly concern trolling and trying to stir the pot.

    The in-group is a bit trickier. Not being AA myself, I can’t speak to the cultural understandings and complexities that come with that identity. I’ll never know what it’s like to have people accusing me of “acting White” because I was a high academic achiever or decided to take a career in law enforcement. I’ll never have people get mad because I might try to conform to White standards of beauty in order to get ahead or because my heritage, living situation and history wasn’t exactly what others wanted while still living that identity. I’ll never be accused of being a sellout to my race because I live in a nice house, have a high paying job or work in a stereotypical White job. I have friends and colleagues who have though and frankly, it looks like a bad time.

    There will always be people in the in-group who don’t think you’re one of them and will weaponize the concept to take you down (see Diamond and Silk’s latest). They’re not saying Harris isn’t Black – they are saying Harris isn’t the CORRECT kind of Black. She’s not like them or doesn’t meet their standards so she doesn’t count. It’s like how some gay men declare transpeople aren’t LBGT or an Evangelical who insists Catholics aren’t Christian – the in-group is for THEM and not “those people” they don’t like over there. While we need to acknowledge that the in-group has the right to declare who is and who isn’t among them, we also need to acknowledge that bigotry doesn’t stop just because someone like themselves is involved and the decision is a consensus. In this case, the subgroup that insists Harris isn’t a proper AA can scream all they want but the community at large has made their decision – she’s one of them.

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  5. mattbernius says:

    @KM:
    Great points… To build on an important one:

    There will always be people in the in-group who don’t think you’re one of them and will weaponize the concept to take you down (see Diamond and Silk’s latest). They’re not saying Harris isn’t Black – they are saying Harris isn’t the CORRECT kind of Black.

    It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of Black folks who would also make this same type of judgment against Diamond and Silk as well.

    This gets to your point that ultimately there is no specific gate-keeper (or group of gatekeepers) of who is/isn’t considered part of a given group. But there often is some form of social consensus (though like any other form of consensus, that can and will often shift over time–especially with edge cases).

    2
  6. Kurtz says:

    @mattbernius:

    Before anyone questions the real-world validity of social constructs, let’s not forget that currency (even currency based on physical standards like gold) is also a social construct and no one questions it’s profound ability to structure most aspects of our lives.

    Oh come on, Bernius. We all know Economics is like Physics.

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  7. Jax says:

    I got yelled at last night by some dude on Facebook for suggesting that a good portion of black Americans today can probably trace their lineage to many large plantation owners who enslaved and likely raped/fathered children with many of the women they owned. He honestly seemed to have no idea about Thomas Jefferson, for instance.

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  8. Kurtz says:

    I find it sad that D’Souza and Levin are taken seriously by people.

    I find it alarming that Glenn Reynolds is a law professor.

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  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The essential bottom line is this: if someone wants to talk about labels and race do they do so to mock, denigrate, or downplay? Or do they do so out of an interest in furthering respect, equality, and justice?

    That’s a lot of nuance to expect from the Stupid Party.
    Look…we are only seeing Birtherism V2 from the Republicans.
    This is nothing. It’s going to get far worse.

    I’m much more concerned about why Trump’s repeated pledge to eliminate Social Security is getting no attention. Instead we are discussing the non-issue of Harris’ race.

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  10. Teve says:

    This strikes me as disingenuous at best,

    Glenn Reynolds, disingenuous? Say it ain’t so!

    I stopped reading that hack two decades ago.

    3
  11. KM says:

    Side-note: proper etiquette has always been to use the favored term of address or identity if someone states preference. Back in the day, this appeared to people in terms of title; is a woman a Miss, Ms, Mrs or Ma’am? If someone tells you to call them by their first name, do you honor their wish to be informal or do you follow propriety and risk irritating them? Do you Sir a NCO (hint: don’t) because that’s just polite?

    In the modern era, this has come to include things like identity, pronouns, and in-group choice. You refer to people the way they want you to. If Kamala Harris identifies as something, that’s what we should be using as its her choice. Asking if she meets its qualifications is one thing but asking if she “deserves” that identity is quite another. Respectful questions, clarification inquires or thoughtful debates about the nature of a social construct are not what we are seeing. We are seeing rudeness and hate and shouldn’t give it any veneer of respectability by pretending they’re “just asking”.

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  12. Mikey says:

    @Jax: Show him this, if you think there might be some hope of enlightenment.

    You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument

    I have rape-colored skin.

    […]

    It is an extraordinary truth of my life that I am biologically more than half white, and yet I have no white people in my genealogy in living memory. No. Voluntary. Whiteness. I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    For my part I can’t believe we’re still talking about race. 55 years after I was moved from France and French schools and plunged into the Jim Crow era Florida panhandle to see ‘whites only’ signs, we’re still having to deal with this nonsense. Biologically ‘race’ is an absurdity. It only remains an issue because of the worst among us.

    My mother is Jewish, so therefore, according to ridiculous custom, so am I. Do I believe in the Jewish religion? No. Do I participate meaningfully in any aspect of Jewish culture? Beyond the occasional bagel? No. I’m a Jew only because of anti-Semites. If all the anti-Semites disappeared I’d never think of it again. Why would I? Seriously, why the fuck would I care that some distant ancestor once lived in Roman-occupied Judea? A more distant ancestor wandered the African savannah looking for carrion.

    I don’t like groups, I don’t do community, I’m me, just me, one guy with one DNA package, unique. What advantage is there to me in casting myself as part of a group? I understand that many people get off on that, but it holds no interest for me. Why would I ever wish to be defined by anything other than my own actions? By the content of my character, to ahem, coin a phrase. I’m not a ‘part’ of anything, I’m the total of me.

    I despise these arbitrary definitions. I’m this, you’re that, he’s something else. It might as well be astrological signs for all I give a shit. Are you interesting? Are you funny? Are you wise? Brave? Kind? Are you a prick? Are you cruel? Those things interest me. Those things are data, bits of meaningful reality. The amount of melanin in your skin is irrelevant, an absurd way to differentiate. It’s how an idiot would catalog people: that one’s dark, that one’s light, duuuh.

    We’ve let our world be defined by racists. The reaction to racism has been to defiantly embrace our racial, ethnic, religious backgrounds. I think that’s a mistake. I think we’d have done better to stick with the science which insists that at the level of DNA – the blueprint of homo sapiens – there is very little to no difference between one human and the next. Because that is the truth.

    We should have listened to MLK. Instead we’ve let the agenda be set by the KKK. We’ve adapted to their paradigm. As a result we’ve fractured into competing groups, and groups within groups, and our ideology is full of contradictions – race matters, no it doesn’t, except when it does, and it’s either super important and defining, or it’s something we should all just ignore. There’s no point denying that liberals/progressives are all over the map on race, we are, and we are because we let the assholes define the battlefield and we stopped insisting on the truth that each of us is unique, each with his or her very own, one-of-a-kind, never to be duplicated arrangement of guanine, cytosine, thymine and adenine.

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  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    We should have listened to MLK. Instead we’ve let the agenda be set by the KKK.

    Brilliant…well played.

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  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    Good post Dr. T.

    Do the R’s really believe that these racist and sexist attacks are going to be effective in dissuading moderate Rs and R leaning independents from voting for Biden/Harris? Seriously outside of the RW bubble these attacks are going to be seen as reprehensible as they are predictable.

    1
  16. @Kurtz:

    I find it alarming that Glenn Reynolds is a law professor.

    Maybe he isn’t–after all, the conservative entertainment complex continually tells us that universities are populated by commie socialists alone, so maybe he’s fronting.

    @Teve:

    Glenn Reynolds, disingenuous? Say it ain’t so!

    I stopped reading that hack two decades ago.

    I rarely go to his site–I followed a link from Memeorandum.

    1
  17. Kylopod says:

    Note that, while there are occasional people on the left who engage in the “not black enough” argument, most of this is coming from the right, and it’s almost entirely in bad faith. It’s like when Limbaugh called Obama a “Halfrican American” and even made the bizarre claim that he was not black but Arab. Part of this is an attempt to deflect charges of racism: the conservatives are saying in effect, how can I be racist if this politician isn’t black? Never mind that black people aren’t the only people who can be targets of racism–deflection isn’t about helping anyone make sense out of one’s point.

    You can see it especially in the way they’re reciting the same arguments now like they’re on autopilot from the rhetoric they used during the Obama years. Take Mark Levin’s perplexing remark that Harris isn’t the descendant of slaves. I suspect he isn’t just being ignorant or confused about the history of black people in Jamaica. It sounds almost like he just lifted an argument they used to make about Obama and mindlessly applied it to Harris without noticing that it didn’t quite fit.

    6
  18. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I’m trying to understand something you wrote. Can you unpack what you meant by:

    We should have listened to MLK.

    1
  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    I mean that we should have judged ourselves by, and defined ourselves by, the content of our individual character. We should not have allowed ourselves to be defined by group. We should not have embraced the racist paradigm, we should have stuck with science.

  20. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I appreciate the root of your sentiment, but I think you are really taking a single line from a speech MLK gave and missing how a LOT of his work explicitly says that while he hopes that future, the only way to get it is to address how race currently and profoundly structures the society as it exists today.

    MLK would be the last person to argue that race can simply be ignored and it will go away. It’s a super-narrow reading that kinda ignores everything else that MLK believed and advocated for.

    This is not unlike the common critique of Christians as only grabbing the versus from the bible that they like and ignoring all the rest of what Christ said.

    8
  21. mattbernius says:

    (apologies for following on, but I was too late to add this in an edit)
    @mattbernius:
    It’s also worth noting that *most* of the “I have a dream speech” was about the historic unequal treatment of races. See, eg:

    When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

    […]

    This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

    […]

    We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. **We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.”** We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

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  22. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Then there’s this…

    https://www.newsweek.com/some-questions-kamala-harris-about-eligibility-opinion-1524483

    Modified Birtherism is trying to float on the right, saying that she is not “natural born citizen” because of her parents being foreign born.

    She was born in Oakland CA, which makes her as American as me. (me, born in Detroit to parents that only had green cards).

    I guess when you got nothin’, you throw anything you can find.

    Sad silly racists.

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  23. @Michael Reynolds:

    We should not have allowed ourselves to be defined by group.

    “Should” is doing a lot of work here. Not only is human history replete with politics, society, and economic being defined by groups (this is very much an is statement, regardless of whether one wants it to be an ought statement of value).

    As such, the treatment of Blacks, as a group, has historical and political salience that cannot be ignored or wished away.

    Further, within the context of an election, groups have to decide which choice better addresses their needs.

    How could it be otherwise?

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  24. And we are born into social contexts that we did not create.

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  25. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Yeah, the Eugene Volokh preemptively destroyed the is Harris a natural born citizen argueemnt

    https://reason.com/2020/08/10/yes-kamala-harris-is-indeed-a-natural-born-citizen/

    1
  26. EddieInCA says:

    My life experience is what colors my thoughts on race. (No pun intended). I’m Dominican. Dominican father going back 4 generations, and Dominican mother going back 8 generations. But I’ve never known my birth father nor anyone from his side on the family. On my mom’s side, she had 9 brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles. They married other two Dominicans, a Puerto Rican, a Columbian, two Americans, a Salvadorean, a Panamanian, and a Cuban. So my cousins are Dominican/Columbian, Domnican/Puerto Rican, etc. etc. I have 41 first cousins. One married a Swedish woman, one married a Chinese man, many married Americans, some married Canadians, etc. Bottom line is that my extended family is a mini-United Nations. I have first cousins with skin tones that are darker than Michelle Obama or Cory Booker, and others are lighter than Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobauchar.

    Many of them, while Dominican, or Puerto Rican, look black. When they’re out in public, they’re black. Period. Our family has been painfully aware as how those members of the family have been treated for 50 plus years. Everything from trying to rent an apartment in Queens, to trying to catch a cab in the city. The darker skinned members of the family, despite all other things being equal, have had a more difficult time in life due to that thing that doesn’t exist: systemic racism.

    It’s really hard for me to take seriously people who claim that it “doesn’t matter” or “you’re overreacting”. The only comes from people who have never had to endure it.

    Kamala Harris is a smart, tough, tenacious politician who happens to get gorgeous and mixed race. To me, that’s an asset, not a drawback. Those who think its negative that she’s of mixed race aren’t paying attention to the actual country they’re living in.

    It’s pathetic. And it’s not surprising.

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  27. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: Thank you for beating me to linking to that striking essay by Caroline Randall Williams. Allow me to add a longer quote,

    You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.

    4
  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The only ones I can think of (cracker and honky)

    You forgot ‘redneck’, ‘white trash’ and I suppose ‘trailer trash’.

    hardly have had the same kind of social and political significance

    And none of them have much in the way of social and political significance. Although white trash is a clear insult, the others have been co-opted as labels of pride.

    Except honky, I’m not sure anybody even uses that one anymore.

    Anyway, good piece Steven, and good comments all.

    2
  29. Joe says:

    @EddieInCA:
    I learned a long time ago that when we say white or black in America, what we really mean is white or not entirely white. As Dr. Taylor explains in the OP, Homer Plessy was 7/8ths “white” and, therefore, black. Different states had different percentages. A I recall, some were 1/16th. But, like Barack Obama, who had just as much white ancestry as black, was black when trying to catch a cab, Mr. Plessy was black when riding a train. Similarly, Tammy Duckworth who had ancestors who fought with George Washington, is Asian when she walks in a store or into the Senate. Our entire discussion of race in this country is a discussion of who is “purely” white and who is not. Period. End of sentence. Maybe, as Dr. Taylor, reminds us, we are trapped in this construct, but I agree figuratively with Mr. Reynolds,

    we’ve let the agenda be set by the KKK.

    This is the original sin we need to work away from.

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  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @EddieInCA: On my mom’s side, she had 9 brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles. They married other two Dominicans, a Puerto Rican, a Columbian, two Americans, a Salvadorean, a Panamanian, and a Cuban. So my cousins are Dominican/Columbian, Domnican/Puerto Rican, etc. etc. I have 41 first cousins. One married a Swedish woman, one married a Chinese man, many married Americans, some married Canadians, etc. Bottom line is that my extended family is a mini-United Nations.

    Gawd damn. You family reunions must be something else. I’d love to come for the potluck alone, not to mention the conversations.

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  31. Kylopod says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Yeah, the Eugene Volokh preemptively destroyed the is Harris a natural born citizen argueemnt

    This is an argument the birthers have been floating for years against various politicians. They even did it against Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal in 2016.

    Birtherism over the years has morphed into a strange combination of claims. It’s no longer just one particular crackpot idea directed at one particular politician. When it was used against Obama, it involved a deranged conspiracy theory alleging that he lied about his true birthplace. Against Ted Cruz, it involved a relatively legitimate but minority interpretation of constitutional law (as no one disputes Cruz was in fact born outside the US). But the idea that someone born in the US can be disqualified from the presidency based on who their parents were is pure fringe–no serious constitutional scholar would give it the time of day, and I think it would be laughed out of any court in America.

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  32. gVOR08 says:

    @Kylopod: I had a Republican friend who was an archetypical Country Club Republican. I used to like to talk politics with him out of curiosity as to how some one moderately intelligent and moderately educated could believe the nonsense he believed.

    He went on and on one day on Obama having a white mother. I asked what difference it made. He said straight up that it meant Obama wasn’t really black, and therefore his attacks on Obama weren’t really racist. The capacity for self-delusion is unbelievable.

    6
  33. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kylopod:

    It goes back further than that, Goldwater’s presidential eligibility was questioned because Arizona was still a territory when he was born. McCain’s was questioned because he was born in Panama.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    @Kylopod:

    and I think it (that birthright citizenship isn’t “natural born”) would be laughed out of any court in America.

    Give Trumpsky another four years to appoint judges and I wouldn’t bet on that proposition.

    6
  35. EddieInCA says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Gawd damn. You family reunions must be something else. I’d love to come for the potluck alone, not to mention the conversations.

    About 8 years ago, we had a Thanksgiving dinner at my cousins Martha’s house. She married a Panamanian, and her mother was Cuban, and her father was Dominican. It was one of those years where several members of the NYC part of the family was in SoCal around Thanksgiving. We had 31 people at her house. She has a beautiful house. Her husband, Al, was a VP at Bank of American until his retirement last year. A corporate VP, not a branch VP, so he did very well. Anyway, her house has a beautiful staircase, and we lined up for a large family photo. It’s an amazing photo. Blondes, Redheads, Brunettes, alabaster skin, olive skin, tanned skin, dark, dark skin, straight hair, curly hair, bald, fat, short, thin, athletic, blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, dark eyes. All directly related by blood or marriage. We had four generations there, and I’m emotional writing about it. My wife, as white as they come, was blown away by the food, music, and genuine love she felt that day. Her joke was “Damn, you latinos know how to do family.”

    Yeah, family gatherings are awesome, but it usually only happens now during funerals or weddings.

    4
  36. Kurtz says:

    @EddieInCA:

    When they’re out in public, they’re black.

    This. Racists don’t ask for a genealogy when being racist.

    8
  37. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    Oh come on, Matt, obviously I know the speech and obviously I was grabbing at a felicitous phrase, not predicating my world view on it.

    I’m not talking about ignoring race, I’m talking about resisting the very concept which has no relevant basis in science. Race is bullshit. We are all homo sapiens, all descended from hominids in Africa. The fact that some of us moved to gloomy climates and adapted to the need to create more vitamin D by favoring light complexions is interesting, but essentially irrelevant.

    There are contradictions in leftist thinking on race that you could drive a tractor through. We aren’t making sense. We’re buying into a nonsense paradigm, trying to take lemons and make lemonade, when we should have rejected the construct in its entirety. But we didn’t and as a result let’s see just how well things have worked out. Cops murdering black people? Check. Whites spewing race hatred? Check. An actual white supremacist in the White House? Check. And on the left brewing battles over what percentage of what race you are, like a bunch of goddam plantation owners deciding who gets to work in the big house.

    Racialism is the precursor of racism, and we are racialists.

    1
  38. Scott says:

    @Kylopod:

    no serious constitutional scholar would give it the time of day, and I think it would be laughed out of any court in America.

    All it takes is a Roger Taney like Chief Justice and 4 others.

  39. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    How could it be otherwise?

    I’ll take that in the broadest sense. How could it be otherwise? For the first time in history we have the ability, thanks to computers, to count individuals. We don’t need to think in terms of groups. We can think in terms of individuals. And that’s what we are. We are individuals.

    For me to think of myself as a Jew just because some Nazi thinks I’m a Jew is offensive to me, it violates my sense of reason. It is inaccurate. It is meaningless outside the context of anti-semitism. But of course if I say that I’m some sort of self-hating Jew, a race traitor.

    And if we aren’t working toward the ‘should’ what are we doing?

    2
  40. steve says:

    Once again it strikes me that conservatives seem to believe that black people, minorities in general, have no agency. Rather than have a white guy tell them some person isn’t black enough, the right kind of black, or whatever, I think that black people can decide that for themselves. Maybe it isn’t a equation of agency and they think minorities are too stupid to figure it out? Whatever. Then they wonder why minorities dont want to vote for them.

    Steve

    1
  41. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    For me to think of myself as a Jew just because some Nazi thinks I’m a Jew is offensive to me, it violates my sense of reason. It is inaccurate. It is meaningless outside the context of anti-semitism. But of course if I say that I’m some sort of self-hating Jew, a race traitor.

    If it makes you feel any better, under Jewish Halacha, you very well may not be considered Jewish given your views and thoughts.

    That said, it is notable and relevant to this conversation that Israel doesn’t actually follow Jewish Law in terms of who is a Jew under the Law of Return. They explicitly use the Nazi definition of anyone who has a grandparent who is Jewish (plus family members). They recognize that, as KM, noted, however they, as the in-group wants to define who is inside the group, we need to take account of and protect those who the out-group would attack for being one of us.

    4
  42. Kylopod says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    It goes back further than that, Goldwater’s presidential eligibility was questioned because Arizona was still a territory when he was born. McCain’s was questioned because he was born in Panama.

    I wasn’t saying Obama was the first candidate ever to have his natural-born eligibility questioned. Back in the 19th century there was even a very Obama-birther-like conspiracy theory used against Chester Arthur–that he was secretly born in Canada or Ireland.

    (And while we’re on the topic of the 1960s, I never tire of bringing up the anecdote from the book Nixonland when Mexican-born George Romney was running and anonymous pamphlets appeared stating that “Supreme Court Rules Romney Not Qualified to be President.” I told my dad this story, and without missing a beat he replied, “Nixon wrote the pamphlets.”)

    I was speaking more specifically of the modern birther movement that began with the allegations about Obama’s birthplace. It branched off from there and started to be applied to other politicians–though so far the common denominator is that they’re all POC. I haven’t heard it used against a white non-Hispanic politician yet.

    2
  43. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    For the first time in history we have the ability, thanks to computers, to count individuals. We don’t need to think in terms of groups. We can think in terms of individuals. And that’s what we are. We are individuals.

    You are an individual. You are also part of many, many groups – whether you like it or not.

    A huge part of the reason we, as a country, are failing so miserably at dealing with Covid-19 is this insistence that we are all solely individuals with no responsibility to the rest of society.

    4
  44. Michael Reynolds says:

    @SKI:
    No. I am not a part of anything that I don’t agree to be a part of, particularly when it involves ill-defined, often nonsensical groupings. Now, you are free to decide that I’m a part of this or that, but that’s you imposing your views. You are free to decide I’m one of the lizard people, but I will demur.

    I reject racialism, I won’t be told what I am, I’ll decide that – a lesson driven home to me by my transgender daughter. If she can decide what she is and what group she chooses to affiliate with, why can’t I? If I don’t have the right to decide the bases of my own identity, what kind of freedom is that?

    I’m half Ashkenazi Jew and half Oklahoma redneck. So…what am I? Oh right, I’m me.

    1
  45. Michael Reynolds says:

    @SKI:

    A huge part of the reason we, as a country, are failing so miserably at dealing with Covid-19 is this insistence that we are all solely individuals with no responsibility to the rest of society.

    I am part of homo sapiens. That’s why I wear a mask. In fact, the problem with mask-wearing is precisely that it has become identified with groups, and a big part of the flaccidity of reaction to Covid has been the realization that it disproportionately affects black and brown people. I groaned when I first started hearing that fact because I knew it would dampen sensible health precautions.

    1
  46. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Slow down there, cowboy. I am not talking about genetic or religious groups.

    You are a citizen of the United States (unless you go ahead and renounce that).

    You are a resident in LaLaLand.

    You are a member of KidLit Authors.

    You are part of society.

    I don’t think you would disagree with any of these groupings, right? All bring benefits and responsibilities. That was my point. We are all more than just individuals.

    3
  47. Michael Reynolds says:

    @SKI:
    The crucial difference being that I chose each of those affiliations freely and am free to end same. I choose to live in the US, in California, and previously chose to be a kidlit author, but that last is an example of an affiliation I now reject. I can’t rewrite the past, obviously, but I can say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to play with you people anymore.’

    1
  48. James Joyner says:

    @KM:

    I think we need to acknowledge there are two type of groups asking this question: those in the in-group trying to ascertain or enforce group purity and those in the out-group hypocritically using a label to attack.

    The former has been a recurring topic on NPR’s Code/Switch podcast, notably the episodes Black Like Who? and We Aren’t Who We Think We Are.

  49. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m not talking about ignoring race, I’m talking about resisting the very concept which has no relevant basis in science. Race is bullshit.

    I think you will find that depends on which science. With the social sciences, race is very real.

    And race is a half-assed way of categorizing distinct genetic subgroups. The extent that it isn’t “real” is because of how half-assed it is. Race might not be real, but it definitely points towards something very real — distinct subpopulations with definable genetic variation. Race is like alchemy … a half-assed precursor to chemistry formed while people didn’t know the right questions to ask, but definitely a step in the direction of chemistry.

    I do wonder whether minor genetic differences create bias in the animal kingdom or whether it’s a strictly human thing — such a bias could help drive the creation of different species. I believe ants use scent to recognize anyone from their colony and kill the others, while we know dogs will hump any other dog.

    We are all homo sapiens, all descended from hominids in Africa. The fact that some of us moved to gloomy climates and adapted to the need to create more vitamin D by favoring light complexions is interesting, but essentially irrelevant.

    Some of us have Neanderthal DNA.

    I think the history of racism might have made a whole swath of science “problematic” to study because of how it has gotten used in the past.

    Split a species up geographically, and have cross breeding with a bunch of related species (we know there was breeding with Neanderthal, I see no reason to assume there wasn’t breeding with other homo species) and you’re going to have genetic variation, some positive and some negative. I have no doubt that some day we will discover that spatial reasoning or something is just much more advanced in Group X and be very important for Activity Y. Just as I have no doubt that some populations are more likely to have sickle-cell anemia.

    But, good lord, if we were to discover that European ancestry meant that you were more likely to be able to navigate a couch through a stairwell while moving (better spacial reasoning), we would never hear the end of white supremacists telling us how vitally important that is and how inferior every other group was.

    1
  50. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I can say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to play with you people anymore.’

    Which, to my earlier comments, is fine – right up until the point when someone on the outside with ill intent decides that you are in that group and discriminates against you, or worse, because of that.

    4
  51. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Biologically ‘race’ is an absurdity.

    Biologically, “race” is important–Socially it’s fairly pointless.

    “Race” is a shorthand for “genetically similar group” and plays a very important role in medicine. As an Ashkenazi Jew, you have a significantly higher likelihood of having (or carrying) a wide range of diseases–including Tay Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, Osteoperosis, and a host of others. You can’t chose to not be part of that group.

    I’m part of a “race” that is prone to Sickle Cell and Cystic Fibrosis. We’re also sensitive to several medicines and immunizations–some of which can have serious side effects.

    There are medications which are contra-indicated for people of African ancestry (some for Sub-Saharan, some for Northern, some for both) because their bodies process it differently–often to detrimental effect. SE Asians are more prone to certain types of cancer than Europeans. Hispanic women have a cervical cancer rate twice that of whites.

    Biology is the only place that race makes sense–but in a much more fuzzy-edged defined and very specific application.

    3
  52. Kurtz says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    No. The proper shorthand is population. You implicitly acknowledge that here:

    There are medications which are contra-indicated for people of African ancestry (some for Sub-Saharan, some for Northern, some for both) because their bodies process it differently–often to detrimental effect.

    Without realizing it, you bolstered the point you were trying to refute. “Race” is a social construct, not a biological category. Race in the social sense doesn’t make a distinction between an individual from Nigeria and a person from Somalia; genetics would show differences because they are distinct populations from different regions of Africa.

    9
  53. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @EddieInCA: My wife, as white as they come, was blown away by the food, music, and genuine love she felt that day. Her joke was “Damn, you latinos know how to do family.”

    My father came from a large family of Slovenian immigrants and when ever they got together, loud doesn’t begin to describe it. My mother on the other hand, was born of a very old and genteel southern family. Sedate was the word for them. Just night and day.

    I’ve been to a few Mexican mountain village New Years and Xmas eve celebrations and they are quite different from anything up here. People come trekking on foot from miles around for a festival of food, music, fireworks, drinking, fighting, and more than a little love in the shadows.

    Yeah, family gatherings are awesome, but it usually only happens now during funerals or weddings.

    I have a group of old friends for whom it seems the same. We more or less keep in touch but our lives have gone in wildly different directions. At one such wedding 2 years ago one of us said, “We really need to stop meeting like this.” and it was decided we would get together at least once a year, twice if we could manage it. That fall they all came out here to our place for a day long barbecue. And then this past spring… well, Covid. Now, one buddy’s daughter is getting married in October and I’m not even sure we can make it because of the pandemic.

    1
  54. Teve says:

    @Kurtz: exactly. Biologists will tell you that race is pretty much worthless. There are over 100 ethnic groups in Chad. If you want to get down to very small groups you can have different gene distributions, like with Tay Sachs. But broad statements like “Black people are all lactose intolerant” are erroneous.

    5
  55. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: I heard it used against McCain.

  56. Teve says:

    Does race exist?

    Race is a social construct, scientists say

    “If you make clinical predictions based on somebody’s race, you’re going to be wrong a good chunk of the time,” Yudell told Live Science. In the paper, he and his colleagues used the example of cystic fibrosis, which is underdiagnosed in people of African ancestry because it is thought of as a “white” disease.

    2
  57. JohnMcC says:

    @Mu Yixiao: While genetic inheritance and ‘populations’ (in the sense you’re using it) are significant it is also significant that there is really very little genetic variation between humans. We have less genetic variation among us than there is between neighboring bands of chimpanzees. Apparently we passed through a catastrophe some time in the last couple of 100,000 years that reduced Homo Sapien numbers to a few 10,000 (maybe less than 10,000).

    And interestingly the Neanderthal heritage we have is significantly more in European populations, less in Asian and least in African genes.

    Sadly, our love of cruelty to the outsider does not recognize that we are so close to all being one.

    3
  58. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Teve:
    Precisely. Generalizing statements about groups of humans are usually wrong. How people still do not grasp that you cannot extrapolate from the set (as defined by non-scientific criteria) of a lot, to the set of one, or the reverse, is a mystery.

    Jews are good with money, suffer from guilt and have a sense of humor. I have a sense of humor. That single correct databit could as easily demonstrate that I’m black. Throwing random loops around populations of humans based solely on visible differences – and only certain visible differences – does not yield usable data when considering an individual.

    Interestingly, the Left agrees that these random groupings should be irrelevant to an employer, yet somehow relevant in many other ways. Our position on race is self-contradictory. And it lays the groundwork for racial identification and solidarity among other groups like, you know, white people. Is there an upside for minorities in insisting that the 65% or so of the country that is white choose to see themselves as white? 65% is a whole lot bigger than 13% Does no one do math anymore?

    AA’s are 13% of the population and geographically concentrated which cuts their political power – there are a dozen states at least with effectively no black people. The only path to black political power and security is through alliances with Latinos and whites. Period. 1 + 1 = 2. And why, if we are all this or that race, should whites or Latinos give political support to African-Americans?

    The way forward, the one we should have taken decades ago, is the scientifically accurate position that we are all humans and that no one but a bloody ignoramus would judge anyone on the basis of melanin content. But we made the wrong turn and now we’re playing the game by the racist’s rules and having to invent patches to somehow explain that we believe two different things simultaneously.

  59. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    A couple objections:

    -You’re attempting to square a circle by invoking science then arguing for eschewing groups. Humans are social animals thus groups are a key aspect of human nature

    Technology certainly allows us to alter group dynamics (inter- and intra-) but it doesn’t eliminate group bonds as a natural aspect of humanity. Differences in desired quantity and quality of social interaction among individuals doesn’t mean humans have moved beyond genetics.

    -we have had the rejection of race as a concept conversation before. It just doesn’t work that way.

    Let’s use theism as an analogy here. It works quite well, because God(s) are not flesh. It is a near-impossible task to persuade a religious person that their deity doesn’t exist even though they will never actually physically encounter it.

    If this is true, how can you expect to persuade someone who sees black or brown people daily that the category is a lie? That’s the tricky thing about social constructs. They may have no basis in nature, but as long as a powerful group within a society insists on their existence, we are stuck treating that belief as true to enact change.

    -Those two points tie together in the realm of technology. No matter how well we design a device or a system to be neutral, the application of it often reinforces previous relations. Algorithms designed to remove human bias retain elements of the developer’s viewpoint.

    Foucault recognized this via describing the application of the scientific method to humans. The very process with enlightenment potential ultimately can also justify dark beliefs. See: Eugenics as science.

    Science erases the notion of the subject, no? The scientific method is an attempt to transform an observer from a subject with epistemological baggage to a neutral interlocutor.

    When the object of study is an atom or a cell, it works well but not perfectly. Aim that tool at a human or other higher-order organism, and things get much more complicated. Now, instead of neutralizing the bias of the observer, it also transforms the target from a subject to an object. This is dangerous, because subjects are dynamic rather than passive. To compensate, distinctions whether true or not are used as independent variables, re-introducing the observer’s baggage.

    2
  60. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The way forward, the one we should have taken decades ago, is the scientifically accurate position that we are all humans and that no one but a bloody ignoramus would judge anyone on the basis of melanin content.

    Scientifically accurate but also mostly useless in terms of dealing with actual humans’ lived experiences today. You can scream that only “bloody ignoramuses” judge people on the basis of skin color but the problem is that such judgments are made by a majority of the humans – of all skin colors.

    So, unless you withdraw to your individualism and decry any responsibility from your role as a member of society, the question must turn to how we begin/continue to repair that gulf between what should be and what is.

    3
  61. @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m not talking about ignoring race, I’m talking about resisting the very concept which has no relevant basis in science. Race is bullshit. We are all homo sapiens, all descended from hominids in Africa. The fact that some of us moved to gloomy climates and adapted to the need to create more vitamin D by favoring light complexions is interesting, but essentially irrelevant.

    You are confusing wanting it to be irrelevant with it actually being irrelavant.

    Race is not irrelevant to understanding US chattel slavery.

    Race is not irrelevant to understanding Jim Crow.

    Race is not irrelevant to understanding the need for the Civil Rights Act.

    Race is not irrelevant to understanding the murder of George Flloyd.

    And race is not irrelevant to understanding Donald Trump.

    I am not sure how the fact that we are, of course, all in the human race changes any of that.

    You may reject being a Jew, but that would not have stopped the Nazis from hauling you off.

    Ultimately, apart from a desire to have the world work differently than it does, your position is largely incoherent.

    5
  62. @Michael Reynolds:

    Generalizing statements about groups of humans are usually wrong. How people still do not grasp that you cannot extrapolate from the set (as defined by non-scientific criteria) of a lot, to the set of one, or the reverse, is a mystery.

    Jews are good with money, suffer from guilt and have a sense of humor.

    Yes, stereotyping is problematic.

    What does that have to do with any of this in a real sense?

    Does it change the fact that it is rather obvious that given the choice between an R and a D that a black person is more likely to see their interests served by the D? (Which is, ultimately, using race as a variable?).

    3
  63. @Michael Reynolds: I think you misunderstand my question, which was as follows

    Further, within the context of an election, groups have to decide which choice better addresses their needs.

    How could it be otherwise?

    To restate: there are group interest, whether you want to be an ultra-individualist or not. And while I accept the premise that groups are aggregated individuals, it is impossible to escape the fact that interests are not 100% atomized. People have income-based interests. People have profession-based interests Parents have interests that the childless do not have. People who live in colder parts of the US have interests that differ from those who live in the deep south. Earthquakes regulations matter to me when I lived in CA, not as much living here. The list in endless.

    Sometimes those interests are racial/ethnic (whether you like it or not). This is especially true, at the moment, for Black Americans.

    And so, my question was, how could it be otherwise that our various group interests don’t end up affecting our political choices. How could it be otherwise?

    We are never 100% individuals. We just aren’t, even when we think we are.

    5
  64. Gustopher says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Almost entirely in a needling way, after the Obama Birther nonsense came up.

    And there’s a legitimate question as to whether a military base counts as American soil in the strictest sense. But no one seriously wanted to deny McCain a place on the ballot.

  65. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    “Race” is a shorthand for “genetically similar group” and plays a very important role in medicine.

    “Race” is really a shorthand for “looks close enough that people assume they are a genetically similar group.”

    We haven’t created a separate category of race for the English royal family, for instance, even though they are likely genetically more distinct from the majority of white people than black people are.

    2
  66. Kylopod says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I heard it used against McCain.

    Used by whom? Democrats as a whole never made an issue of it, nor did any of his Republican rivals, for that matter. I do remember that Philip Berg, who filed the first birther lawsuit against Obama shortly after he was elected, claimed to believe that McCain was also ineligible. But it’s safe to say hardly anyone was talking about it during either of his presidential runs.

    Dems just aren’t into this sort of thing as much as Republicans, partly I suspect because it’s among the GOP that you get most of the racism and nativism. But remember, also, that before Obama some Republicans proposed amending the Constitution to eliminate the natural-born clause–mostly because they had their eyes set on Ah-nold at the time. (And quite frankly, I would have no objection to such an amendment except for the fact that it’s so far down the list of priorities for electoral reform our system desperately needs I would consider it a distraction. I’d support it in a heartbeat if it was part of a double-deal that got rid of the electoral college. But nowadays Republicans don’t seem much interested in either proposal.)

    2
  67. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: I heard Republicans saying it. The fact that they were saying it to justify their birther stands against Obama did not make it a joke.

    1
  68. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Justify was the wrong word. Give cover to their birther stands against Obama was what I meant.

  69. mattbernius says:

    @mattbernius:

    Also, beyond being an important representational pick, it’s noted that confrontational BIPoC women also tend to bring out the absolute worst in the current President. I wonder the degree that fit into the broader calculus as well.

    As if on cue, Trump is already using the Newsweek article to start birthering Kamala Harris.

    1
  70. So Harris isn’t Black, isn’t eligible to run for VP, isn’t even a citizen. Does she even exist?

    1
  71. de stijl says:

    @Kurtz:

    Harris is Schrodinger’s black woman. Simultaneously too black and not black enough. A Marxist and a Centrist. A harpy or a bridge builder.

    Then throw in the Observer Effect.

    It’s all nonsense anyway. The Rs would have done the similar to whomever Biden chose.

    —-

    The birther idiocy is peculiar to Harris, though.

    1
  72. de stijl says:

    @John A. Broussard:

    We cannot know until we open the box. She is all simultaneously.

    1