The Volokh Conspiracy

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Kamala Harris May be Descended from a Slaveowner. So What?

Having white ancestry, slaveowner or not, does not make someone less "black" if they so identify.


Various right-wing populist media personalities and sources seem to think that revealing that Kamala Harris has, according to her father, a distant ancestor who was a slaveowner in Jamaica is some sort of "gotcha." In particular, they often suggest that this is evidence that Harris is "not really black" or is "barely black."

As I noted previously, because Harris has black African ancestry and identifies as black, she is included in the legal definition of "black/African" we use in the U.S. This legal definition both reflects and informs common parlance.

Beyond that, the racial categories we use in common parlance in the U.S. do not track genetic ancestry, but are rather sociological. In the U.S., the one-drop rule generally prevailed historically, where anyone with discernible African ancestry was deemed black. According to what I've read but not independently confirmed, the U.S. is the only country that had African slavery where the one-drop rule has been standard.

In short, having a white ancestor, including slave-owning ancestors, has never disqualified anyone from identifying or being identified as black/African American. The only legitimate objection is the history of forcing that identity on people regardless of how they see themselves, and then discriminating against them because of it.

The civil rights group challenging the segregation law in Plessy v. Ferguson purposely chose Homer Plessy as the test-case plaintiff, because, as the Supreme Court related, he was "of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; .. the mixture of [African] blood was not discernible in him." Among other things, the litigants hoped to show the absurdity and arbitrariness of American race law.

In the course of my research on government mandates requiring use of race for classification in medical studies, I found that researchers who have done genetic studies estimate that the average self-identified black person in the U.S. has European ancestry ranging from 7 to 24% (depending on the study). Bryc Katarzyna, et al. The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States, 96 Am. J. Human Genetics 37 (2015). People who self-identify as black/African American have anywhere from 2% to 100% African ancestry. This obviously is a confounding factor in trying to use American race categories as proxies for genetic origin, but it also points to the fact that there is no contradiction between having some European ancestry and identifying as black or African American.

Not all of all African Americans with white ancestry have white *slaveowner* ancestry, but some of them do. It doesn't make them less "black"; it does reinforce the horrors of slavery, as slaves were forced into sexual relationships with slaveholders, and their offspring remained slaves unless specifically freed by the father.

It would be preferable if society advanced to the point where differences in "racial" origins were considered largely irrelevant to anything but one's own self-identity. Obviously we haven't reached that stage yet. Meanwhile, it's completely uncalled for to suggest that Senator Harris isn't "really" black.