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Kamala Harris's slave owner ancestry isn't a 'gotcha,' but a tragic historic reality
Lauren-Ashley Howard/Twitter, Wikimedia Commons

The lengths people will go to discredit a political figure—especially a Black female politician—is pretty astounding. Since Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden's running mate, we've seen "birther" claims that she wasn't really born in the U.S. (she was), alternating claims that she's too moderate or too radical (which can't both be true), and a claim apparently designed to be a "gotcha"—that her ancestor in Jamaica was a slave owner.

According to Politifact, the claim that Harris descends from a slave owners is likely true. In their rather lengthy fact check on her lineage, which has not revealed any definitive answers, they conclude, "It seems possible that Kamala Harris is as likely a descendant of a slave-owner as she is an enslaved person." But that doesn't mean what the folks who are using that potential descencency as a weapon seem to think it means.


It's a well-known historical fact that many people with Black ancestry in the Americas have lineage that extends directly to white slave owners. It wasn't uncommon for enslavers to rape the people they enslaved—a tragic but true reality that may very well have been the case in Harris's family tree.

Writer Lauren-Ashley Howard expounded on this fact on Twitter, writing, "I have news for you about the descendants of enslaved Africans—damn near ALL of us have a Hamilton Brown in our family tree. Because enslaved women were regularly raped by the white men who owned them. You tried it, though."

According to a deep dive into the topic of American bloodlines in Pacific Standard magazine, many Black Americans have European ancestry stemming from the century of sexual exploitation of enslaved Africans before the Civil War. Slavery in the Caribbean, where Harris's Jamaican ancestors come from, has a similar history.

As a Black person, being descended from a slave owner is not proof of some kind of historical hypocrisy, but rather a not uncommon result of a historical tragedy. Enslaving someone is a heinous enough affront to their humanity. Raping them while enslaving them is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. That's a lineage fraught with uncomfortable questions and painful stories—not something to be used to attack a Black candidate for office.

Racism isn't just hating people with a different skin color. It's also being willfully ignorant of racial history and using a person's skin color to spin a narrative that paints them in a negative light. Trying to make Harris look bad by pointing out her enslaver ancestry—as if a Black person with such ancestry is somehow hypocritical—betrays a woeful lack of historical understanding and a gross desire to use her race as a weapon.

There may be legitimate criticisms one could make about Harris, but this isn't one of them.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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