It is another example of how the president has tried to appoint himself as the gatekeeper in chief with his divisive and narrow attempt to define what is truly American. We’ve seen it before in his travel bans, his hiring, his language — and now in his effort to define the newly minted Democratic ticket. Unable to put a dent in Biden’s lead in the polls, Trump and his Republican operatives are now trying to tarnish Harris with charges that she is too extreme, too liberal, too leftist and — in a twist — not quite black enough.
Former George W. Bush aide Ari Fleischer claimed Harris “is just not that historically exciting to African Americans.” Republican booster Nick Adams took to Twitter to question whether Harris herself could be considered African American since her mother is Indian and her father is Jamaican. Republicans have shifted from trying to determine who is authentically American to determining who is authentically Black.
It won’t work, and here’s why: Even Black voters who may have scrutinized the California senator’s brand of Blackness during the primary season have little stomach for such trivialities when they are so focused on unseating the incumbent. More importantly, any attempt to question a single aspect of Harris’s pedigree fails to see the bigger picture.
And it is a very big tableau: Mixed-race candidate, immigrant heritage, grandparents who spoke a language other than English, raised by single mom, a Brahman heritage from India, child of busing, HBCU graduate, blended family, sorority sister, stepmom, state law school, bicoastal, White husband, brown skin.
That is quite a grab bag of diversity. It deviates wildly from the president’s white, picket-fence fantasy of America. And, most importantly, it creates quite a few portals for voters to peer through and see themselves in the multifaceted aspects of her life. Someone who is neither a minority nor a college graduate might relate to being raised by a single mother. Someone who is from a homogeneous country in Europe or Latin America or Asia might relate to grandparents who spoke with a different mother tongue. Someone who decided not to have children might find kinship in a woman who did not birth babies herself but loves that her family calls her “Momala.”
And it is also quite something that a woman with this array of “otherness” would be considered the safe candidate.
The slur “Phony Kamala” tells us far more about Trump than it does about Harris. It reminds us that we have a president who uses the bullhorn of Twitter to speak to a shrinking world of two-parent White households where women stay home and out of political life.
It also reminds us that Trump still believes he can impose some kind of social discount for multiracial Americans, as if anyone who is half this or half that cannot possibly be whole. In fact, as America becomes ever more multiracial, the children and grandchildren of those blended homes are increasingly blessed with the confidence of seeing themselves as human beings who are fully bicultural — instead of culturally bifurcated.
We have seen this kind of ugly purity test before. Barack Obama’s authenticity was questioned when he burst on the national stage. His otherness was used as cudgel. He was half. He was foreign. He was painted as Muslim by those who refused to believe that he was a Christian. It didn’t block his progress, but it did launch both birtherism and the collective embrace of the ridiculous belief that America was entering a post-racial phase. Both were examples of racial escapism — creating alternative realities to exploit or avoid the reality of race as lived today in the United States.
But escapism won’t work anymore. Not after a pandemic with a racialized outcome. Not after a summer of protests and fires and a string of Black deaths at the hands of police. And not when so many Americans are beginning to understand the roots and reach of systemic racism. Race and racism are just too real to be ignored. There is a growing expectation that our leaders will interrogate or improve race relations. Or, at the very least acknowledge that racism is a real fact of American life.
So that playground taunt, “Phony Kamala”? It is like a punch that didn’t land. A swing and a miss. An air ball. Actually? Just another gutter ball.
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