California Democratic Sen. Kamala D. Harris hardly had time to finish basking in the glow of her presidential bid’s five-star rollout before 20,000 adoring Oakland hometown fans, when two black-media-inspired questions hit her in the face: Why did she marry a white man? And: Is she black enough?
Harris has answers to both questions. They will appear in this column. But let’s take a look at why these questions turn up in a presidential contest.
Questions about race, sex and interracial coupling aren’t new. Warring over them is older than the Republic.
As far back as 1664, the Maryland colony took a stance against crossing the color line, passing a law against white women marrying black male slaves. Should that unthinkable event happen, the law required that she, too, become a slave. In 1691, Virginia banned all interracial marriages, with threats of exile to whites who failed to obey.
The objective of subsequent laws against miscegenation — i.e., sexual relationships between whites and blacks — was plain: Keep white supremacy, the racial caste system and black men in their place.
Along the way, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan introduced violence to make the prohibitions stick — all in the name of protecting the purity of vulnerable white women.
But times, they are a-changin’.
As social distances between whites and people of color have been reduced, interracial coupling and marriages have multiplied — the fulfillment of a segregationist’s nightmare.
In the more than 50 years since the Loving v. Virginia decision, there has been more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of newlyweds getting married to someone of a different race or ethnicity.
A 2017 Pew Research Center analysis of census surveys also showed a strong drop in people who say they would be opposed to a family member marrying out of their race. Specifically, opposition among nonblacks to a family member marrying someone who is black plummeted from 63 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2016.
But while anti-miscegenation laws were killed by the high court, sentiment against interracial coupling remains alive among some Americans.
Last March, the Economist-YouGov poll found that 17 percent of Americans think interracial marriage is “morally wrong.” On a racial basis, a nearly equal percentage of respondents felt the same way: 17 percent of whites said it was morally wrong. So did 18 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics.
Thus, notions of black inferiority still abide in some whites. So too, hostility toward intermarriage among some blacks who regard crossing the color line to marry a white person as an act of racial betrayal.
White and black separatists miss the point.
Individuals, regardless of pigmentation, don’t marry a race. Marriage is a decision by two people — not two racial groups — to form a union. They do it because they want to share their lives — with each other.
Hear Harris on Feb. 11 when confronted on New York’s hip-hop radio show, “The Breakfast Club”: “Look, I love my husband, and he happened to be the one that I chose to marry because I love him — that was that moment in time, and that’s it. And he loves me.”
No more needs saying.
But on the same show, a question was raised about the legitimacy of Harris’s “blackness.” Is she black enough?
It’s hard to keep a civil tongue in the face of such inanity. But exist it does.
In 2017 at the University of Texas at Austin, Kappa Alpha Psi, a predominantly black fraternity, hosted a Miss Black University of Texas scholarship pageant, as it has for 35 years. The winner was a senior, Rachael Malonson. Once her picture was shared on Twitter, social media critics went wild.
She was biracial. Angry tweeters charged she was not dark enough to be a “black” role model. Colorism — discrimination based on skin shade — had raised its ugly head.
It doesn’t stop there.
Is Barack Obama, son of a white American woman and a Kenyan father, “black enough to get support in the African American community?” asked media critic Howard Kurtz on “Meet the Press” in 2007.
“Is [Harris] African American or is she black?” CNN host Don Lemon demanded to know earlier this month. (I may be wrong, but I doubt the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and the racist skinheads make such a fine distinction.)
U.S.-born Harris — Howard University graduate and longtime member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, America’s oldest black sorority, and whose parents are from India and Jamaica — said of her legitimacy, “I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black, and I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
It’s Harris’s character and record, not the race of her husband or parents, that should matter. Would that in 2019 we cared about such things.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.