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During her 2020 presidential campaign, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., found herself at the center of a controversy about which Americans can claim to be Black, or Black enough — because of both her biracial identity and her immigrant parents.

Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris was subject to a smear campaign insinuating that she was not Black at all — which began anew immediately after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced she was his pick for the vice presidential nomination. After a July 2019 debate, critics took issue with her for discussing a topic they viewed to be most relevant to American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) — busing to racially integrate schools. Although Harris was bused to a majority white school in California as part of a desegregation campaign, her lineage didn’t include enslaved African Americans, the group such efforts targeted, her detractors argued. (Harris’ father, Donald, wrote in 2018 that his research suggests he and his daughters are descended from Black people enslaved in Jamaica.)

To have her Blackness questioned in this way must’ve been jarring for a woman who graduated from the historically Black Howard University, was born in Oakland, California — hometown of the Black Panther Party — and has likely been viewed as Black by a majority white society.

But the questions about what constitutes Blackness aren’t new.When he ran for president, Barack Obama also faced questions about his racial identity, having grown up outside the continental United States without his Kenyan father. And when he identified as solely Black on the 2010 census form, some mixed-race activists openly expressed their disappointment with his decision to exclude his white heritage — even though he did not have the option to identify as biracial until a decade before, in the 2000 census, which took place well into his adulthood (and three years after he had begun serving in the Illinois state Senate).

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