Rush Limbaugh has joined the bizarre right-wing chorus questioning whether Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the Democratic candidate for vice president, is authentically a Black American due to her reported descent from an Irish-born slaveholder in Jamaica — an analysis that is both factually wrong and morally repugnant on multiple levels.
On Monday’s edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show, the host read an article from right-wing site PJ Media by Senior Editor Tyler O’Neil titled “Joe Biden Alienated Black Voters by Picking Kamala Harris.” (Both Limbaugh and O’Neil are white.)
Limbaugh then went on to his own discussion of Harris’ ancestry:
If this language seems at all familiar, it is because Limbaugh said similar things about former President Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya. Limbaugh said in 2012, for example: “He wasn't down with the struggle. He doesn't have slave blood. You know all that.”
As for Limbaugh’s assertion that Harris’ reported ancestry discredits her credentials as being part of the Black American experience, this requires a lot of nerve given the well-known history of white men sexually assaulting slave women and children who were conceived as a result.
PolitiFact discussed an essay written by Harris’ father Donald Harris, a retired economic professor, tracing his ancestry to Hamilton Brown, an Irish plantation owner in Jamaica in the early 1800s, and his son also named Hamilton Brown. The outlet explored the social status of Black Jamaicans in the immediate post-emancipation period as barely changed from slavery itself.
It seems possible that Kamala Harris is as likely a descendant of a slave-owner as she is an enslaved person. Jessian Prince, who the family tree identified as Miss Crishy’s mother and would therefore be Kamala Harris’ great-great-grandmother, is listed on birth and death records as a “labourer." Almost always, [author Tom] Zoellner said, laborers in Jamaica at that time were “people of African extraction who were the children and grandchildren of enslaved people who had been freed in 1838."
From 1834 to 1838, the term “labourer" meant “apprentice" — “basically a paid slave," Zoellner said. After emancipation, “the energy of planters was now to be directed towards converting a former slave labour force into a permanent plantation labour force," according to the government. “From the perspective of the planters, it was the same rider on the same mule, cantering towards the same destiny."
During Harris’ presidential run last year, Snopes also wrote about the accusations regarding her family tree. After reviewing the sparse historical records, the site nevertheless concluded, “That particular branch of Brown’s family tree derived just as much from an enslaved woman, whose identity may well be lost to history, as it did from Brown himself.”
Even if it is the case that the Harris family ... are descendants of Hamilton Brown, those who seek to attack or undermine Sen. Harris for the wrongdoing of a man who died almost 200 years ago should first gain a better understanding of the often complicated, traumatic histories of black families in the United States — and tread much more carefully.
As an example of how this discussion might affect Black families in the United States, Limbaugh also credited this discussion to right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had previously stated on the August 11 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle: “Kamala Harris seems to be descended less from the legacy of, let's say, Frederick Douglass, than she is from the legacy of the plantation itself.”
D’Souza may have said quite a bit more than he realized, however, by invoking the name of the great Black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass — whose own biological father was known to have been a white man, possibly either his first or second owner, before Douglass himself later escaped to freedom. Douglass also wrote extensively on the topic in his first two memoirs: “For thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who—like myself—owe their existence to white fathers and, most frequently, to their masters, and masters’ sons. The slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master. The thoughtful know the rest.”
D’Souza was not alone in thinking this was some kind of real point, however. Fox News host Mark Levin, on his BlazeTV show the same day, had claimed that Harris’ “ancestry does not go back to American slavery. To the best of my knowledge, her ancestry does not go back to slavery at all.”
This claim was immediately met with the appropriate combination of ridicule and serious debunking:
Clarification (8/17/20): The language in this piece has been updated for clarity.