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It’s not whether Kamala Harris is ‘black enough,’ critics say, but whether her policies will support native black Americans

“We’re saying there is a difference in the justice demands for people who are descendants of slaves in this country and those who were enslaved in Jamaica.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., launches her presidential campaign at an event in Oakland, Calif., last month.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., launches her presidential campaign at an event in Oakland, Calif., last month.Read moreDavid Paul Morris / Bloomberg

The day Kamala Harris announced she was running for president, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, no less, the senator from California seemed primed to dazzle.

If nominated, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father would be the first black or Indian American woman to run for the White House on a major-party ticket.

Yet, from many black people, there was an outcry. Despite Harris’ being a graduate of Howard University, a top predominantly black university, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority, they questioned whether Harris would prioritize the challenges faced by American descendants of slavery, or #ADOS, casting a light on growing rifts between African Americans in the United States and newer black immigrants.

There was her record as a district attorney and attorney general, which some have categorized as “law and order” — a video has circulated showing Harris laughing while discussing a program she created as attorney general to prosecute poor parents for their truant children. There also is leftover disappointment that President Barack Obama hadn’t adequately addressed issues of black Americans.

“The thrill is gone because the Obama honeymoon is over, and we are never going to vote for people because their face is black again,” said Aaron Smith, a professor of African American studies at Temple University.

And there was her heritage. Does she consider herself black?

“When Jake Tapper on CNN asked her about being a black woman running for president, she responded that she was a woman of color,” Smith said. She has also answered a question about her identity by saying she is a “proud American.”

Many of her Indian American political supporters in California have only recently learned of her Indian heritage, reported the Washington Post.

And in her book, The Truths We Hold, published weeks before she announced her candidacy, Harris calls herself a black woman; in fact, she talks about how her Indian mother knew that people in India would see Harris and her younger sister only as black girls.

For #ADOS activists, though, the question is not whether she’s black enough.

“This whole argument that we’re saying she’s not black is really ridiculous,” Yvette Carnell, a cofounder of the #ADOS movement, said in an interview last week. “We’re saying there is a difference in the justice demands for people who are descendants of slaves in this country and those who were enslaved in Jamaica.”

>> READ MORE: Who is black in America? Ethnic tensions flare between black Americans and black immigrants

Carnell, a political commentator and creator of the Breaking Brown Youtube show, created the #ADOS hashtag with Antonio Moore, a lawyer, writer and filmmaker with his own Tonetalks Youtube and Dash Radio show.

They said the concept came from their advocacy for policies to address the wealth gap between native-born black Americans and white and other ethnic groups. Where the median white family has wealth of about $100,000, the median black family has wealth of about $10,000, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Moore said his concern was that such politicians as Obama and Harris, both descendants of immigrants — although Obama’s mother was a white American — have spoken with clarity about the need for laws to aid immigrants.

“They want to focus on immigration and DACA, but that can’t be our primary issue,” Moore said. “Our dialogue needs to be about American DOS and the lack of opportunities and the lack of jobs and lack of wealth."

Carnell cited research that shows Ivy League schools were admitting a higher percentage of black immigrants than those whose ancestors were enslaved: A study published in the American Journal of Education in 2007 found that immigrants or children of immigrants, while making up 13 percent of the nation’s black 18- and 19-year-olds — accounted for 41 percent of blacks admitted to Ivy League schools.

Many have called the #ADOS movement anti-immigrant. Moore said: “To say that is to ignore the ... struggle that undergirds this group from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Our families built America and now suffer because everyone wants to ignore that reality.”

Kirsten Allen, a spokesperson for Harris’ campaign, defended the senator’s engagement with the black community. As for the truancy program referenced in the video: “No parents went to jail and attendance increased 30 percent,” according to an emailed statement.

Then, on the Breakfast Club Power 105.1 radio talk show Monday morning, Harris talked about a proposed Lift Act, legislation that would reduce income inequity through a $6,000 annual tax credit to all households with earnings of less than $100,000. This would help the nearly half of respondents in a Federal Reserve Board survey who said they could not come up with $400 in case of emergency.

Some say this year — when many African Americans will observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of African captives brought to Virginia — would be a key time to question candidates on their positions about redressing the wrongs of slavery.

“Reparations,” said William “Sandy” Darity, an economist at Duke University. “We should be holding politicians’ feet to the fire on this issue. I think it should be a litmus test. “If [Harris] were enthusiastic for the development of a reparations program for black people, whether she is Indian, a woman of color, a Negro, or something else, I wouldn’t care.”

Darity said any form of reparations, whether lump-sum payments or the establishment of a program that lets black people submit proposals to develop businesses, should be restricted to “eligible African Americans,” or those whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States.

He said the other announced Democratic candidates, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, have talked about programs to address economic inequality, such as “baby bonds” or “a guaranteed job.” Also, author and entrepreneur Marianne Williamson, who is running for president, has publicly supported reparations.

Darity noted the injustices went far beyond the time of enslavement, with legal restrictions on basic rights to vote or live in integrated communities lasting until the civil rights movement. Black-owned businesses and homes were being destroyed in race riots, such as when a white mob descended in 1921 in Tulsa, and redlining and federal housing policies stripped black people of the ability to build wealth, all while promoting homeownership for white Americans.

Miranda Alexander, who arrived in Philadelphia about 20 years ago from Trinidad and Tobago, said she’s torn on the Harris issue. The self-described pan Africanist — someone who wants to improve the condition of his or her race, whether in the United States, the Caribbean, or the African continent — is a member of the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs.

“When I first heard [Harris], she was speaking about DACA and I said, ‘This is our girl. This is who we’re rooting for. We’re going to stand by her,’ ” said Alexander, 48.

But she said one of her friends told her about Harris’ record as a prosecutor and decided she had “to see how she’s been treating our people. So now, we’re on a standstill.”

Alexander hadn’t considered herself a Pan Africanist until she came to Philadelphia and learned about such people as the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan and his work to improve the lives of black people in America and in Africa. She was also influenced by meeting the black Philadelphians who as teenagers had marched with Cecil B. Moore to end segregation at Girard College.

In addition, she said, the Caribbean immigrant story has long been connected to the black American story.

“There were so many influential figures in African American history who have Caribbean roots, but many people don’t know that” said Alexander, ticking off a list that included W. E. B. DuBuois; James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro national anthem; and Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who was the first permanent settler in Chicago. He was born to a French father and Haitian mother.

Alexander said she believes the current tensions are bubbling to the surface because of a lack of leadership among black people.

“We’re not producing the leaders we used to have in the ’60s,” she said, “the type of leader we can attach ourselves to.”

This story was updated to reflect Sen. Harris’ comments Monday.