clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don Jr.’s now-deleted birther-style retweet about Kamala Harris, explained

The president’s son retweeted an alt-right personality who claimed Harris is not authentically African American.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In First Debate Of 2020 Election Over Two Nights
Kamala Harris at the June Democratic primary debate.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sen. Kamala Harris’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have come to her defense after Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a message that questioned the senator’s ancestry and identity.

During last Thursday’s Democratic debate, Harris joined a discussion of a police shooting and said, “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.” She proceeded to speak directly to former Vice President Joe Biden about the ways she’d been helped by an anti-discrimination policy he’d lobbied against in his youth.

Following that speech, Trump retweeted a member of the alt-right who claimed that because Harris’s parents are Jamaican and Indian, her experience does not represent the authentic African American experience. “Kamala Harris is implying she is descended from American Black Slaves,” the tweet read. “She’s not. She comes from Jamaican Slave Owners. That’s fine. She’s not an American Black. Period.”

“Is this true? Wow.” Trump wrote. He later deleted the tweet; his spokesperson, Andy Surabian, said he did so because his followers were “misconstruing” his message.

“Don’s tweet was simply him asking if it was true that Kamala Harris was half Indian because it’s not something he had ever heard before,” Surabian told the New York Times. He added Trump did not mean to suggest Harris is not black or that she is somehow not black enough.

By the time Trump’s message was deleted, Harris’s Democratic rivals had come to her defense. Biden, with whom Harris has differed on the issues of race and civil rights of late, wrote that he saw parallels between claims that former President Obama is not a US citizen and those that Harris is not truly black.

“The same forces of hatred rooted in ‘birtherism’ that questioned Barack Obama’s American citizenship, and even his racial identity, are now being used against Senator Kamala Harris,” Biden said. “It’s disgusting and we have to call it out when we see it. Racism has no place in America.”

“Birtherism,” the idea that Obama was not born in the US, was popularized in part by Donald Trump, who gained political traction by propagating the conspiracy theory. The elder Trump discussed the idea a number of times before launching his presidential campaign, and made comments like this one from a 2011 appearance on The O’Reilly Factor:

If you are going to be president of the United States you have to be born in this country. And there is a doubt as to whether or not he was. ... He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or he may not have one. But I will tell you this. If he wasn’t born in this country, it’s one of the great scams of all time.

After Obama released his birth certificate, Trump continued to promote birtherism, and eventually began to falsely claim Hillary Clinton was behind the spread of the conspiracy theory.

Sen. Bernie Sanders referenced this history in his defense of Harris, tweeting, “Donald Trump Jr. is a racist too. Shocker.”

Within minutes of the original tweet about Harris’s background being sent, a network of bot accounts associated with trolls began to spread the message across Twitter. This coordination and the rapid distribution of the message led to other candidates pointing out what they saw as a confluence of racism and social media’s effect on election interference.

“The attacks against Kamala Harris are racist and ugly,” wrote Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “We all have an obligation to speak out and say so. And it’s within the power and obligation of tech companies to stop these vile lies dead in their tracks.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar likewise derided trolls while referencing Russia, which used social media in its attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Senate reports found Russian actors used tweets similar to the one retweeted by Trump Jr. in their attempt to interfere in the 2016 election; many of the social media efforts focused on black Americans, and a concerted effort was made to mislead black Americans into sharing Russian-made propaganda organically. Investigations have also determined that Russian actors employed troll farms and bots in a manner reminiscent of how the anti-Harris tweet was spread.

“These troll-fueled racist attacks on Senator Kamala Harris are unacceptable,” Klobuchar said. “We are better than this (Russia is not) and stand united against this type of vile behavior.”

Both Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg applauded Harris, one of two black presidential candidates, for her run and commented on the long history of discrimination in the US.

“There’s a long history of black Americans being told they don’t belong — and millions are kept down and shut out to this day,” O’Rourke said. “Kamala Harris is an American. Period.”

Buttigieg added that, regardless of her parental lineage, Harris is a first-generation American whose story resonates with millions.

“The presidential competitive field is stronger because Kamala Harris has been powerfully voicing her Black American experience,” he said. “Her first-generation story embodies the American dream. It’s long past time to end these racist, birther-style attacks.”

Other candidates offered similar messages of support:

Harris has not responded to the tweet directly. She has been fielding this line of attack since her days as a Senate candidate, and after launching her campaign, she said on the Breakfast Club of people criticizing her expression of identity and her parents: “This is the same thing they did to Barack. This is not new to us — we know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to do what has been happening the last two years, which is powerful voices trying to sow hate and division among us. We need to recognize when we’re being played.”