‘Racist dog whistles’ sound as Kamala Harris becomes first major party Black VP candidate

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention. Associated Press. Photo credit: Associated Press

By Lucy Ruscitto | Staff Writer

As the announcement about the newly-designated Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris circulates, so does information about the candidate: she’s the first Black vice presidential nominee of a major political party, the first Asian American and third woman to run for the same office, and burgeoning “birther” conspiracies are following her.

NPR reported on Aug. 13 that President Donald Trump said he had reason to believe vice presidential candidate Harris may not be eligible to be Joe Biden’s running mate.

“I just heard it today that she [Harris] doesn’t meet the requirements and by the way the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer,” Trump said at a White House press conference last Thursday.

Harris faces claims that because her parents were not born on U.S. soil, she could be ineligible for the vice presidential candidacy — a “birther conspiracy.”

The term “birtherism” originated during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, during which supporters of the Republican Party began to circulate information suggesting that Obama “was not born in the United States and is thus ineligible to serve as President of the United States,” according to Dr. Philip Klinkner from Hamilton College.

Dr. Samuel Perry, an associate professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, has a research background in presentations of violence enforcing white supremacy, and how they were appropriated by groups such as the Communist Party and the NAACP. Perry said that eventually, this research led him to delving into the ways in which racism and religion continuously relate in the United States. He said he has done extensive examination into the birther conspiracy of Obama’s campaign, and more recently, Kamala Harris’.

Perry said the term “birtherism” is a set of conspiracy theories, picked up and established in a link of chain emails created by politician Andy Martin.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Martin said he was “going to have a tremendous impact on the presidential election, not because I’m the frontrunner. Clearly I’m not. But I’ll be driving the agenda in the Republican Party.”

“[He] was sort of a professional conspiracy theorist,” Perry said. “As the election progressed, pundits on the right began to integrate the theory into online news sites that were fairly fringe. The birther theory mainlined some of those sites, most notably WND [World Net Daily]. WND founder Joseph Farah was a longtime journalist who pushed a news that skewed toward the Christian Right including Islamophobic and homophobic content. At its height, WND had millions of unique viewers each day.”

Perry said these claims against both Obama and Harris are what he believes to be an excuse for racist tendencies.

“The birther theory was a way to use racist dog whistles concerning Obama without using standard racist tropes. By claiming Obama was not American, birthers attempted to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency on the basis of his identity,” Perry said. “The claims are easily disproved. The Harris birther claims are somewhat different because they do not dispute that Harris was born in America, but instead question the validity of birthright citizenship.”

Baylor associate professor of political science Dr. Curt Nichols said that attempts to hurt Obama’s campaign had “conspiratorial overtones.”

“With the case of President Obama, there was an fairly long-term attempt to misinform and suggest he wasn’t born where he claimed he was,” Nichols said.

Nichols said that he wanted to emphasize that Kamala Harris did not qualify as a birther conspiracy case because she meets the Constitution requirements that the president has to be a “natural born citizen.”

Nichols said that because Harris’ parents were non-citizens at the time of her birth in America, that may be the reason that these conspiracies may have began to circulate. He also said that Harris does meet Article II of the Constitution, a “natural born” citizen, born in 1964 in California, granting her “birthright” citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Nichols said that if Obama had been born outside of the U.S., he would not have been qualified as a natural born citizen.

“At the time of his birth, a mother could only pass her citizenship status on to her offspring if she were 21 years old. Obama’s mother was not. And, his father was Kenyan. Thus, the only way for Obama to be a natural born citizen was to be born on American soil,” Nichols said.

Perry said that while President Obama won his two presidential elections, the long-term implications of the birther conspiracy origination is that they have become normalized within politics — like now, with Kamala Harris.

“Birther discourses concerning Obama became a regular talking point for many figures in or associated with the Republican Party,” Perry said. “So, the normalization of conspiracy theories and the mainstreaming of fringe news websites has had a lasting effect.”