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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden watches on as his running mate Senator Kamala Harris speaks at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware on Aug. 13, 2020.Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

It did not take long after Kamala Harris became the first woman of colour to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket for some to begin questioning how the California Senator fit into the fraught racial politics of the United States.

Social media and cable news buzzed with debates over whether Ms. Harris – an Oakland-born daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother, who is married to a white Jewish lawyer – was Black enough or South Asian enough to appeal to voters from either demographic. Or whether, as the child of immigrants, she was even eligible to run for office at all.

Many of those attacks came from conservatives, including President Donald Trump. In a tirade reminiscent of his birther conspiracy against former president Barack Obama, Mr. Trump raised a theory promoted in a recent Newsweek article claiming that Ms. Harris was not a natural-born U.S. citizen. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” he said late last week. “I would have assumed that the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice-president.”

On the weekend, the President was pressed on her eligibility but declined to label the theory as false. “I have nothing to do with it. I read something about it,” he said at a news conference Saturday.

Elizabeth Renzetti: The phony war against Kamala Harris

But the critiques came equally from progressive Black activists, some of whom argued that Ms. Harris was not truly African-American because she was not the descendant of slaves, and therefore her family had not struggled against the cumulative effects of racial discrimination over generations. Her record as a career prosecutor has also been met with suspicion among some Democrats.

“Foundational Black American women don’t have the luxury to opt in and out of Blackness when it’s convenient,” filmmaker and activist Tariq Nasheed wrote on Twitter hours after Ms. Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. He included a video of Ms. Harris cooking an Indian dish with actor Mindy Kaling.

These lines of attack are not new for Ms. Harris, who faced many of the same criticisms during her unsuccessful run in 2019 for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. And they follow similar attacks against Mr. Obama, who was forced to confront questions about his own racial identity in a March, 2008, speech on racial reconciliation that proved to be a pivotal moment in his bid for the White House.

In one of her first media interviews on Sunday since becoming the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee, Ms. Harris told TheGrio, a news site aimed at an African-American audience, that Black voters need to look past any reservations they have about her or Mr. Biden and focus on defeating Mr. Trump in November.

“I would encourage everybody: Look you may not fall in love with who you’re voting for, but if you just look down at a piece of paper at the issues that are impacting you everyday … you’ll know that there’s so much on the line in this election,” she said. She added the Biden-Harris campaign would focus on closing the racial wealth gap, including plans to support Black entrepreneurs and small businesses, and loan forgiveness for graduates of historically Black colleges and universities.

Other prominent Black voices such as filmmaker Ava DuVernay argue that the focus on Ms. Harris’ racial identity, or her career in law enforcement, threatens to undermine the Democrats’ efforts to beat Mr. Trump in November.

“So I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity,” Ms. DuVernay wrote on Instagram last week. “There is no debate anymore. Not for me anyway.”

But for Ms. Harris, the focus on how to define her – and how she will be viewed by voters – is intense at a time of particular racial tensions in the U.S., with Black Lives Matter protests continuing in several cities less than three months before the November presidential election.

The debate is especially difficult for women of colour, who have to navigate both gender and racial politics, said Chryl Laird, a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine and co-author of this year’s Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.

“People are going to try to define her in different ways. People are going to try to shift it around and change it,” she said. “Those are all challenges that I think are common for women who fall into an intersectional identity. When you come from two marginalized groups, and that identity combines together, it’s like this unique place that she’s going to be situated.”

Ms. Harris, herself, has sometimes publicly embraced or played down different aspects of her own ethnic background. “I was born Black. I will die Black,” she told a radio station in February, 2019, during her unsuccessful presidential run. A month earlier she told her alma mater, Howard University, a traditionally Black college: “I describe myself as a proud American, that’s how I describe myself.”

How Ms. Harris identifies herself does matter to voters, said Teresa Cosby, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina who specializes in ethnic and racial politics. Describing herself as both a Black and South Asian woman is likely to be embraced by voters from both communities, who are long used to having their racial identity defined for them by broader American society.

“It is an issue that’s very, very familiar in the Black community,” Prof. Cosby said. “When people start talking about biracial and mixed-race in the Black community, the recognition is: I don’t care how you identify yourself, the American community is going to identify you as Black. You have to understand that, and then you have to understand how to navigate that.”

Her identity as a Black woman is particularly important to the Democratic Party, experts say, because African-American women have long been seen as the party’s most loyal voters, but have sometimes felt as if their loyalty has been taken for granted.

To counter that criticism, the Biden campaign will have to present Ms. Harris as more than a symbolic choice for vice-president, allowing the former prosecutor to take the lead on issues such as criminal justice reform.

Mr. Biden will also have to offer more to communities of colour than just his running mate by making meaningful commitments during the campaign, such as proposals to demilitarize police or to launch a commission on systemic racial inequality, and then following through should he get elected, said Alvin Tillery, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois.

“Vice-presidents don’t typically win elections for candidates,” he said. “If Mr. Biden stumbles along the way and doesn’t make his own promises around race and criminal justice reform, then nothing that Kamala Harris is going to say is going to matter.”

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