When Donald Trump Jr. shared a right-wing provocateur’s tweet saying Sen. Kamala Harris is not an “American black,” it provoked a series of angry responses from other Democratic presidential candidates, who denounced what they called the racist and “birther-style” attack.
But the president’s son was actually seizing on – and amplifying – a strain of argument made by a small group of liberal black activists. They say calling Harris “African American,” when her parents were born in Jamaica and India, effectively erases the history of most black people in this country, whose ancestors were American slaves and who have suffered for generations as a result.
“You don’t voluntarily immigrate into a community that is supposedly segregated, and then claim the struggles of people who have been here chained to chattel slavery for multiple generations,” one of the activists, Antonio Moore, said on his online radio show. “Kamala Harris does not have a black agenda.”
Moore is a leader of a tiny but outspoken movement called American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS, which has been rattling Democratic strategists and enraging some liberal black leaders by calling for a reimagining of black identity that replaces skin color with historical lineage as the defining characteristic. Descendants of American slaves, they say, should not be seen as part of broader groups like “people of color” or “minorities,” because their historical situation is completely different.
That argument is now shaping up as an attack on Harris, whose candidacy surged after she challenged former vice president Joe Biden on racial issues, repositioning herself as a candidate who speaks directly to the experience of African Americans.
Democratic strategists fear that the dynamic of mischief-makers on the right exacerbating minor divisions on the left could not only damage particular candidates but also dampen overall Democratic turnout in 2020. A similar strategy was adopted in 2016 by Russia, which exploited divisions on issues such as race and guns to hurt Democrats by starting Facebook groups with names like Blacktivist, Black Matters U.S. and Don’t Shoot Us.
ADOS frames its argument in terms of who should receive reparations for slavery, saying payments should go only to actual descendants of slaves. But the underlying message is that black Americans from immigrant families, even places like Jamaica, with a history of slavery under Spanish and British rule, do not have the same claim to the identity or the struggle for civil rights.
Other civil rights leaders respond that blacks not descended from slaves have also faced often-brutal racism and discrimination in the United States. Harris was bused to school as a young child as part of a push to address segregation.
Although ADOS is a small group, that tension has permeated into the broader conversation in many black communities in recent years. Barack Obama encountered it in his 2008 run for president.
When faced with a question regarding her authenticity in a radio appearance in February, Harris responded that such rigid distinctions misunderstand the beauty and diversity of the black community. “I was born black and I’ll die black, and I am proud of it,” Harris said in an interview on the Breakfast Club, an urban radio show with a large black audience. “And I am not going to make any excuses for it, for anybody, because they don’t understand.”
She announced on Saturday a $100 billion plan to counter the legacy of redlining, which made it harder for blacks to get home mortgages. The plan would provide assistance with down payments and closing costs for home buyers in historically redlined communities. The assistance would be targeted by income and geography, not race or lineage.
The tweet by Trump Jr. on June 27, which he later deleted, is the highest-profile Republican embrace of the ADOS line, but far from the only one. In recent months, anonymous posts on 4chan message boards frequented by Trump supporters have encouraged the creation of ADOS memes. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter tweeted, “I like #ADOS,” while suggesting the movement change its name to DOAS, for Descendants of American Slaves.
The idea of reparations for slavery has been gaining more attention recently, though it means different things to different people. Some say African Americans should get direct government payments to compensate for the horrors of slavery; others propose expanded social programs, debt forgiveness and similar actions.
In arguing that only descendants of slaves should get reparations, ADOS has some prominent defenders. William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University who has extensively studied income and asset inequality, has praised the movement for elevating demands for reparations and for pressuring the Democratic Party.
He co-wrote a recent study about the Los Angeles area that found the median wealth of a white household was $355,000, compared with $72,000 for recent immigrant Africans and $4,000 for American-born black people.
“A lot of people are sort of jumping out and saying this is xenophobic or nativist, but I don’t see this at all as a claim that is hostile to other communities,” Darity said. “There are people who perceived it as hostile because it breaks with the notion that there is complete homogeneity among the black community.”
He stressed that people not descended from slaves, like Harris or former president Barack Obama, are just as fit to be political leaders for the black community. He also praised candidates like spiritual leader Marianne Williamson and former housing secretary Julián Castro, who both defend the idea of reparations.
In practice, however, the discussion about lineage often becomes deeply personal.
Roland Martin, a black author and former CNN commentator who hosts an online news show, dismissed the effort to impose a black purity test as “nothing but self-hate cloaked in black self-love.” MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid describes the movement as “the black blood-and-soil thing that is happening online,” referring to the Nazis’ “blood and soil” racial purity slogan.
The leaders of the ADOS movement have also adopted controversial positions, further complicating the debate. Moore, for example, has questioned whether slave descendants should date black immigrants, and he has made a point of noting that some of his critics, like Reid, are also descended from African immigrants.
In a recent online video, he criticized a CBS News report about Harris’ background by saying that the network’s campaign team has no ADOS reporters and that the report came from a journalist with a Hispanic surname, “who clearly has a conflicted interest to write the story.”
Moore’s partner in leading ADOS, Yvette Carnell, a former aide to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., was previously a board member of Progressives for Immigration Reform, which has ties to right-wing immigration groups. The group argues that current immigration rates threaten the livelihoods of unskilled American-born workers, echoing concerns in some parts of the broader black community that immigrants in the country illegally can compete for jobs with African Americans.
Sometimes ADOS leaders will imitate the tropes of Republican operatives to drive home their argument that Democrats have not always stood by them.
Carnell once wore a “Make American Great Again” hat in a video, later saying it was a joke. The ADOS website, maintained by Carnell and Moore, says data support Trump’s assertion that black voters have “nothing to lose” by seeking an alternative to the Democratic Party.
Carnell and Moore attack prominent liberals who have advocated a public study of the reparations issue, including author Ta-Nehisi Coates, calling the notion of a preliminary study a “cop out” and criticizing Coates’s past support of Obama. Tweets carrying the ADOS hashtag regularly raise the possibility of supporting Trump in 2020 or otherwise punishing Democrats if they don’t endorse a lineage-based reparations program.
In interviews, Carnell and Moore said they oppose Trump and are not encouraging black voters to stay home or to vote for him. They point out that their central demand – a substantial new federal program to compensate for the harm of slavery – is sharply rejected by conservatives.
“We are both lifelong Democrats,” Carnell said. “Politics is an exchange, and we are expressing ourselves politically. For too long people have always expected us to be the mules of the Democratic Party.”
Still, pro-Trump activists have clearly taken note of their combative tone and begun to echo it.
The most successful conservative provocateur to spread the ADOS idea is Ali Alexander, who has a habit of pointing out that people he criticizes are Jewish and who is a colleague of political dirty trickster Jacob Wohl. Wohl spread a false claim earlier this year that Harris was not eligible for the presidency because of her parents’ immigration status. Harris was born in Oakland.
It was a message by Alexander that Donald Trump Jr. retweeted last month. “Kamala D. Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican,” wrote Alexander, who has a history of pointing out the Jewishness of figures he criticizes online. “I’m so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history.”
Trump Jr. later deleted the tweet, and his spokesman, Andy Surabian, said he had only circulated the message because he was surprised to learn about Harris’ family lineage. But the retweet gave the idea a new life online, and Alexander said he was invited by the Trump administration to Independence Day festivities in Washington a week later.
The exact size and impact of ADOS is difficult to quantify. But Kanishk Karan, a researcher at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, said there were more than 77,000 Twitter mentions of ADOS in the six days after the June 27 debate in Miami, compared to about 60,000 mentions in the six days prior.
And YouTube rebroadcasts of online ADOS radio shows by Moore and Carnell regularly get more than 25,000 views.
ADOS organizers acknowledge that conservative provocateurs have infected their online conversation, and they’ve called on Twitter to do more to ban overly aggressive accounts. “In the last week and a half or two weeks, trolls have really started to catch on, and are passing things around,” Carnell said.
For the movement’s critics, the conversation has now gone beyond a legitimate debate over reparations.
“At this point, to put it bluntly, ADOS is weaponized,” said Gregory Carr, co-chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University, who has been active in the fight for reparations since the 1980s. “It is so indefensibly xenophobic and nativist at this point.”
Carr said Moore’s discussion of black genealogy echoes some of “the ugliest elements of white identity.”
Talib Kweli Greene, a 43-year-old New York-based rapper and artist who supports reparations, has tangled with ADOS supporters online.
“I just think that she’s misinformed,” Greene said of Carnell. “She is letting her bigotry lead her into a place where she’s not even concerned that the rhetoric she’s spewing, right-wing bigots and racists and Trump supporters are aligning with.”
ADOS activists have also made themselves felt on the presidential campaign trail as they demand that Democrats embrace lineage-based reparations. They confronted South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a rally, hosted Marianne Williamson on an online radio show, and launched fierce attacks with hashtags like #JimCrowJoe against Biden, who has said he supports efforts to combat systemic racism but has not endorsed reparations.
The group has invited all the Democratic contenders to a conference in October at Simmons College of Kentucky. So far, only self-help author Williamson has said she will attend. She has proposed establishing a “reparations commission” to distribute $200 million to $500 million over 10 years to black communities.
“ADOS people have never been able to say we are a specific group that have a specific set of agenda items,” Carnell said. “This is not about voter suppression. This is about voter expression. If they come to us and really start engaging with us, they will get higher black turnout.”