The announcement of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential pick has sent Republicans into a tailspin, and they’ve been checking all the squares on their racism BINGO cards with attempts to discredit her selection. From Tucker Carlson refusing to correctly pronounce Harris’s name to President Trump calling her names, the responses have been insulting — and predictable. One such attempt at invalidating Harris came from John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, who published an op-ed in Newsweek questioning whether Harris is eligible for the vice presidency based on her parents’ citizenship status at the time of her birth.
The op-ed — thinly-veiled racist ideology disguised as a debate about Constitutional law — has drawn immense blowback for its premise. That’s because the essay is plain old “birtherism” wrapped up in an intellectual bow. Eastman’s argument is that the law requires all Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates to be “natural born citizens.”
Under the 14th Amendment, Harris, who was born in Oakland, California, is a citizen of the U.S. even though her parents, who were from Jamaica and India, were not naturalized citizens at the time of her birth. Eastman claims that the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which says that citizens must be “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S., may disqualify Harris from eligibility. Many people have stated that this is false, including Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University.
Birtherism is a tactic Republicans have increasingly used to try and devalue or discredit people of color running for office. It began with Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, with people — mostly Hillary Clinton supporters at first, but the theory was later co-opted by the GOP — claiming that Obama was ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Kenya and smuggled into the country as a baby, as outlined by POLITICO.
Donald Trump has been one of the biggest proponents in promoting the conspiracy theory, the ideology of which was evident when he tweeted that “progressive Democratic Congresswomen” — namely Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, all of whom are women of color — should “go back” to their home countries.
For its part, Newsweek has stuck by the op-ed's publication, issuing an Editor’s Note proclaiming that the piece has “no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism.’” But whether Newsweek wants to call it birtherism or not, the truth is that the piece mirrors the conspiracy by making faux-intellectual arguments rooted in racist and xenophobic beliefs in an attempt to keep people of color out of positions of power. It's dangerous rhetoric because it perpetuates the idea that any person of color who rises to power does not deserve to be there or has somehow gamed the system.
As Adam Serwer wrote for The Atlantic, birther ideals, which stem from the belief that the people in charge of running the country should be white, are central to the success of the Trump campaign and to the actions of his administration: a desire “to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith.”
Birtherism is a last-gasp attempt by white people to hold onto white supremacy, by any means necessary, whether it be conspiracy theories about birth certificates or grasping at straws by parsing the language of Constitutional law hoping against hope there will be justification for excluding someone from power based on the color of their skin or their family’s heritage.
In Eastman’s case, perhaps it’s professional jealousy: in 2010, Eastman and Harris both ran for California attorney general. Eastman, a Republican, lost in the primary to Steve Cooley. Harris, a Democrat, ultimately won, beating Cooley in the general election. Eastman has also represented the North Carolina legislature and the State of Arizona in unsuccessfully petitioning the Supreme Court in cases involving same-sex marriage, immigration, and abortion, all issues he holds opposing views than Harris on.
While perhaps not a strictly personal vendetta on Eastman's part, his argument — and ones like it — is an example of a white ruling class that cannot stand the reality that a Black woman might beat them at their own game, or have the career and positions they wanted for themselves or successfully challenge their worldview at the level of government.
But ultimately, birtherism reveals more about the person espousing it than it does anyone else. It reveals the many Republican constituents who uphold this rhetoric as xenophobic, as backwards, and as unable to accept a changing power structure in this country. Most importantly, it reveals those who are unwilling to let go of the white supremacist system that has, for too long, kept people like them at the top with their boots on the rest of the world’s neck.