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Kamala Harris’ family did not come from India to Jamaica to exploit Black slaves

September 22, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: “My family came to Jamaica from India to exploit the black African slaves we bought like cattle. Now I pretend to be African American to exploit them for votes,” says a caption with a 2017 photo of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Harris did not make that statement, and there is no evidence anyone in her family went from India to Jamaica to exploit Black slaves.

THE FACTS: Posts online are falsely suggesting that Kamala Harris’ ancestors traveled from India to Jamaica to benefit from the slave trade. The social media posts appear to be an effort to question the candidate’s family heritage ahead of the election.

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Kamala Harris’ father, Donald Harris, is Jamaican, and both she and her father identify as Black. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born and raised in India. Harris’ parents met at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s as graduate students.

In 2018, Donald Harris, a Stanford University emeritus professor of economics, detailed his family’s history in Jamaica in an essay in Jamaica Global Online.

There is no mention in his essay of having Indian ancestry, and he makes clear his family has been in Jamaica for generations. The elder Harris does write that his paternal grandmother descended from a slave owner. That part of his essay has been distorted repeatedly in recent months to fuel misleading claims on social media about the Harris family’s connections to slavery in Jamaica.

In one false meme, a photo of Kamala Harris is captioned with the words, “My family came to Jamaica from India to exploit the Black African slaves we bought like cattle. Now I pretend to be African American to exploit them for votes.”

There is no evidence of Harris ever saying this or that it is accurate.

The photo in the meme was taken by The Associated Press during a June 2017 Senate hearing when Harris was questioning former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The post, which has circulated on Facebook since 2019, received thousands of likes on Twitter, where it was being shared Monday. Social media users first began resharing the post after Harris was selected in August as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s pick for vice president.

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In Donald Harris’ 2018 essay, he wrote, “My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town).”

The AP was not able to independently confirm Donald Harris’ connection to Hamilton Brown, who was born in Ireland, nor have amateur genealogists or fact-checking organizations been able to prove such a link.

Caitlin Rosenthal, a University of California, Berkeley history professor, told the AP in an email that while it is clear that Hamilton Brown was a major slave owner, “what is much less clear is how he fits into Kamala Harris’s family tree.”

Rosenthal added, “What is most likely is that she is descended from both enslaved people and from slave owners, just like most African Americans today.”

Sasha Turner, a Jamaican professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, told the AP it is not surprising for Black Jamaicans to find out someone in their bloodline was a white slave holder, since “rape was part of the everyday experience of slavery.”

But social media posts in recent months have tried to use Donald Harris’ essay to undermine Kamala Harris’ Black identity and allege without evidence that she is a beneficiary of slavery.

“Just a reminder. Kamala’s own father said she’s not African-American. In fact, her family from Jamaica were rich Slave Owners!” reads one such post.

“This is really just a matter of twisting the facts,” Turner said. “It’s very disconcerting and quite disappointing that a history of such brutality, of such terror, is also being used in this way to terrorize.”

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536