Another activist is being accused of putting on blackface. But this time, the stakes are higher for the civil rights community.
On Wednesday, Breitbart.com posted a report stating that Shaun King, a civil rights activist and prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, “is white and has been lying about his ethnicity for years,” including using deceit to get an “Oprah scholarship” at the historically black Morehouse College. By early afternoon, Shaun King was a trending topic on Twitter.
“He’s no Rachel Dolezal,” King’s wife wrote in a Facebook post, referencing the inevitable comparisons to the former head of the Spokane NAACP whose parents said she’s white though she identifies as black. King himself posted a further explanation on DailyKos.com on Thursday afternoon, asserting that he is biracial. King says that his biological father was black and that the white man listed on his birth certificate was not his actual father.
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At first glance, this may seem to be similar to the media uproar that surrounded Dolezal. But many of the same people who found Dolezal's case the source of much entertainment are not laughing about King.
The difference? Though Dolezal was relatively unknown outside of Seattle before her controversy, King is well known in activist circles, and many are invested in his work. Also, for many that follow King on social media, the source of the accusations is a cause for concern.
Race continues to be a difficult topic for many Americans. On Wednesday, an article on Vox.com asked whether there was any way to “figure out whether King is black or biracial,” before answering its own question. “Unfortunately, no,” Vox writer German Lopez wrote, “because the entire concept of race is arbitrary to begin with.”
Certainly, the question of racial identity can be a fraught and difficult one. And ultimately, as King’s wife wrote in her Facebook post, it is his story to tell.
But, two questions remain: Even if Shaun King is white, who cares? And perhaps more important: Who is asking?
One group is doing more than asking. On Thursday, the Black Conservatives Fund put out a news release on its site offering $25,000 if King “will produce his alleged African American father or cooperate with a DNA test” to prove he is black.
The posting accuses King of "bullying" conservative blacks who do not share his views, and quotes the senior advisor to the fund, Ali Akbar, who said: "I'm biracial and I'm really concerned with left-wing activists like Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King calling people like me 'Uncle Tom' while they're not even black!"
The release couches the offer in the language of concern, saying that "Black Conservatives Fund believes that once King admits the truth, Black Lives Matter can continue its work without the unnecessary distraction of King."
But as Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors recently wrote, Black Lives Matter is “both a network and a movement,” with “26 chapters and affiliate allies who are not necessarily a part of the network.” Because it is so decentralized, it seems hard to be able to judge whether such a network as a whole would consider King, as the Black Conservatives Fund says, an “unnecessary distraction.”
Some tweets compared conservative blogger attention on King to COINTELPRO, an FBI counter-intelligence program during the J. Edgar Hoover days that, sometimes illegally, worked to disrupt and dismantle black civil rights groups. This suspicion may be partially inspired by the timing of the Breitbart post; in July, a report revealed that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., last August.
King has also suggested, via his Twitter account, that attacks seem “coordinated.” The Breitbart article was published just before the launch of Justice Together, a national group focused on ending police brutality for which King has been advocating. In his post, he expanded upon his suspicions, saying that he found it “horrifying” that “my private past and pain have been used as jokes and fodder to discredit me and the greater movement for justice in America.”
Some black interest sites have also raised questions about why media outlets that do not generally portray black activism in a positive light would be so concerned with “exposing” a white person within black ranks. On Wednesday evening, an article on MadameNoire put it bluntly, saying that “when White folks start going hard against Black revolutionaries, we should question the source, the motives and make sure the receipts check out.”
Just over a week before posting his Breitbart expose on Shaun King, British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos wrote a listicle lampooning the group, entitled “16 Movements Less Ridiculous than Black Lives Matter,” which included made-up slogans such as “Black Holes Matter” and “Black Sex Drives Matter.” Days later, another writer on the site posted this dismissive summary of Black Lives Matter:
As Breitbart news has extensively reported, the Black Lives Matter movement is the cop-hating bastard child of the 1960s Marxist group the Black Panthers and the 2011 Marxist, anarchist Occupy Wall Street movement, explicitly trained in Saul Alinsky tactics.
These are, in the parlance of the community, the receipts -- the records. And the records are clear: Neither Breitbart.com nor most of the conservative blogosphere calling King a fraud has displayed an investment in the well-being of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Instead, much of the conservative focus on King looks like what some on social media call "concern trolling": approaching a group of activists, and disingenuously gaining their trust by pretending to be a concerned ally. This allows the "concern troll" to sow seeds of doubt among the group, or, at the very least, to disrupt their conversation.
But for the time being, many prominent activists, such as DeRay Mckesson, who was deeply involved in the protests after Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Mo., have voiced their support for King. And the community that is most involved with Black Lives Matter seems to be more interested in Shaun King’s work than they are in the color of his skin, or the history of his family.