When controversy erupted around Rachel Dolezal a few months ago, it was such a complicated personal story that I decided not to comment publicly until I heard all the facts. I never wrote about it, never talked about it in the media and only posted one tweet about it, after I learned she had sued Howard University for racial discrimination — as a white woman.
Similarly, when controversy arose this week about the racial identity of Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, I decided to remain quiet unless I had enough information to make an intelligent comment.
Yesterday, King posted a detailed explanation and response to his critics. "The reports about my race, about my past, and about the pain I’ve endured are all lies," he wrote. He added:
"My mother is a senior citizen. I refuse to speak in detail about the nature of my mother’s past, or her sexual partners, and I am gravely embarrassed to even be saying this now, but I have been told for most of my life that the white man on my birth certificate is not my biological father and that my actual biological father is a light-skinned black man."
Apparently, King's mother, who is white, had an affair with a black man and people in his family knew about it and told him about it, but he never discussed it publicly. That didn't matter to conservative critics who dug up King's family records and tried to out him as a white man in an effort to discredit the work he's done in the community to fight against police brutality.
As King wrote yesterday, "My mother and I have discussed her affair. She was a young woman in a bad relationship and I have no judgment."
King's explanation makes sense, but it's sad he ever had to write one, and I feel sorry for him and his family, who've reportedly received death threats and personal verbal attacks since the story first hit the right-wing media.
Sadly, these types of attacks are inevitable and will continue to occur in the future. Any progressive movement with the political influence that Black Lives Matter has developed over the past year is bound to come under withering and often unfair scrutiny, especially as the group's leaders meet with presidential candidates and insert themselves into the dialogue of the campaign. Just look at the unfair attacks on Planned Parenthood in recent months, another group conservatives despise.
In a sense, however, the attacks reflect the success of the movement. No one would bother to dig up dirt on people they don't think are important. But Black Lives Matter has become an important discussion point for America, and that comes with a degree of backlash. Conservatives don't appreciate the media's sudden interest in police shootings of African Americans. Some white liberals don't appreciate protests of Bernie Sanders campaign events. And resentful progressives of all colors may question why this issue and its leaders are drawing more media coverage than their own causes and spokespeople.
DeRay McKesson has become, perhaps, the most visible spokesman for the movement, and, as I wrote last month, he's been widely attacked by critics who don't agree with his politics. His colleague Johnetta Elzie has also come under attack, and earlier this month, Marissa Jenae Johnson, the activist who interrupted a Sanders campaign event in Seattle, was supposedly "outed" as a former Sarah Palin supporter.
The attacks remind me and others of the FBI's COINTELPRO program, which was designed to discredit and disrupt the activities of the Black Panther Party and other groups in the 1960s. When Black people start questioning the leaders of a Black-identified political movement, it diminishes the opportunity to focus on the issue at hand. The focus on nontroversies like King's race purposefully divert our attention away from the issue of police brutality onto the far less important issue of personal identity.
Shaun King has explained why he's Black, and I believe him, but, to be honest, it doesn't matter if I believe him, and it doesn't matter if he is or isn't. In the same way, it doesn't matter to me that civil rights activist Michael Skolnik is white, and it wouldn't have mattered to me that Rachel Dolezal is white if she hadn't misrepresented herself.
Racial identity doesn't guarantee racial insight. I'd more likely listen to Skolnik, or even Dolezal, on race issues than someone like Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas. The conversation we've had the past week was designed to be a distraction from the true life stories of African-Americans who are suffering under the boot of police brutality and the meaningful steps that need to be taken to address it.
White supremacy, racial profiling and discriminatory policing are the issues, and we must remember to keep our eyes on the prize of justice. This is not the time to engage in, or fall for, the divisive tactics used to divide us for decades. As Audre Lorde wrote, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Shaun King)