Shaun King, a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, responded last week to accusations published by some conservative websites that he has lied about being biracial, and about being the victim of racially-motivated attacks.
“The reports about my race, about my past, and about the pain I’ve endured are all lies,” he wrote on Thursday in article for Daily Kos, the liberal news site where he works.
Both The Daily Caller—which referred to King as “the facebook pastor”—and Breitbart.com cited a police report from 1995, which listed King’s identity as white. King, who claims the incident that resulted in the police report was an example of racial tensions that had surfaced at his school, offered harrowing details about the brutality he says he faced.
“In March of 1995, it all boiled over and a racist mob of nearly a dozen students beat me severely, first punching me from all sides,” King wrote. “When I cradled into a fetal position on the ground they stomped me mercilessly, some with steel-toed boots, for about 20 seconds. That day changed the entire trajectory of my life.”
In an attempt to defend his identity and silence his critics, King offered up a complicated family history, identifying his biological parents as a white mother and “light skinned black man,” who, The Washington Post reports, is not the man listed on his birth certificate.
If he’s right that conservatives think taking out King will deflate Black Lives Matter and other movements against police brutality, then perhaps they don’t actually understand these movements at all. It is a grassroots movement. It has no leader. The removal of a popular champion won’t necessarily impede its progress.
Some conservatives have used the questions surrounding Shaun King’s race and his retelling of experiences as a victim of racial attacks to expand on their beliefs about the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. It wouldn’t be the first time that civil-rights leaders have been targeted as proxies for the movements to which they give voice.
Black leaders, from Angela Davis to Martin Luther King Jr. to Assata Shakur, have long been subject to surveillance and to assaults on their personal integrity. Innovations in social media make it ever easier to have voyeuristic access to someone’s past. This is not the first time outlets, like those that have singled out Shaun King as the “Rachel Dolezal 2.0”, have focused their attention on the leaders of racial movements as a means of trying to dismantle the movements at large. Last week, King tweeted a picture of an Assata Shakur quote that read, “the first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us”:
Truth bomb. This is what's happening right now. Not just with me, but with many of us. Seems coordinated for sure. pic.twitter.com/nl40nXEni2
In analysis of King’s response to his article, Breitbart’s Jerome Hudson wrote that “it was convenient for King to identify as black. I don’t know why, but there is something especially alluring about seeing oneself as a victim.” Conservatives like Glenn Beck and sites like Breitbart apparently believe that leaders like King are fabricating lived experiences as people of color to secure platforms they shouldn’t hold, just as they believe that people of color commonly use race as an excuse or a means to procure unmerited advantage. Acknowledging the struggles attached to blackness, in that way, is equivalent to telling black people that they are playing the victim.
The original reporting about Shaun King’s race, and subsequent coverage of his reaction and his family history, almost always identified him by his connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. Vox’s German Lopez wrote that there is little doubt that King’s race matters to the movement: “If King isn't black or biracial, the movement may have a harder time accepting him as a leader of a cause that is inherently about how black people are treated.” But there is little evidence to support that.
Some see protestors like Shaun King as outside agitators, and seek to expose them as fraudulent. Discrediting the leaders—who believe that Michael Brown and countless others were killed because they are black and that race is intimately connected to the problems in the criminal-justice system—would impact how effective the Black Lives Matter ideals could be going forward.
Some conservatives seem not to grasp the nature of that cause. Breitbart’s Hudson recently wrote that the Black Lives Matter movement is an “anti-police political movement.” Shaun King and the black community as a whole are taking the easy way out by “placing blame for Black America’s morass at the feet of the police,” Hudson wrote. “For King and his clique, lionizing criminals like Freddie Grey and Michael Brown is easier than facing facts that 99.99 percent of the time, a black body is heading to the morgue because a black killer sent it there.”
Many supporters of King and other activists who are on the constant receiving end of abuse and threats say that this attack on his identity is just another effort to distract from more dire issues. Attacking King’s identity spares his critics the trouble of actually critiquing his “Justice Together” campaign against police brutality, or DeRay Mckesson’s “Campaign Zero,” or the other people of color who voice their displeasure with the system as it stands.
If critics can point to “King and his clique” as examples of the black community making excuses for itself, then they don’t have to be held accountable for listening to the overall narrative surrounding the struggles of black Americans. To them, Black Lives Matter would become just a community of people complaining about disadvantages that are out of their control without fixing ones that are.
Shaun King seems to come from a complicated family history, riddled with questions that may not have tightly-woven or clean-cut answers. Many people share that experience. He claims to be biracial, and some people don’t believe him. The truth is that his parentage is entirely inconsequential; what matters is the issues that he has raised. For those who continue to ask what impact his blackness or whiteness has on Black Lives Matter: There is none.