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Does Harold Ford Jr.’s Race Matter?

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Posted on Jan 18, 2010
Harold Ford Jr.
AP / Alex Brandon

In this photo from Nov. 8, 2006, Democrat Harold Ford Jr. waits to deliver his concession speech following his loss to Republican Bob Corker for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.

By Marcia Alesan Dawkins

New Yorkers, beware. It seems that former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a transplant from Tennessee, has upset people again. Ford, an executive at Merrill Lynch and New York University lecturer who might be seeking to unseat fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in a race for the U.S. Senate, has made a very bold statement about his identity. In 2006, Ford claimed that despite official government documentation, family records and testimony to the contrary, his grandmother, Vera Ford, was not black. Rather, she was a white woman passing as black.

According to the website The Black Commentator, Ford’s declaration has resurfaced recently and is not only fraudulent but insulting: “There seem to be no limits to the young congressman’s perfidy and stupidity. In the process of depicting his own ancestors as people living a lie, Ford has also insulted the Black public and Black history—not to mention common sense, a quality of which Harold Jr. seems to be totally lacking.”

Even though Ford’s father says that Vera was white, the website begs to differ because other relatives, including Ford’s aunt Barbara, maintain that Vera was black. The larger concern seems to be that if Ford would revise his own identity for political gain, there might be other and more far-reaching issues about which Ford feels he has the right and obligation to control or reframe for expediency, such as his record on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. Can Ford be trusted?

Ford’s critics, including family members who disagree with his story, argue that he is essentially a race traitor because he is a black man. They also question why it matters that Ford brought focus so heavily upon Vera as a (potentially) white ancestor. But I wonder if his contention is really so far-fetched or artless. When we step back and consider the long history of anxieties regarding miscegenation and the strict policing of borders between black and white, the choices begin to make sense. Mixing between African Americans and other nonwhites has been far less fraught than that between blacks and whites, leaving the black/white paradigm intact and the “one-drop rule” unchallenged. Ford’s grandfather, who is reported to be of African American and Native American ancestry, does not seem to be such a controversial figure. Claiming that his grandmother was passing as black does require Ford to show some moxie and speaks to larger issues of race in the United States—not just interracially, but also intraracially, as pressure to choose sides figures into racial politics as well. In the pre-civil rights era of U.S. history, many people with multiracial ancestry were forced to identify as either white or black, but never (or very rarely) as both white and black. 

The validity of Ford’s claim is not the issue, particularly because it’s so difficult to prove. Profiling is a slippery issue, and government documents have been contested. For instance, Susie Guillory Phipps of Louisiana unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1982-1983. Phipps was designated as black on her birth certificate but wanted it to reflect the white status under which she’d lived out her life. It should be noted that Phipps lost her case because: (1) The state’s repeal of the “one-drop rule” was not retroactive; and (2) she could not present “a preponderance of evidence” showing that the birth certificate was wrong.


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A related example was reported last year in the Chicago Tribune. Two transsexuals, Kari Rothkopf and Tori Kirk, sued the state of Illinois in order to switch the gender on their birth certificates. They too were unsuccessful, but only because their sex-change surgeries were not performed in the United States.

So, people have been unofficially changing their races, genders and identity labels for decades here in the U.S. Why such a brouhaha about Ford? What’s at stake?

A little political history about the candidate can help answer these questions. Ford experienced some major disadvantages of being black in 2006, when he lost his race for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee to Republican Bob Corker. According to the website BlackAmericaWeb, “The race smacked of racial overtones and Republicans played hardball by making race an issue.” A controversial Republican ad portrayed Ford as many media outlets are now portraying Tiger Woods: as a white-woman-chasing playboy who, it later turned out, could not be trusted. Many Democrats were particularly outraged by one ad playing on historical fear and anger over interracial relationships. Sound familiar?

In our current “ethnically ambiguous” generation, there are advantages for Ford if Vera was a white passing as black. For one, it allows Ford to lay claim to a multiracial identity and adds a layer of mystery to his persona. We can predict that this will be a political asset, as Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about President Barack Obama suggested that multiracial identity makes a candidate of color much more palatable.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ford stated that Obama’s election whetted his “appetite to be part of the [political] process in a more meaningful and tangible way.” Passing for black and laying claim to mixed-race identity could also work to quell fears that were stirred up about Ford’s personal life during the 2006 campaign. Finally, making the claim that his grandmother passed as black also presupposes that distinct advantages existed for black people even under Jim and Jane Crow segregation. It’s racial common sense that people who could, would pass as white under these circumstances. But to pass as black? This would be a move that undermined the historic black/white social hierarchy that was the basis for segregation and discrimination, upset the biological foundation of race itself and questioned the notion of calling anyone a “race traitor.” This is powerful stuff indeed. 

Though it’s unlikely that “Ann Coulter’s Favorite Democrat” will want to have this conversation, Ford should be aware that upholding his claims to multiracial identity will require some strategic maneuvering. This is because the question of what makes someone black or white—or all or none of the above—is now more complex than ever. No matter how many pundits declare that race and racism are dead politically, we must remember that politicians running for office are all in the persuasion business. And Ford has once again confirmed that race is one of persuasion’s biggest material—and immaterial—dimensions. 

Correction: The the outcome of the lawsuit involving Kari Rothkopf and Tori Kirk was successful and resulted in the state of Illinois issuing new birth certificates to all who followed the specified guidelines.

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By josie, March 2, 2010 at 3:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What is wrong with acknowledging one is multi-racial?! Millions of Americans are multi-racial…it will one day be the norm.Most of us are multi-cultural.Some (black)groups need to get over the paranoia that you are “bad” if you acknowledge the fact that your ancestry is bi-racial or multi-racial. Be proud and embrace all parts of your ancestry and heritage, and don’t let any group or person make you ashamed. It is appreciated that President OBama does not demean his white mother and grandparents, but acknowledges they are an important of his heritage.

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By M Henri Day, January 22, 2010 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment

One thing is certain - the US Senate is in dire need of a senator from Merrill Lynch to balance the other senators from Goldman Sachs. Variety, we are told, is the spice of life….


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By InTheKnow, January 20, 2010 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

Listen, if there is a debate raging as to whether or not Mr. Ford’s grandmother was white or black, it probably means that she was both. More than likely she was a woman of very light skin (very moderately complected) who in her day and time was considered “colored”. Such individuals appear to be white (because they are mostly), but in the color-stricken community they live in, care has been taken to note their inter-racial ancestry. So, white folks consider them to be “colored”, and some black folks consider them to be “white”. So, in the minds of people of her day, Vera Ford was “passing” as both white and “colored”; not that uncommon at all, I suspect. Today, we just openly acknowledge that such individuals are biracial.

I think that Obama’s campaign for President raised the awareness in the minds of many people concerning the business of biraciality. In Obama, we find an individual who looks so familiar to most of us in his appearance, and whose parents were undeniably from two different ethnic groups. I suspect that many people of Obama’s skin color have become more aware of their biraciality. Perhaps that’s way Mr. Ford feels compelled to talk more openly about his grandmother.

I think this century, with all that’s going on with geneological testing and racial awareness, many more African-americans will acknowledge their white roots as well as their African roots.

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 6:34 pm Link to this comment


NO. I do not hate Hillary. I just think she’s just another opportunist power-grabber.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 19, 2010 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment

rfidler, January 19 at 4:53 pm #

Deep thinking from RdV!

About as deep as needed.

I KNOW you hate Hillary Clinton, but when SHE came to New York State, she didn’t commute to a fancy job on Wall Street, but went ALL OVER the state (Visit Oswego and Utica and Troy and you’ll learn how much hard work THAT is!)  She took the time to learn about the state, the people, their problems, and not just the City.

The difference between Hillary and Harold isn’t her race versus his, but her can-do, in-the-trenches attitude versus HIS fon-due in-the-penthouse attitude.

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By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment

Deep thinking from RdV!

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By RdV, January 19, 2010 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

Who gives a shit?
The guy is an asshole.

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By Talented Tenth, January 19, 2010 at 11:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This almost seems like news for news’ sake. Given the author’s background, I’m surprised that she doesn’t highlight the cultural subtleties that are inherent here. Ford, more so than many African Americans, clearly has white ancestry, a fact that didn’t really need to be publicly acknowledged.

Although we currently have a biracial president, we still do not live in a society that accepts or understands the multiracial nature of many of its citizens. Because of my own family’s ‘composition’, I would be willing to bet that many lighter complexioned blacks are less ‘black’ than they are white and/or Native American. Thus, why is Ford a race traitor when he speaks up about this? In a community where stories of ‘passing’ are so prevalent, it’s interesting how seldom frank discussions or contemplation on the subject occurs within the black community. My family has meticulously chronicled our history and I must say that I’m rather proud of my ancestors regardless of their race or color and while I certainly consider myself black, I am neither reluctant nor afraid to acknowledge by multiracial family history.

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By DieDaily, January 19, 2010 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

I do!

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 19, 2010 at 7:07 am Link to this comment


Did you feel the same way about Hillary? Just asking.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 19, 2010 at 4:18 am Link to this comment

Let me see…
Harold Ford came to NYC to work for Merrill.
He lives in a fancy apt most New Yorkers can’t even dream about.
He is chauffeured everywhere he wants to go, never takes a cab or rides a subway.
He lives NOTHING in his life that is any way comparable to how most New Yorkers live, White, Black, Brown or Yellow.
He knows even LESS about Upstate New Yorkers than he does about Downstaters.
He’s been a DINO all his political career and has NOTHING in common with New York and northeastern Democrats.

He has less in common with Black New Yorkers than a Hawaiian-born son of a Caucasian mother and a Kenyan father, who at least was a real community organizer in Chicago.

THIS is the guy who thinks he should hold Bobby Kennedy’s and Hillary Clinton’s chair?

I think the bubble he’s living in is too rose-colored….

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By Hammond Eggs, January 18, 2010 at 9:56 pm Link to this comment

New Yorkers, beware. It seems that former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a transplant from Tennessee, has upset people again. Ford, an executive at Merrill Lynch . . .

You don’t have to read any further than this, or be cognizant of Ford’s reactionary views, to know exactly what he is: another hustler from the Democratic party.

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By Bryant Whitfield, January 18, 2010 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As an African-American, I thought, “wow, here’s a brother who looks promising in the Democrat ranks.” Then, I learn of his Congressional father’s and general family’s patronage, his decidedly non-progressive views, and this stupid assertion of his - and I think, maybe that loss to Corker wasn’t such a bad thing.  Nah, I dislike Lieberman even more and if Harold would have won, Lieberman would be a chairless Senator with no say about the Health insurance reform bill.  But I still don’t like Harold.

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