Shaun King is a 36-year-old Atlanta-based activist who has played a prominent role in anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter. He publicly identifies as “black or biracial” and is the son, according to a 2012 profile, of “a Caucasian mother and an African-American father.” Yesterday, however, the nativist website Breitbart.com began questioning King’s story of his upbringing, and focused on purported evidence suggesting that his father is in fact white. King eventually dismissed Breitbart’s questions as the work of a “white supremacist conspiracy,” but not before further inflaming a debate that has since mesmerized conservative media circles.
Breitbart’s report, authored by the British Gamergate activist Milo Yiannopoulos, suggests that King has repeatedly lied about his race, illicitly obtained a scholarship funded by Oprah Winfrey for men attending a historically black university, and exaggerated the severity of physical injuries he sustained during a 1995 hate crime and an unrelated car accident. Yiannopoulos draws heavily from documents obtained by Daily Caller reporter Chuck Ross and a blogger named Vicki Pate, the latter of whom appears to be obsessively devoted to smearing black people who were killed by police officers and discrediting black people who managed to survive police brutality.
The crucial piece of evidence is King’s birth certificate, acquired by Pate earlier this month, which indicates he was born to Naomi Kay Fleming and Jeffery Wayne King of Versailles, Kentucky in 1979. Based on King’s Instagram, Fleming certainly appears to be white. However Pate managed to locate several police mugshots that purport to depict a man matching Jeffery Wayne King’s description, down to his name, age, and Kentucky residence. Determining a person’s race from photographs alone is impossible, but the man in these mugshots is clearly fair-skinned.
After Breitbart’s piece came out, The Daily Beast reported that “criminal records identify Jeffrey King’s ethnicity as white.” This appears to refer to Broward County, Florida records which indicate that a serial arrestee named Jeffery Wayne King—whose biographical details line up closely with the father named on Shaun King’s birth certificate and the man of the same name who was arrested several times in Kentucky—is listed as white.
Furthermore: Last night, CNN anchor Don Lemon said he had contacted an unnamed member Shaun King’s family, and reported that this member told him that both of King’s parents are white. He also described a conversation with King himself:
LEMON: OK. Welcome back, everyone. Here’s our breaking news tonight. Shaun King, he is a leading voice for the Black Lives Matter facing some very tough questions and tonight about his own race. A family member tells CNN that both King’s parents are white. But when I asked him tonight if he is legally black or white, initially, he did not answer. But, later, he referred to himself as bi-racial. But then when I asked him if that’s what he chose on his birth certificate I did not hear back from him. No answer on that.
The evidence here is substantial, and while questions about King’s racial background seem to have been floating around for the past few weeks, the activist did not address them directly until his birth certificate received Breitbart’s attention on Wednesday. Several hours after the website’s report, he took to Twitter to dispute its central argument—that he is not, in fact, black or biracial—first by describing Vicki Pate as a “known white supremacist” and later by stating that his family is “one big mess” and “full of secrets, divorce, affairs, etc.”
It's going to me a second, but let me show you, on my terms, in my way, that what is happening today is a white supremacist conspiracy.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 19, 2015
23. In essence, what is happening to me now, is like conservatives demanding Obama's long form birth certificate. It's all BULLSHIT.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 19, 2015
29. If you have known me from when I was in elementary school at Huntertown Elementary until now, you've known me as black or bi-racial.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 19, 2015
32. Out of LOVE for my family, I've never gone public with my racial story because it's hurtful, scandalous, and it's MY STORY.— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 19, 2015
King did not expand on what he meant by his “racial story” or why it was “scandalous,” and otherwise did not address the fact that both of the parents listed on his birth certificate appear to be white—an omission that Breitbart immediately highlighted as further proof that King is not black or biracial. At the same time, King’s tweets raise the possibility that his birth certificate does not fully (or even accurately) describe the circumstances of his birth or upbringing.
Given the sheer weirdness of this story, it’s worth pausing to point out a few things that are true:
- Shaun King, as a highly visible anti-racism activist, has been repeatedly attacked by conservatives for what they say are major inconsistencies in his public statements (such as the nature of the aforementioned hate crime in 1995) and their belief that King is profiting off of the deaths of black people from police brutality. One of his earliest antagonists was none other than Charles C. Johnson.
- The same conservatives who are attacking King tend to believe that he and other activists systemically and deliberately exaggerate—and in some cases invent wholesale—the degree of subjugation experienced by black people during encounters with law enforcement. In other words, they tend to be racist.
- The arguments against King described in points 1 and 2 are not supported by any real evidence.
- The suggestion that Shaun King might not actually be black or biracial is not based on a “white supremacist conspiracy.” It’s based on a public record, King’s birth certificate, which lists a white woman and a white man as his biological parents. Vicki Pate may be a white supremacist (or worse), but her argument relies on a government document that appears to contradict King’s public statements about his racial background. That’s not a conspiracy, white supremacist or otherwise.
- As noted above, it remains possible that King’s birth certificate is inaccurate. It’s far from unprecedented for such a record to contain erroneous information. If that’s the case, it could be why King suggested that his “racial story” is “hurtful” and “scandalous”; perhaps his birth certificate does not tell the full story.
One last point: This entire story occupies an extremely gray area between the racist practice of policing the ethnic makeup of black people and the phenomenon of people who grew up as white electing, later in life, to identify as black. (Remember Rachel Dolezal?) Given King’s circumspect answers to publicly-available evidence, it’s very hard to say where exactly he falls. What is clear, however, are the actual motives of the individuals scrutinizing King’s racial background: They want to discredit King because they desperately want to discredit anti-racism activism as a whole, and will stop at nothing to do so.
Indeed, in an email conversation with Gawker, Breitbart’s Milo Yiannapolous told us that “someone whose public career and fundraising ability—and let’s remember he has been publicly accused of misappropriating funds by perhaps a dozen people—depends on his family mythology, a story he repeats at every appropriate moment, has no grounds to complain that journalists are paying undue attention to his family when it emerges that he has lied about his ethnic background.”
We reached out to Shaun King last night and will update this post if we hear back.