Racial Identity of Activist Questioned but Does It Matter?

August 24, 2015 Updated: August 24, 2015

Questions about the racial identity of a well-known activist in the “Black Lives Matter” movement have stirred controversy and drawn a blistering response. But the central question remains: Does his race matter?

Shaun King, a blogger who identifies as black and rose to prominence in the aftermath of a police shooting last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, pushed back hard against claims on conservative Internet sites that both of his parents are white and that he had exaggerated an assault he endured two decades ago while attending high school in Versailles, Kentucky.

King posted a response on his blog last week in which he called those claims lies, and said he had always known the white man listed on his birth certificate was not his biological father.

“It is horrifying to me that my most personal information, for the most nefarious reasons, has been forced out into the open and that my private past and pain have been used as jokes and fodder to discredit me and the greater movement for justice in America,” King wrote. “I resent that lies have been reported as truth and that the obviously racist intentions of these attacks have been consistently downplayed at my expense and that of my family.”

There’s a long history of attacking the motives and backgrounds of people involved in civil rights movements — whether it’s calling into question political leanings or racial identity based on skin color, something King is confronting now and former NAACP leader Walter White grappled with near the beginning of the last century.

“Do I think his race matters?” said Vanderbilt University philosophy professor Lucius Outlaw Jr., an expert on social and racial issues. “And the question is to whom, and why does it matter? What difference does it make from the point of view of contributions to the movement? You don’t have to be black to say black lives matter.”

Outlaw said those who measure King’s legitimacy by his skin color may be giving in to antiquated definitions of race, the old notion that one drop of black blood defines a person as African-American. He also likened King’s case to former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to identify herself as a woman, which he said should be her choice to make.

“Do we get to decide or does he have the option of deciding how he wants to identify?” Outlaw said of King.

The allegations surfaced on conservative blogs, including Breitbart.com and The Blaze. Bloggers posted a Kentucky birth certificate identifying a white man as King’s father. King said in a blog post last week that he had been told all his life that the man listed on the document isn’t his father, and that his biological father is a light-skinned black man with whom his mother had an affair.

Bloggers also published a police report from a March 1995 assault case at Woodford County High School in Kentucky in which the responding detective filled in a box identifying King as white as purported proof of his racial identity.

“His mother is white,” said Keith Broughton, who investigated the assault and recalled meeting King and his mother in a local hospital. “I didn’t ask him if he was black or white. It was apparent to me that he was one or the other and he was there with his mother, so I just checked white.”

King had written that racial tensions at his high school were reaching a boiling point when the fight occurred. In an interview with The