On Aug. 19, 2015, the website Breitbart published an article titled “Did Black Lives Matter Organizer Shaun King Mislead Oprah Winfrey by Pretending to Be Biracial?” That article (which began by introducing inevitable comparisons to controversial NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal) began:
An investigative blogger has accused Shaun King, a key figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, of misleading media icon Oprah Winfrey by pretending to be biracial in order to qualify for an “Oprah scholarship” to historically black Morehouse College. The blogger says King is white and has been lying about his ethnicity for years.
As Breitbart stated, the claims were sourced from a virtually unknown website (Re-NewsIt!) and material by a blogger purportedly named “Vicki Pate.” (Pate’s work, aside from King’s racial background, has included releasing autopsy photos of Georgia teen Kendrick Johnson, whose body was found in a rolled up wrestling mat in the gymnasium of Lowndes High School, and advocating for George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin.)
In her original post, Pate predicted King would ignore her assertions:
I am anxious to see how King will try to spin this, if he addresses it at all. I tried to get in touch with his father for a comment before posting this blog. He was out and a neighbor said he usually takes off with his riding mower and she doesn’t see him for a few days.
Unlike Dolezal, King immediately acknowledged and addressed the controversy in an Aug. 19, 2015 series of tweets, but those tweets primarily dealt with ancillary matters (such as whether he was really the victim of a racially-motivated mob beating, whether he was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and the motivations of his accusers) and did not directly refute the claims about his racial identity (all or most of these tweets have been deleted):
Actually, I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and attack police brutality with every fiber in me. Hell, I’m doubling down now.
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.
1. On August 28th, I’m launching @JusticeTogether to fight for the end of police brutality in America. That’s NINE DAYS away. Follow me…
2. Two days ago, @GlennBeck & @TheBlaze released this hit piece on me. [link] All lies. Every bit of it.
3. In March of 1995, I was brutally assaulted by a racist mob of rednecks at my school. Guess what, they denied it.
4. Seeing that @GlennBeck was willing to produce lies about me, a student who witnessed the who thing wrote this [link]
5. It’s also important that you see this —> [link] Because other people who REALLY saw it commented on it there.
6. Smelling blood in the water, @dailycaller and @TuckerCarlson wrote this piece about me. All lies. [link]
7. So, when this was written —> [link] showing the truth of what happened, I thought it was all over. It was to me.
8. Notice, even though a credible, reliable unbiased eyewitness AND TEACHER refuted @glennbeck they don’t retract [link]
9. Now, here is where it gets full-fledged white supremacist conspiracy theory crazy. It’s wild.
9. Breitbart (I’d actually never heard of them before) after seeing what @glennbeck & @dailycaller & @TuckerCarlson wrote, wanted in on it.
10. But, having no journalistic standards at all, Breitbart decided to use a known white supremacist as their main source of info on ME.
11. You need to know this name. VICKI PATE You won’t find her on Twitter. PERMANENTLY BANNED for racist harassment [image missing]
12. Here is Vicki Pate’s website where, for a living, she harasses the families of black folk killed by police. [link]
13. So, this woman literally stalks my children. Speaks of them by first name on her blog, studies their medical history, etc.
15. First, Breitbart has 3 main sources. Vicki Pate (a known white supremacist) and @TheBlaze & @TheDailyCaller (who we already refuted).
16. Breitbart claims I was never in a car accident. That’s me. That’s the car. The story: [link]
King’s rebuttal continued on Twitter. The evidence proffered by those asserting his claims to mixed-race heritage included: A family photograph reportedly posted to Facebook by Shaun King’s brother showing a child said to be Shaun looking like a white toddler with curly red hair:
An image presented as a copy of a police report involving a 15-year-old Shaun King that listed his race as “white”:
Reports from Re-NewsIt! and Breitbart maintained that Shaun King’s birth certificate “names a white man as his father,” although the posted Certified Record of Birth simply lists the names of King’s parents and not their races. Those sources used the Certified Record of Birth to find King’s father’s name (Jeffery Wayne King), then sought other records referencing that name to identify King’s father’s race:
The Daily Beast similarly reported that public records identified the race of Shaun father’s race as white:
Prominent Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King said for years that he is biracial, because he was born to a white mother and a black father, but Kentucky public records reviewed by The Daily Beast show that King’s father is white. Jeffery Wayne King, born Nov. 11, 1955, is listed as Shaun King’s father on his birth certificate. Criminal records identify Jeffrey King’s ethnicity as white.
An image stated to be a mug shot from the arrest of Jeffery Wayne King showed a man who appeared to be white (but not definitively):
However, Back on 30 July 2015 (before both Pate and Breitbart accused him of fabricating his racial identity), King posted a high school photograph of himself from 1995 in which many viewers concurred he looked like a bi-racial youth:
Throwback. 1995. Sophomore in high school. Karl Kani shirt. Gold chain. Part. [image missing] — Shaun King (@ShaunKing) July 30, 2015
On 20 August 2015, Shaun King released a statement in which he suggested that the man listed on his birth certificate as his father was not in fact his biological father; rather, his father was a light-skinned black man with whom his mother had an affair:
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. My mother and I have discussed her affair. She was a young woman in a bad relationship and I have no judgment. This has been my lived reality for nearly 30 of my 35 years on earth. All of my siblings and I have different parents. I’m actually not even sure how many siblings I have. 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. 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.
We spoke to King directly about background information which emerged in the intervening weeks and months after the August 2015 Breitbart-initiated controversy. King stated that at the time our article was initially published, he was overwhelmed by an avalanche of media inquiries and maintained that while many in the public sphere knew him only as a Black Lives Matter activist, his interpersonal connections were older and more through (making the claims plausible to folks who only recently came to know King through news of his activism):
“I have been a fairly well known figure in close circles for the past 20 years, most of the country just came to know me in the past 18 months.”
Primarily at issue, King maintained, was partial reporting of statements made to the media in 2015 by the police officer who checked the “white” box on the above-reproduced 1995 police report. King indicated that that officer’s statements were deceptively edited in most media reports, and forwarded us a link to an unedited version of the officer’s statement. King recapped the allegation:
I was very badly assaulted all the way back in March of 1995 in my high school. The detective placed on the case was a actually a very good man named Keith Broughton. [Opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement] used his police report, which marked me as white, as a primary piece of evidence that I am white. I didn’t check the box, he did … I was 15, and this was in 1995. All the way back then it was widely known in my small town that I wasn’t white. His statement came from this interview [page no longer exists].
As King asserted, Broughton’s statement to IJReview undermined claims the officer believed King was white; moreover, that statement was not widely reproduced in the broader coverage of allegations King wasn’t black. In that August 2015 statement, Broughton told IJReview King’s race was widely understood to be mixed but no box existed for “biracial”:
I believe that he’s biracial. I could just tell when I saw him. I marked him white because he’s very light complected. He was there with his white mother. My crime report there’s only two things you can check: black or white. It doesn’t say biracial … anyone from around here who knew him knew he was mixed.
As Broughton stated, box #33 on the above-reproduced form indeed listed only “white” or “black” as options in 1995; in 2015 (or 2016) options such as “Hispanic,” “Asian or Pacific Islander,” and “other” were common on standardized forms (and likely assumed by many readers to be common two decades prior as well). King stated that he later spoke to Broughton about the controversy, and that Broughton affirmed “[h]e told [King] specifically that [Broughton] told this same thing to [other] outlets, but they just didn’t mention it.”
We investigated King’s claim that Broughton’s complete statement was absent from contemporaneous reporting, and were unable to locate any other iterations of the quote. Most reports contained the above-reproduced police report, but none we located included the ancillary, current statements from Broughton indicating that both at the time of the 1995 and in 2015, he believed King was biracial. Finally, King pointed us to one of several statements made from classmates of his at the time of the controversy. One was shared in a screenshot to his Facebook page, and was written by a female childhood friend who maintained the claims were absurd based upon her youthful acquaintance with King:
As King asserted, a number of these details were buried in the initial media brouhaha stemming from the Breitbart post. However, aside from photographs, the sole “evidence” upon which the claims King fabricated a racial identity were based hinged on a police report from 1995 describing him as white. Exculpatory statements made by Broughton at the time of the controversy may not have been deliberately elided from contemporaneous coverage, but nevertheless were absent from nearly all articles containing the police report.
When Broughton’s August 2015 statement was taken into consideration, the sole remaining evidence of King’s purported fabrication hinged on photographs in which he appeared to possibly be white; however, biracial individuals historically “passed” as one race or another depending on circumstances (or even incidentally). While King appeared to be white in some early photos, he also appeared to be biracial or black in separate photos from his youth shared prior to the controversy.
[Updated 12 January 2016]