Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. So why is he “black”?

He is, to be accurate, biracial, equally black and white. Mr. Obama could choose to identify himself in a way similar to golfer Tiger Woods, who describes himself as “Cablinasian” — a mix of his Caucasian, black and American Indian father and his Asian mother (although “Kensan” or “Kanyan” don’t have the same ring).

Or Mr. Obama could label himself with obvious legitimacy as white - he was, after all, raised by his white mother and white grandparents after his father abandoned the family when he was 2 years old.

Yet he describes himself as black, and news organizations around the world have followed suit.

The Associated Press said June 3, when the Democratic candidate secured enough delegates to win the nomination, that the biracial senator is “the first African-American to lead a major party ticket” as he seeks to become “the nation’s first black president.”

But a debate over the topic of race has been raging since he entered the presidential race a year ago. Throughout the primary campaign, political pundits have addressed the question of whether Mr. Obama is “black enough.” (A Google search of the candidate’s name and the phrase pulls down 152,000 hits.)

Says who?

On another front, Debra Dickerson, a contributing writer and blogger for the liberal Mother Jones magazine, said at the Salon.com Web site in January that Mr. Obama is not even technically black, defining the term “in our political and social reality” as applying only to “those descended from West African slaves.”

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader said last month that Mr. Obama calls himself black to appeal to “white guilt” over slavery and the rampant racial discrimination that reigned in America from its birth until just 50 years ago.

The Obama campaign would not answer when asked why the biracial candidate calls himself black.

“It doesn’t seem especially topical,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said when asked.

However, in recent weeks, Web sites and news publications big and small have asked the question. “Why Do We Call Obama Black?” best-selling author Karen Hunter wrote in Connecticut’s Hartford Courant. After an examination of the two sides of the question, Miss Hunter, who is black, concluded only that the question “is forcing conversations about issues that have been easier to ignore for centuries.”

Top editors at Associated Press said they asked themselves the same question — is a half-black, half-white man black or white? — and looked to Mr. Obama for the answer.

“I would say the answer has to do partly with the way Senator Obama has defined himself and partly with the way American society defines someone who is biracial,” said Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman.

Mr. Obama, who in recent TV commercials has prominently featured his white mother and white grandparents, tells in his book “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” how he decided about 30 years ago to call himself black and take his place in the black community.

In 1980, when he was 19, he told his mother and grandparents who raised him that he no longer wanted to be called Barry, opting for Barack. Still, he says the designation was not solely his choice.

“I’m not sure I decided it,” he said last year on “60 Minutes.” “I think, you know, if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American.

“If I’m outside your building trying to catch a cab, they’re not saying, ‘Oh, there’s a mixed-race guy,’” he told PBS host Charlie Rose.

‘One-drop rule’

The same most likely goes for the world’s most famous golfer, said Charles W. Mills, a professor at Northwestern University.

“I don’t think that the average white person looking at Tiger Woods thinks of him as multiracial. I think they think of him as black,” he said. “In the U.S., historically the most influential racial convention where blacks have been concerned has been the ‘one-drop rule,’ which basically means that any black ancestry and you’re regarded as black.”

The one-drop rule seems archaic now, as do the terms that used to accompany that convention — quadroon, mulatto, octoroon. Between 1910 and 1925, nearly every U.S. state enacted the one-drop rule in hopes of keeping the white race “pure.” The rule also applied to other ethnic groups that intermarried with whites.

The classification held through the 1940s and 1950s, said Jason Gouthier, a historian for the U.S. Census Bureau. The rules given to enumerators in the 1940 census, for instance, said “a person of mixed white and Negro blood was to be returned as ‘Negro’ no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood,” Mr. Gouthier said.

That rule held again through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and although the Census Bureau added the category “other” by the 1970 census, enumerators going door to door “simply marked down black if someone looked black, and didn’t even ask race,” he said.

The latest census, in 2000, included new categories. Filling out the forms, people could — for the first time — check as many races as desired, making “Cablinasian” a reality. Nearly 7 million people, about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, checked boxes for two or more races.

“Now, it really comes down to self-identification,” Mr. Gouthier said.

Still, the long-held conventions of the past century continue to hold sway despite the ability of multiracial people to identify themselves however they like.

“We have millions of people who are biracial — we call them black,” said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland.

“People who are biracial have always felt uncomfortable being designated one thing or another, but most have chosen to become part of the normal nomenclature. Most blacks are multiracial, but if someone looks African-American, then he’s going to be considered that unless he opens his mouth and makes a demand to do something else,” Mr. Walters said.

Seeking a place

An odd consequence of having one white parent and one black parent — which by conventional standards makes that biracial offspring “black” — is that the African-American community is not always welcoming.

“The fact of an immediate white parent differentiates us and interrupts solidarity with blacks,” writes Shelby Steele, author of “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.”

“Our vulnerability is that both blacks and whites can use our impossible racial authenticity. … Though it is rarely said openly, the white parent is often seen as a stain of inauthenticity on the black identity by both blacks and whites.”

The National Black Republican Association may be one example of that. The group last week launched a series of ads calling Mr. Obama an “arrogant elitist” and raising his connections to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., a controversial pastor who said America should be condemned for its treatment of blacks.

Mr. Steele, also the progeny of a black father and a white mother, writes that Mr. Obama “is a man who truly wants to be black, a man who is determined to resolve the ambiguity he was born into.” However, the author adds that in today’s world, he need not do so.

“If Barack Obama feels compelled to belong to the black identity, he is also hounded by the fact that he doesn’t have to. He has the option of simply fashioning a life for himself in the broad American mainstream,” Mr. Steele says.

Mr. Steele seeks to nail down just why Mr. Obama has chosen to identify himself as black.

“Obama’s racial quest springs from a personal angst, not from oppression in society,” he says.

“In fact, his great nemesis in his pursuit of transparent blackness is not white racism but the lack of it — the temptations of this new open and seductive America that so easily absorbs people like him.”

In some ways, today’s world has begun to scrub the term black of any exclusive meaning. Consider this: A high court in South Africa ruled last week that Chinese South Africans will be reclassified as black.

In the ruling, the judges said they made the decision to end discrimination against ethnic Chinese, who often failed to qualify for business contracts and job promotions because they were regarded as whites.

“It is agreed that the Chinese people fall within the ambit of black people,” Judge Cynthia Pretorius told the court.

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