America’s first black president has deliberately shied away from spurring a national discussion on race, most recently by checking only “African-American” on his U.S. census form without offering a word of explanation about his choice.
The studied silence from the bully pulpit held by President Obama has frustrated multiracial organizations, giving rise to questions about whether the president acted out of political consideration and why the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas would not acknowledge his mother’s heritage.
“It’s frustrating from a point that there’s a lot of multiracial people out there who see Obama doing that, knowing that he is multiracial, and they think that maybe that’s the right choice,” said Ryan Graham, the product of a mixed-race marriage whose mother founded Project Race in 1991 to push for a multiracial classification on the census form.
“But there’s a lot of people saying maybe it’s the wrong choice,” he said.
Mr. Graham urges biracial people who consider checking only the “black” box to “think about your family, think about what makes you you. If you’re half-white, say so.”
The issue emerged early this month when the White House announced that the president had completed and sent in his 2010 census form. Asked what race Mr. Obama checked in answer to Question 9 concerning race, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said April 1, “Not going to be able to answer this today.”
The next day, the White House offered only one cryptic explanation for the president’s decision — and the press corps left the issue unexamined.
“Can you say what box the president checked on the census form when it came to race?” one reporter asked press secretary Robert Gibbs in the April 2 “gaggle,” an informal briefing that takes place away from TV cameras.
“African-American,” Mr. Gibbs said.
“Did he think about that or —,” the reporter said, breaking off.
“I don’t think so, no, I think he just checked it,” the spokesman said.
Asked this week to elaborate on Mr. Obama’s choice, Mr. Vietor said: “Gibbs’ answer is the final answer.”
Mr. Obama may see little upside to focusing explicitly on questions of his race. While Mr. Obama repeatedly acknowledges civil rights pioneers — of all races — who made his political career successful, race-based controversies such as the sermons of his former Chicago pastor and the arrest of a black Harvard University professor by a white Cambridge police officer have proved massive distractions for Mr. Obama as a candidate and president.
Early in his presidential campaign, candidate Obama said he was questioned by multiracial supporters about his background.
“I self-identify as African-American — that’s how I’m treated, and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it,” Mr. Obama said at the time.
The president’s decision to check only the “black, African-American or negro” box seemed a throwback to an earlier era, when the “one-drop rule” — one drop of black blood in your ancestry and you’re considered black — prevailed in the U.S. Even the anachronistic “negro” designation seems out of place, but the Census Bureau said the term was kept on the 2010 form because some older black Americans still use the term to describe themselves.
“The obvious question — perhaps not to an American, but certainly to a visitor from another planet — is why if someone’s ancestry is predominantly white, they are not identified as ‘white’ rather than ‘black,’” New Republic senior editor John Judis wrote in an article on Mr. Obama’s census choice.
By checking the single box and identifying himself only as black, “Obama probably did what was expected of him, but he also confirmed an enduring legacy of American racism,” Mr. Judis wrote.
Michelle Hughes, president of the Chicago Biracial Family Network, said the choice “will have political, social and cultural ramifications.”
“I think everybody is entitled to self-identify. If he chooses to self-identify as African-American, that’s his right,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That being said, I think that the multiracial community feels a sense of disappointment that he refuses to identify with us.”
There is no question that Mr. Obama’s decision complies with the goals of U.S. census officials; the answer to Question 9 about race is exclusively about “self-identification in which respondents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify.”
“The racial categories included in the census form generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically or genetically,” the Census Bureau says in its “2010 Census Constituent FAQs.”
The 2010 census is only the second time Americans have been allowed to identify themselves by more than one race in the decennial survey. About 7 million people, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, chose that option in 2000.
But the president’s decision to check only “black” on his census form makes complete sense to Charles W. Mills, a researcher on race and a professor at Northwestern University.
“Race is a social convention. For him to claim whiteness would be rejected by the social convention of the country. The way I see it, his decision was a perfectly reasonable one, given that this is how the American rules have been,” Mr. Mills said.
Changing that perception “would require a national rethinking of race, a national self-examination. You’d need a national debate,” the professor said.
Mr. Mills added there were “political considerations” in Mr. Obama’s choice. “From the start of the campaign, he was not presented as a black candidate, but as a candidate who was black.” America, he said, may not be ready to have such a national debate over race.
But a January poll by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of white people said Mr. Obama is of “mixed race” and 24 percent consider him black. In contrast, 55 percent of black people said the president is black and 34 percent said he is of mixed racial ancestry.
The issue of race is clearly delicate for Mr. Obama and can land him in unintended political clashes.
Only this week he released an election message to supporters seeking to turn out the same impassioned voters who elected him in 2008, saying in a videotaped appeal that he wanted to make sure that the young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women vote in the 2010 midterm elections.
The apparently innocuous message provoked a new round of controversy, as critics noted that Mr. Obama left out white men from his list.
Conservative media quickly highlighted the plea. One headline from the Washington Examiner said: “Obama Disses White Guys.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is black, said he was incensed by the video.
“Where I have a problem and where I draw the line is where it is done in a manner that becomes racially tinged, that seeks to invoke fear as opposed to education, that seeks to marginalize the voters into believing that you have to continue to do it the same old way; otherwise, the boogeyman will get you,” he told the political news service Hotline.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine countered that the race-card charge was “ridiculous.”
“You know, just a week ago, the chairman of the Republican Party said, ‘We need to do more to attract minority voters,’” Mr. Kaine said. “And that was not a race card; it was just stating the obvious fact.”
Although the president has shied away from spurring a national dialogue on race, he sometimes offers thoughts on the issue, as he did Thursday at a eulogy for Dorothy Height, the civil rights leader who was president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. He praised her long life of activism, but also painted a picture of her life in the first decades of the last century.
“Lynching was all too often the penalty for the offense of black skin,” Mr. Obama recalled.
“Slaves had been freed within living memory, but too often their children, their grandchildren remained captive because they were denied justice and denied equality, denied opportunity, denied a chance to pursue their dreams.”