Monday, June 16, 2008

The Silly Debate Over Whether Obama is Black or Mixed Race
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama gave the best answer to the question whether he’s black, mixed race or something in between. He recently told a Chicago fundraiser crowd that to some he wasn’t black enough, and he then promptly added
that others say he might be too black. He’s right, the knock against him has either been that he is too black or not black enough, not that he is too mixed race or not mixed race enough. Despite his occasional references to his white mother and grandmother, Obama by his own admission has never seen himself as anything other than being black. He says it has been that way since he was 12. It’s that way for those whites who flatly say that they won’t vote for him because he’s black. His Democratic primary losses to Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky showed there are legions of white voters who feel that race does matter to them. Few have said that they oppose him because he’s mixed race.
Yet, the silly debate continues to rage over whether Obama is the black presidential candidate or the multi racial candidate. The debate is even sillier when one considers that science has long since debunked the notion of a pure racial type. In America, race has never been a scientific or genealogical designation, but a political and social designation. Put bluntly, anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black, and treated accordingly. Their part white ancestry doesn’t give them a pass from taxis refusing to stop for them, clerks following them in department stores, from being racial profiled by police on street corner stops, from landlords refusing to show them an apartment, or being denied a promotion. The mixed race designation doesn’t magically make disappear the countless other racial sleights and indignities that are tormenting reminders that race still does matter, and matter a lot to many Americans.
Indeed, from the moment that Obama tossed his hat in the presidential rink a year ago, the mantra of the press and the public has been, “Is America ready for a black president?” Not “Is America ready for a mixed race president?” The equally incessant mantra is that Obama if elected will make history as America’s first black president not the first mixed race president.
That tells much about the still frozen public attitudes and perceptions about race and politics in America. The deepest part of America’s racial fault has always been and still remains the black and white divide. This has spawned legions of vile but durable racial stereotypes, fears, and antagonisms. Black males have been the special target of the negative typecasting. They’ve routinely been depicted as crime prone, derelict, sexual menaces, and chronic underachievers. There are slightly more than 6 million persons that self-identify themselves as mixed race in America. The number of persons with a black and white parent is a minuscule less that one half of one percent.
By contrast, African-Americans (mixed or not) number more than forty million in America and make up about twelve percent of the population. The designation then of “mixed race” is so new, benign and amorphous it softens racial attitudes and dilutes racial hostility. It carries none of the negative racial baggage that black or African-American does.
This is the big reason that scores of blacks have been frenzied over Obama’s candidacy. They have turned out in record numbers in some primaries and have given his candidacy the greatest boost forward. They have been unabashed in saying that they back him with passion and fervor because he is black. It’s hard to imagine that they’d cheer him with the same passion if he touted himself as a mixed race candidate. The thrill and pride for them is that a black man could beat the racial odds against blacks and scale the political heights.
The stock line is that Obama’s candidacy shows how far America has come in that a black man has a real shot at grabbing the top elected spot in the land. No one says that Obama’s candidacy shows how far America has come in that a mixed race man can win the White House. If Obama does win the presidency the new line will be that it shows not just how far America has come on race (meaning racial attitudes toward blacks), but that America has finally arrived on race (meaning racial attitudes toward blacks). Substituting mixed race for black would not have the same meaning or significance to blacks or whites.
If Obama grabs the White House, he’ll claim it as a triumph for all Americans. Many blacks will claim it as a triumph for them. They’ll both be right.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).


Anonymous said...

This is a great article. A white woman I know, normally liberal in the good sense of the term, said to my wife in a crude way not worth repeating that Obama is not really black. This article will give her something to think about.

I found the article confused at one point, where it says "It [The mixed race designation] carries none of the negative racial baggage that black or African-American does. This is the big reason that scores of blacks have been frenzied over Obama's candidacy." But after the next sentence, it says: "They ["scores" of black Americans] have been unabashed in saying that they back him with passion and fervor because he is black." Surely, it is the latter reason for the strong backing.

This is my first visit to the web site. Really interesting.

Frank Munley

Anonymous said...

Re: "The Silly Debate Over Whether Obama Is Black Or Mixed Race"

You make some very valid points, but unfortunately seem to be a bit locked in the past and unwilling to accept a perhaps much-needed movement that might someday allow us to move beyond racial-labeling stereotypes. Yes, as you point out, there is a horrendous history in this country of hatred and violence against blacks. But doesn't the emergence of Sen. Obama as a presidential nominee portend a time when we can transcend racial labels?

In some respects, it is racist to label Sen. Obama "black" when he is so much more than that. Whether he is 50% black and 50% white, or 50% black and 40% white and 10% something else (because, as you point out, we have no scientific ability to find any racially pure people), simply labeling him a "black man" perpetuates the horrible labeling that you recognize existed for centuries, which labeled a man or woman having any trace of black blood as "black". In that context, labeling Sen. Obama a "black man" or the first "black" presidential candidate is, at its most fundamental, racist.

I think the debate is important. I think it is good for America. I think it is good for black men and women and everyone else. It is not, as you characterize it, "silly". It is an important evolutionary step in this country's relationship with it history and all of its citizens, from all backgrounds.

You repeatedly rely on what the pundits, the press, etc. has done in characterizing Sen. Obama, as if that justifies continuing to label him a "black man". But perhaps we should not blindly accept it when the pundits or the press decide to label someone or something. All too often, all that does is perpetuate stereotypes and keep hatred, anger, and fear on a boil.

You state that "anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry . . . still is considered black, and treated accordingly." Where is there any support for such a blanket accusation? While perhaps such a prejudice was true at one time with some people, it has been decades since any such extreme statement could be valid. And making such a statement perpetuates stereotypes. It is time to move beyond such attitudes.

You state that, "The designation then of 'mixed race' is so new, benign and amorphous it softens racial attitudes and dilutes racial hostility." Wouldn't that be a good thing? Isn't it time that we as Americans collectively soften our racial attitudes and dilute racial hostility? I am not saying that we should forget our history of racial hatred and violence, but how do we move beyond it unless we dilute such hostility? Keeping that hostility alive fosters continued hatred and the continuing tendency to view a man or woman first and foremost by the color of his or her skin.

I have mixed-race (or, if you prefer, multi-racial) children. I do not want them to think of themselves as any one thing. I want them to embrace everything that made them. I do not want others to just look at their skin and then put them into a single racial pigeonhole. They have suffered and will suffer discrimination, but hopefully by acknowledging that the world is not just black-and-white, but is technicolor, they will inherit a much more friendly, accepting world that no longer directs hate at them because they are not all white. Acknowledging being of mixed-race and refusing to be labeled a "black man" merely because one has some black heritage is one step toward such a world.

Please allow me to expand a bit on your conclusion. If Sen. Obama grabs the White House, he will likely claim it as a triumph for all Americans. And he will be right. Many blacks will claim it as a triumph for them. Many whites will claim it as a triumph for them. And many other colors and mixes of those colors will claim it as a triumph for them. And they will all be right.

Anonymous said...

THAT'S RIGHT, any person with a drop of African ancestrial blood is treated black.
All the mulattoes, high yellers, red bone pigmented individuals, if they themselves don't consider themselves as black, the general public does. And they are treated thusly. This is an obvious fact, and it goes on today, and we don't see an end in sight. It's a joke, most light or fair skinned ladies will bleach their hair blonde or red-orange to lean further into the caucasian category. Or try to integrate into another culture, other than African-American. Years ago,Madam Walker, promoting her costmetics, hair styles, and products generated millions of dollars from Afro folks who had low self esteems and wanted to "blend in." African Americans need more unity and the love of themselves and ENJOY their rich heritage. So we should be proud of Obama, who perhaps is destined to add GREATNESS to our destiny, and all of our color shades of Americans!

Anonymous said...

As a biracial Afro-Asian, I am so tired of monoracial people telling me what I am, and so is the rest of the mixed-race community. Just like Black Power groups before us, we also have an agenda and we will be spreading our messages far and wide whether monoracial people like it or not. Read the stats. We are here, and growing bigger everyday.

Your Hip Hapa,