Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The What is Obama Debate Again

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Here’s the what is President-elect Barack Obama, black, bi-racial or multi-racial quiz. If he did not have one of the world’s most recognizable names and faces he would fume at being subjected to poor (or no) service in restaurants, bypassed by taxis, racial-profiled by police on street corner stops, landlords who refuse to show him an apartment, followed in stores by security guards, denied a loan for his business or home purchase due to redlining, find himself living in a resegregated neighborhood, or routinely passed over for a corporate management position.
He would not be subjected to any of these routine petty harassments and annoyances, the subtle and at time outright forms of discrimination because he checked the bi-racial designation on his census form. That’s a meaningless, feel good, paper designation that has no validity in the hard world of American race politics.
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. University researchers recently found that Obama’s win didn’t appreciably change these stereotypes.

The roughly six million or 2 percent of Americans who checked the bi-racial census box may take comfort in trying to be racially precise, but most also tell of their own bitter experience in feeling the sting of racial bigotry in the streets and workplace. Obama can too and he has related his racial awakening in his best selling bare the soul autobiograhy Dreams from My Father.

Despite his occasional references to his white mother and grandmother, Obama has never seen himself as anything other than African-American. That worked for and against him during the campaign. In coutless polls and surveys, the overwhelming majority of whites said that they would vote for an African-American for president, and that compentence and qualification, not color was the only thing that mattered. Many meant it and showed it by enthusiatically cheering him on. More than a few didn’t. Despite the real and feigned color blindness, nearly sixty percent of whites still did not vote for Obama. Most based their opposition to him on Republican political loyalties, ties, regional and personal preferences. But a significant minority of white voters did not for him because he's black, and they did not hide their feelings to interviewers about that and in exit polls in the Democratic primaries and the general election. Tagging him as multi-racial or bi-racial did not soften their color resistance to him, let alone change their perception that he was black.

Yet, the sideshow debate still rages over whether Obama is the black president or the bi-racial president. The debate is even more nonsensical since 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. Anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black and treated accordingly.
Blacks were ecstatic over Obama's candidacy and his presidential win. They were unabashed in saying that they backed him with passion and fervor because he is black. Many would not have cheered him with the same passion if he touted himself as a mixed race candidate. The thrill and pride for them was that a black man could beat the racial odds and climb to the political top; substituting bi-racial for black would not have had the same meaning or significance to blacks. The talk about Obama being anything other than black infuriates many blacks. Their anger is legitimate. If Obama doesn’t run from his black identity then the bi-racial card appears as a naked effort to snatch Obama’s history making victory from them. It’s also an implicit denial that an African-American can have the right stuff, that is the smarts, talent and ability to excel in any arena.
The second that Obama announced that he would run for president in February 2007, much of the press and the public fixated on one question, "Is America ready for a black president?" The question was never, "Is America ready for a mixed-race president?" The answer was that Obama if elected would be America's first black president. It was almost never that he would be America’s first mixed-race president.
That didn’t change on Election Night. Obama’s victory was still hailed as a giant step forward for black and white relations in America, not mixed race relations. That may or may not be the case. The nagging racial sleights and indignities that many African-Americans suffer are tormenting reminders that race still does matter, and matter a lot to many Americans.
Calling Obama the first black president is the accurate, and honest, way to fix his place in American political history. It’s one that he wouldn’t or really can’t dispute.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).