A perplexing new chapter is unfolding in Barack Obama’s racial saga: Many people insist that “the first black president” is actually not black.
Debate over whether to call this son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan biracial, African-American, mixed-race, half-and-half, multiracial–or, in Obama’s own words, a “mutt”–has reached a crescendo since Obama’s election shattered assumptions about race.
Obama has said, “I identify as African-American–that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.” In other words, the world gave Obama no choice but to be black, and he was happy to oblige.
But the world has changed since the young Obama found his place in it.
Intermarriage and the decline of racism are dissolving ancient definitions. The candidate Obama, in achieving what many thought impossible, was treated differently from previous black generations. And many white and mixed-race people now view President-elect Obama as something other than black.
But U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, a black man who by all appearances is white, feels differently.
Butterfield, 61, grew up in a prominent black family in Wilson, N.C. Both of his parents had white forebears, “and those genes came together to produce me.” He grew up on the black side of town, led civil rights marches as a young man, and to this day goes out of his way to inform people that he is certainly not white.
Butterfield has made his choice; he says let Obama do the same.
“Obama has chosen the heritage he feels comfortable with,” he said. “His physical appearance is black. I don’t know how he could have chosen to be any other race. Let’s just say he decided to be white–people would have laughed at him.”
“You are a product of your experience. I’m a U.S. congressman, and I feel some degree of discomfort when I’m in an all-white group. We don’t have the same view of the world, our experiences have been different.”
The entire issue balances precariously on the “one-drop” rule, which sprang from the slaveowner habit of dropping by the slave quarters and producing brown babies. One drop of black blood meant that person, and his or her descendants, could never be a full citizen.
Today, the spectrum of skin tones among African-Americans–even those with two black parents–is evidence of widespread white ancestry. Also, since blacks were often light enough to pass for white, unknown numbers of white Americans today have blacks hidden in their family trees.
Mix in a few centuries’ worth of Central, South and Native Americans, plus Asians, and untold millions of today’s U.S. citizens need a DNA test to decipher their true colors. The melting pot is working.
Yet the world has never been confronted with such powerful evidence as Obama. So as soon as he was elected, the seeds of confusion began putting down roots.
“Let’s not forget that he is not only the first African-American president, but the first biracial candidate. He was raised by a single white mother,” a Fox News commentator said seven minutes after Obama was declared the winner.
“We do not have our first black president,” the author Christopher Hitchens said on the BBC program “Newsnight.” “He is not black. He is as black as he is white.”
Pride is the center of racial identity, and some white people seem insulted by a perception that Obama is rejecting his white mother (even though her family was a centerpiece of his campaign image-making) or baffled by the notion that someone would choose to be black instead of half-white.
Attempts to whiten Obama leave a bitter taste for many African-Americans, who feel that at their moment of triumph, the rules are being changed to steal what once was deemed worthless–blackness itself.
“For some people it’s honestly confusion,” said Favor, the Dartmouth professor. “For others it’s a ploy to sort of reclaim the presidency for whiteness, as though Obama’s blackness is somehow mitigated by being biracial.”
Then there are the questions remaining from Obama’s entry into national politics, when some blacks were leery of this Hawaiian-born newcomer who did not share their history.
Linda Bob, a black schoolteacher from Eustis, Fla., said that calling Obama black when he was raised in a white family and none of his ancestors experienced slavery could cause some to ignore or forget the history of racial injustice.
“It just seems unfair to totally label him African-American without acknowledging that he was born to a white mother,” she said. “It makes you feel like he doesn’t have a class, a group.”
Latinos, whom the census identifies as an ethnic group and not a race, were not counted separately by the government until the 1970s. After the 1990 census, many people complained that the four racial categories–white, black, Asian, and American Indian/Alaska native–did not fit them. The government then allowed people to check more than one box. (It also added a fifth category, for Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.)
Six million people, or 2 percent of the population, now say they belong to more than one race, according to the most recent census figures. Another 19 million people, or 6 percent of the population, identify themselves as “some other race” than the five available choices.
Today, it seems no single definition does justice to Obama–or to a nation where the revelation that Obama’s eighth cousin is Dick Cheney, the white vice president from Wyoming, caused barely a ripple in the campaign.
In his memoir, Obama says he was deeply affected by reading that Malcolm X, the black nationalist-turned-humanist, once wished his white blood could be expunged.