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.”
There is at least one group eagerly waiting for Obama to embrace them.
“To me, as to increasing numbers of mixed-race people, Barack Obama is not our first black president. He is our first biracial, bicultural president … a bridge between races, a living symbol of tolerance, a signal that strict racial categories must go,” Marie Arana wrote in the Washington Post.
He’s a bridge between eras as well. The multiracial category “wasn’t there when I was growing up,” said John McWhorter, a 43-year-old fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Race and Ethnicity, who is black. “In the ’70s and the ’80s, if somebody had one white parent and one black parent, the idea was they were black and had better get used to it and develop this black identity. That’s now changing.”
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.
The White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the census, specifically decided not to add a “multiracial” category, deeming it not a race in and of itself.
“We are in a transitional period” regarding these labels, McWhorter said. “I think that in only 20 years, the notion that there are white people and there are black people and [that] anyone in between has some explaining to do and an identity to come up with, that will all seem very old-fashioned.”
The debate over Obama’s identity is just the latest step in a journey he unflinchingly chronicled in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
As a teenager, grappling with the social separation of his white classmates, “I had no idea who my own self was,” Obama wrote.
In college in the 1970s, like millions of other dark-skinned Americans searching for self respect in a discriminatory nation, Obama found refuge in blackness. Classmates who sidestepped the label “black” in favor of “multiracial” chafed at Obama’s newfound pride.
“They avoided black people,” he wrote. “It wasn’t a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around.”
Fast-forward 30 years, to the early stages of Obama’s presidential campaign. Minorities are on track to outnumber whites, to redefine the dominant American culture. And the black political establishment, firmly rooted in the civil rights movement, questioned whether the outsider Obama was “black enough.”
Then came the primary and general elections, when white voters were essential for victory.
“Now I’m too black,” Obama joked in July before an audience of minority journalists. “There is this sense of going back and forth depending on the time of day in terms of making assessments about my candidacy.”
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.
“Traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction,” Obama wrote. “I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.”
Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a "post-race" era. More »
The United States is far from a blueprint for racial harmony, but for
today’s young adults — all born after segregation was outlawed in the
mid-1960s — race is not the issue it once was. They have grown up with Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan among their
highest-profile and wealthiest role models. And in their everyday
lives, they are much more likely than their elders to have friends of
another race, studies show. More »
The United States is far from a blueprint for racial harmony, but for today’s young adults — all born after segregation was outlawed in the mid-1960s — race is not the issue it once was. They have grown up with Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan among their highest-profile and wealthiest role models. And in their everyday lives, they are much more likely than their elders to have friends of another race, studies show. More »
"The ritual preface of the word “black” in front of any and every breakthrough an African American makes is insulting, condescending and minimizes the achievement," wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in this Nov. 13, 2008 op-ed. "It maintains and reinforces the very racial separation that much of America claims it is trying to get past. Dumping the historic burden of race on blacks measures an individual’s success or failure by a group standard." More »