Whatever your race — and whatever you think of his résumé, or his politics, or his yen for tax-cheating cabinet nominees — Barack Obama's arrival in the Oval Office is something to celebrate. A barrier is shattered! Racism's foul legacy recedes! Martin Luther King's vision of a colorblind America is closer than ever!
So I kind of hate to ask the question — but I'm going to ask it anyway: isn't all this self-congratulation over the installment of our first black president just a little bit misleading? And by abetting it, isn't Obama — who before the election embraced a far more complicated racial heritage — playing a bit of an identity-politics shell game?
Before you call me a killjoy or a crank, remember: the question of how best to characterize Obama's racial composition has been hotly debated ever since this son of a black man from Africa and a white woman from Middle America first emerged as a legitimate presidential contender — and took every opportunity to remind us that he was the son of a white woman from Middle America and a black man from Africa. (That theme just disappeared altogether in the past few feel-good weeks.) In November 2006, for example, Stanley Crouch argued, in the New York Daily News, that "other than color, Obama . . . does not . . . share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves." This distinction, Debra Dickerson subsequently argued at salon.com, helped make Obama more palatable to white voters. ("You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves," Dickerson said of Obama's white supporters. "You're replacing [that symbolic American black man] with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened.")
Such critics had their detractors: in a February 2007 Time rebuttal, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates dismissed them as "small-minded racists." But discussion of Obama's racial bona fides continued. That September, Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for neglecting the plight of the Jena Six, complaining that Obama was "acting like he's white." (The restraint Jackson showed in not using the term "Oreo" was lacking when, a bit closer to the election, he was videotaped saying he wanted to "cut [Obama's] nuts off.")
And as recently as October 2008, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was still wrestling — albeit from a guilty-white-liberal perspective — with the problem of how best to describe Obama's background. "Presumably," Kristof blogged, "the origin of the convention of referring to anyone of part black ancestry as black was rooted in racism and economics. . . . If a convention has such unsavory origins, should we still adhere to it?"
Good question. But over the past three months, the ambiguity and complexity that once marked discussions of Obama's race yielded to a simplistic new orthodoxy: the president is either black or African-American. End of story.
Examples of this racial 180 abound, as Obama recast himself, with the media as complicit allies, from half-white kid from the heartland to black icon. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who is African-American, wrote about how even his relentlessly optimistic grandparents couldn't have imagined the election of a black man. Newsweek.com posted letters to Obama from Harlem schoolchildren and descendents of such black heroes as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Dred Scott — plus an open letter from Clara Lee Fisher, descendent of slave Sally Hemings, to President Thomas Jefferson, Hemings's owner and lover. Dozens of news outlets covered the Tuskegee Airmen's trip to the inaugural; cameramen filming the ceremony lingered on the often-emotional faces of black men and women.
And in his inaugural speech, Obama himself encouraged the audience to treat his election as a racial breakthrough, marveling that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." (In the same speech, Obama's white Kansan mother went unmentioned.) Today, T-shirts that epitomize this shift are still available online, emblazoned with the slogan OBAMA IS THE NEW BLACK (obamaisthenewblack.com).
The mutt in chief?
So what in blazes happened? And does it really matter?
One answer to the first question is that African-Americans — for understandable reasons — clamored to claim Obama as their own. "When Ed Brooke was elected," says Bay State Banner publisher Melvin Miller, referring to the former Massachusetts senator, who was the 20th century's first African-American member of the US Senate, "everyone tried to make him white, because he's fair skinned. The only reason this is an issue is that the United States has made race an issue. . . . If Barack Obama were not the president, and instead was just an errand boy, they wouldn't say he's white. So to me, why change?"