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.