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?"
"I say he's the first black president because he chooses to identify himself as African-American," adds Callie Crossley, a former producer of ABC News's 20/20 who also helped produce the PBS civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. "I know a lot of people are very unhappy about that — they think in some way he's dissing his mother. He's not. What he's doing is referencing the social construction of race in America. And whether white people like it or not, you [white people] set this stuff up, so that one drop of African blood meant you were black, period."
If you're white, meanwhile, you know that slavery is the original sin of American society — and you feel a measure of guilt as a result, even if, to the best of your knowledge, you didn't have any slave-holding ancestors. Occasionally, though — and particularly if, to the best of your knowledge, you didn't have any slave-holding ancestors — you also feel annoyed that you feel guilty. From this perspective, the election of the first black prez offers ablution for the nation's race-based sins and hope for the future. It's also a chance to stop feeling guilty and annoyed.
So perhaps it's no surprise that the first-black-president label has found such favor. But that doesn't mean it should stick.