Black like him?

By ADAM REILLY  |  February 11, 2009

For one thing, the question isn't (as Miller suggests) whether we should call Obama black or white — it's whether we should call him black, or biracial, or the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. The latter options are more awkward; they also cater less to the collective urge to pat our country on the back. But if they're more accurate, should that really matter (to the public in general, and to members of the media in particular)?

More important, the notion that Obama clearly identifies himself as African-American is debatable. Sometimes he does — as in a post-election interview with the Washington Post, in which the president-elect exulted: "There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African-American. I mean, that's a radical thing."

On other occasions, however, Obama has used far more ambiguous self-descriptions. In his celebrated 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, for example, Obama didn't call himself "black" or "African-American"; instead, he spoke of his father's birth in Kenya, his mother's birth in Kansas, and the "diversity of [his] heritage." (For good measure, he also included black and white in his list of illusory divides in American culture.) In his first press conference after the election, meanwhile, the president-elect memorably referred to himself as a "mutt." And in his ballyhooed speech on race in America, he subtly identified with the African-American community — while simultaneously describing his own background in far more complex terms:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. . . . I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners. . . . I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents . . .

Identifying as African-American? That's debatable. Here, Obama seems to be identifying as meta-racial — as an individual whose own background renders traditional racial categories obsolete.

To state the obvious, during the campaign, that was a huge political advantage. In her new book on the current crop of convention-busting black politicians, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday), Gwen Ifill marvels at Candidate Obama's ability to neutralize race as an issue. "It is impossible to overstate how complicated a feat this was to pull off," Ifill argues, "in a nation where the races worship and socialize separately, listen to different music, and watch different television shows."

But it is possible to overstate how complicated a feat this was — if, like Ifill, you treat the "white" half of Obama's heritage as a nonfactor. Remember: during the campaign, black voters could see Obama as one of them, given his skin color, African father, marriage to a black woman, and immersion in Chicago's South Side. But white voters could see Obama as one of them, too — and were encouraged to do so, whether it was Obama eschewing standard racial labels in his speeches or his campaign using Greatest Generation–style footage of his grandparents and their (white) peers in his half-hour campaign commercial on October 29.

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  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Barack Obama, African-American, ethnicity,  More more >
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