J. Peder Zane
2/3/08 News & Observer (Raleigh NC) D1
Quintroon, octoroon, quad-roon, mulatto Jim Crow's ugliest racial categories
may be gone with the wind, but this fact remains: In 21st-century America, a
white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman cannot give
birth to a white one.
Despite our progress, we still subscribe to the one-drop rule forged by
hard-line segregationists: A single "tainted" drop of "black blood" makes a
child an African-American.
Think about this profoundly pernicious assumption for a moment. In an era
when scientists have debunked both the genetic foundations of "race" and the
assertion that personality or cultural traits are carried in our blood,
America still embraces this powerfully divisive approach to differentiate
Sen. Barack Obama may have had a white mother who reared him. But because
his father was Kenyan, Obama is considered black.
This fact both mind-boggling and plain as day is only one of the potent
aspects of race revealed in the presidential primaries. Obama's run shows
both how far our country has come in black/white relations and the hold that
vicious old stereotypes and assumptions have on the American mind.
On the one hand, there's this audacious sign of hope: Just 44 years after
the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public places, there is a real
chance that an African-American might reside in the White House next year.
"I never thought I would see a black person come this close to the
presidency," Roger Wilkins, the 75-year-old civil rights activist and
historian, told me last week. "There's a lot for all us, black and white, to
be proud of in his success."
On the other hand, the campaign is casting a bright light on how
uncomfortable Americans still are with "difference."
Consider the two Johns, Edwards and McCain. As Protestant white males, they
have campaigned as individuals with specific life experiences and policy
goals. They have never had to explain their tribal heritage.
Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, by contrast, have been viewed through the
lenses of gender and faith, as if all women or all Mormons are the same.
That is absolute nonsense, yet it informs much of the media coverage they
Obama has worked mightily to be judged as his own man, but as Wilkins
asserted, that remains a pipe dream: "For good and ill, it's hard not to see
him through a racial lens."
Without a doubt, Obama has plenty of supporters who just believe he offers
the best leadership. But Wilkins said many blacks are drawn to him out of
racial pride, and some whites like the idea of electing our first black
Asked about Obama's efforts to "transcend" race, Wilkins recoiled.
"That's not something black people say," he observed. "It's a phrase used by
some whites to suggest he's not like 'them' that he's clean, articulate, not
Only the twisted power of the racial imagination could transform Obama, a
Harvard Law School graduate with Kennedy-esque charm, into a cruel
stereotype. Yet the Clinton campaign has tried to do just that since his
surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Bill Clinton and others have brought up Obama's long-ago drug use, tried to
identify him with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and warned that candidates cannot
"shuck and jive" their way to the presidency.
"Obama has tried to run as a candidate who happens to be black," said
Anthony Walton, an English professor at Bowdoin College whose books include
"Mississippi: An American Journey." "The Clintons are trying to cast him as
the black guy who wants to be president."
Admit the obvious
Sometimes it's necessary to admit the obvious: The Clintons are emphasizing
Obama's blackness to derail his candidacy.
This observation becomes more interesting when we further admit that the
tactic rests on the premise that for many Americans, blackness conjures a
host of exclusively negative images. Although African-Americans have been
equal partners in building this country and perhaps more than equal in
creating its culture those stereotypes, like the one-drop rule, are still
mired in our racist past.
Many people have chastised the Clintons for playing the race card. But few
have questioned the assumptions it conveys, much less sought to debunk and
dismiss them. Race-baiting will continue to thrive in American politics as
long as we fail to directly challenge the essence of racial caricatures.
In the absence of our desire to do so, the campaign has shone a light on
race without offering much illumination, according to Duke University
historian Timothy B. Tyson.
Raising the specter of racial stereotypes, it has failed to address the
social and historical forces that make it hard for all African-Americans to
enjoy the full blessings of equality or even a place on the same playing
'But not too black'
Tyson notes that John Edwards launched his campaign in Katrina-ravaged New
Orleans and talked about the problems of the poor.
Had Obama done it, too many whites would have feared that he would force
them to confront things they would rather ignore. Thus, Tyson said, Obama
has been forced to walk a tightrope: "He has to be black enough but not too
"We still seem incapable of having a probing conversation about how America
feels about race," he said.
"In this election we've just skimmed the surface, raising ideas but never
exploring them because they involve the most painful issues of blame,
culpability and power."
Obama's historic run shows us how far America has come. But it also suggests
how far we still are from realizing Martin Luther King's dream of being a
nation where people are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the
content of their character."