2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Obama offers U.S. a chance to do its racial laundry


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Michael Paul Williams
2/13/08 Richmond Times-Dispatch

African- Americans asked if Barack Obama was black enough before claiming him as one of our own.

Some white folks, meanwhile, wondered how a man born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas could be considered black.

Hey: We didn't make the rules. But perhaps it's time to change them.

Obama's presidential run provides Americans with more than history-making potential. It's an opportunity to sort through America's dirty laundry, toss it into the Maytag and squeeze the last drop out of the absurdity surrounding racial identity.

In an era of Obama and Tiger Woods and an increasingly multiracial America, shouldn't we revisit the "one-drop" rule foisted upon us by nefarious agents of racial purity in the name of hierarchy?

Will the primacy of "black" and "white" become increasingly irrelevant in a nation that soon will be majority minority?

"I think the flap over Obama as well as the controversy over the 'biracial' category in the last census is just bringing to light the arbitrariness of our concept of race," says Oliver W. Hill Jr., chairman of the psychology department at Virginia State University.

According to the U.S. Census, 1.6 percent of the population in both Virginia and the nation reports two or more races. Because the census bureau began allowing the checking of more than one racial box seven years ago, the actual percentage of multiracial Americans is likely higher.

"When the ideas of white and black [or Negro] were etched into our national consciousness, there was only a dichotomous choice," says Hill, the son of the eminent civil-rights lawyer Oliver W. Hill Sr. "In that classification system, Barack is clearly black."

Indeed, Virginia and other states codified race with "one-drop" rules determining that anyone with sub-Saharan blood was Negro. Those laws were invalidated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia Racial Integrity Act in 1967.

This stark and simplistic mode of identification was enacted with racist intent. But today, African-Americans - from mocha to caramel to cream - still tend to embrace it.

Renee A. Hill, co-director of VSU's Institute for the Study of Race Relations, says race as a social construct has shaped our identity as strong, persevering people. What happens when we dismantle that construct?

"We have to wrestle with whether or not we really want a nonracial identity or if we just want an end to discrimination based on that identity," says Hill, Oliver's wife.

"If there were no discrimination based on the identity, would it continue to be salient? . . Is there more to our identity than a reaction to oppression and a pride in that resistance?"

Her husband sees that moment approaching.

"I do believe that racial classification will go the way of the dodo," he said. "The forces that caused us to see everything in terms of race are . . . slowly dwindling."

The demise of meaningless racial classifications will allow our rich cultural diversity to come to the forefront, he said. "Without the blinders of race, the vibrant tapestry of cultures would suddenly be visible."

We'll never be able to remove those blinders and shed the trappings of white supremacy until we rub out its lingering, one-drop stain.

Contact Michael Paul Williams at (804) 649-6815 or mwilliams@timesdispatch.com.


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