Erin Aubry Kaplan
2/29/08 L.A. Times 21
The month of February saw one victory after another in the
astonishing, historic ascent of Barack Obama as a presidential
contender. It seemed like perfect timing to me -- Obama marched
steadily toward the ultimate political prize week after week during
Black History Month. But that's not an association people seem
terribly eager to make.
In fact, the closer Obama gets to representing us all, the
more people struggle with the notion of him as a black man --
reflecting in growing detail America's chronic schizophrenia about
The question of race that has been raised repeatedly in
Obama's campaign is both straightforward and existential: Is he
really black? Isn't he really biracial? Or maybe post- racial
, even nonracial? A writer for Salon.com, analyzing a swing through
Kansas during which Obama lauded the relatives on his white
mother's side, delved into why Obama wasn't playing up that
part of his heritage and embracing his "inner diversity"; "Can
America elect a zebra?" the piece asked. Another admiring Salon
article credited Obama for taking the path to a "post-
racial destination" -- but also for the bold move of "making
Such deconstruction speaks less to any new racial
enlightenment than it does to old, deep-seated racial
prejudice. The core of the resistance to seeing Obama as what
he is -- a black man -- even among his supporters (or perhaps
especially among his supporters) is an assumption that he is capable
and successful because he is "other." Beneath the post-racial
talk and the how-black-is-he speculation lies an antebellum belief
that blackness is inherently limiting, while whiteness is inherently
transcendent. (Blackness is, however, inherently good for style and
"soaring" oratory, qualities the media have been quick to attribute
In the American racial caste system, the more refined and
well-spoken a black person is, the more mixed that person is assumed
to be. There is some hard historical truth to that: Better-off
blacks were often clearly mixed race, the descendants of slave
masters and other whites who consorted with black women and gave
their children "white" privileges like schooling.
But that privilege only went so far. Modern discussions about
race as a matter of personal choice, which have reached new heights
with Obama mania, willfully ignore the fact that America has always
treated its half-black citizens as simply black -- and it still
does. That means that although Obama or W.E.B. DuBois or Booker T.
Washington may be lighter-skinned than, say, Jesse Jackson or Marcus
Garvey, they are no more likely to be accepted as white.
Most African Americans are mixed with whites, thanks to
miscegenation that's been going on for centuries. My family, for
instance, is Creole from New Orleans, a racial melange of black,
European and American Indian that practically defines "other." But
Creoles inspired not a sense of racial liberation but racial
anxiety; determined to maintain the color line at all costs, whites
enforced the "one-drop" rule and sent people like me to the back of
the streetcar. Such has always been the social reality for blacks,
whatever their degree of whiteness. If all African Americans
declared ourselves multiracial today -- 10% white, or 20% or 50% --
that reality wouldn't change one whit.
Some argue that focusing on Obama's mixture exactly addresses
this point -- that it's time to change an outdated paradigm. They
say a big part of the hope and change Obama represents is an
opportunity to upend the "one-drop" and redefine race altogether, to
give America a fresh start. But such redefinition is not the
politics of change; it's the politics of forgetting. Casting Obama
as post-black is pure symbolism that conveniently fuzzes the many
race-specific problems -- incarceration, joblessness -- that affect
masses of black men, many of whom look a heck of a lot like Obama.
Let's face it, change is
hard. It can be ugly. It's not about conciliation but confrontation.
And what must be confronted is Obama's blackness, not his whiteness
or some notion that he transcends race altogether. America should be
able and willing to elect a black man to the White House, which
might qualify as the biggest sea change -- and no small reason for
hope -- in our political history.
We should be permanently retiring the one-drop rule, not by
trumpeting a new multiculturalism or a new post-racialism but by
acknowledging that it is indeed possible for somebody to be both
unequivocally black and representative of other fellow Americans.
That's a lesson that's taken far too many election cycles to
learn. Whatever happens with Obama's campaign now, let's hope it's
at least taught us that.