Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Saturday, December 13, 2021

Barack Obama is the first black President of the United States.

That’s a simple, direct statement. If you know nothing else about Obama other than what you’d process by seeing him in the flesh or in a photograph/video — i.e., no awareness of his family background — you’d probably agree with the “black” part. Further, if you know just the barest amount of U.S. history, you’d probably easily believe that “first” part, too.

As always when it comes to race in America, things are never that cut-and-dried:

“Let’s not forget that he is not only the first African-American president, but the first biracial candidate. He was raised by a single white mother,” a Fox News commentator said seven minutes after Obama was declared the winner.

“We do not have our first black president,” the author Christopher Hitchens said on the BBC program “Newsnight.” “He is not black. He is as black as he is white.”

So if he’s equal parts black and white, Obama always had the option of identifying himself as white, right? Wrong:

“Obama has chosen the heritage he feels comfortable with,” [Congressman G.K. Butterfield] said. “His physical appearance is black. I don’t know how he could have chosen to be any other race. Let’s just say he decided to be white - people would have laughed at him.”

Which is what it boils down to — appearance. People don’t walk around with DNA-testing kits — what they see with their eyes is what determines race for them. Simply put, if most Americans were to see another, more anonymous half-Kenyan/half-Kansan walking down the sidewalk toward them, the mental processes would mostly begin and end with the skin color; and since that color would be more brown than peach, the identification would register flatly as “black person”.

So that settles that “black” part of Obama’s descriptor. As for that “first” part:

One book, “Black People and their Place in World History,” by Dr. Leroy Vaughn, even claims that five past presidents - Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge - had black ancestors, which would make Obama the sixth of his kind.

By the same turn, do Jefferson, Jackson, et al qualify as black? Once again, the sight test applies. Judged by their contemporary mores, these past Presidents weren’t judged to be non-white — probably the more crucial ethnic designator for most of American history (including the present time). Again, because they looked white, they were white. Had any of those five somehow tried to pass as black, they’d have been ridiculed as much as Obama would have been today had he tried the reverse.

What this all amounts to is that racial identity in America ultimately hinges upon what others perceive — and how much that matters. It feeds into the same impulse that prompts people to label themselves and each other, as a way of providing quick-processed working definitions. By its nature, that process is reductive — when you apply a label based on race, class, profession, or whatever, you use that marker to assign a set of traits and assumptions. Again, those base assumptions matter more to some than to others: They can be either a first draft that immediately gets fact-checked and revised as needed, or a final version that’s set in stone, for better or worse.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sat 12/13/2008 04:53pm
Category: Politics, Society
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