The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures
Media -- Dont Quote Me  |  News Features  |  Stark Ravings  |  Talking Politics  |  This Just In
100 unsexiest men 2009

Black like him?

Obama is, apparently, our first African-American president. But is that the identity he touted as a candidate?
By ADAM REILLY  |  February 11, 2009


Whatever your race — and whatever you think of his résumé, or his politics, or his yen for tax-cheating cabinet nominees — Barack Obama's arrival in the Oval Office is something to celebrate. A barrier is shattered! Racism's foul legacy recedes! Martin Luther King's vision of a colorblind America is closer than ever!

So I kind of hate to ask the question — but I'm going to ask it anyway: isn't all this self-congratulation over the installment of our first black president just a little bit misleading? And by abetting it, isn't Obama — who before the election embraced a far more complicated racial heritage — playing a bit of an identity-politics shell game?

Before you call me a killjoy or a crank, remember: the question of how best to characterize Obama's racial composition has been hotly debated ever since this son of a black man from Africa and a white woman from Middle America first emerged as a legitimate presidential contender — and took every opportunity to remind us that he was the son of a white woman from Middle America and a black man from Africa. (That theme just disappeared altogether in the past few feel-good weeks.) In November 2006, for example, Stanley Crouch argued, in the New York Daily News, that "other than color, Obama . . . does not . . . share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves." This distinction, Debra Dickerson subsequently argued at, helped make Obama more palatable to white voters. ("You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves," Dickerson said of Obama's white supporters. "You're replacing [that symbolic American black man] with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened.")

Such critics had their detractors: in a February 2007 Time rebuttal, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates dismissed them as "small-minded racists." But discussion of Obama's racial bona fides continued. That September, Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for neglecting the plight of the Jena Six, complaining that Obama was "acting like he's white." (The restraint Jackson showed in not using the term "Oreo" was lacking when, a bit closer to the election, he was videotaped saying he wanted to "cut [Obama's] nuts off.")

And as recently as October 2008, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was still wrestling — albeit from a guilty-white-liberal perspective — with the problem of how best to describe Obama's background. "Presumably," Kristof blogged, "the origin of the convention of referring to anyone of part black ancestry as black was rooted in racism and economics. . . . If a convention has such unsavory origins, should we still adhere to it?"

Good question. But over the past three months, the ambiguity and complexity that once marked discussions of Obama's race yielded to a simplistic new orthodoxy: the president is either black or African-American. End of story.

Examples of this racial 180 abound, as Obama recast himself, with the media as complicit allies, from half-white kid from the heartland to black icon. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who is African-American, wrote about how even his relentlessly optimistic grandparents couldn't have imagined the election of a black man. posted letters to Obama from Harlem schoolchildren and descendents of such black heroes as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Dred Scott — plus an open letter from Clara Lee Fisher, descendent of slave Sally Hemings, to President Thomas Jefferson, Hemings's owner and lover. Dozens of news outlets covered the Tuskegee Airmen's trip to the inaugural; cameramen filming the ceremony lingered on the often-emotional faces of black men and women.

And in his inaugural speech, Obama himself encouraged the audience to treat his election as a racial breakthrough, marveling that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." (In the same speech, Obama's white Kansan mother went unmentioned.) Today, T-shirts that epitomize this shift are still available online, emblazoned with the slogan OBAMA IS THE NEW BLACK (

The mutt in chief?
So what in blazes happened? And does it really matter?

One answer to the first question is that African-Americans — for understandable reasons — clamored to claim Obama as their own. "When Ed Brooke was elected," says Bay State Banner publisher Melvin Miller, referring to the former Massachusetts senator, who was the 20th century's first African-American member of the US Senate, "everyone tried to make him white, because he's fair skinned. The only reason this is an issue is that the United States has made race an issue. . . . If Barack Obama were not the president, and instead was just an errand boy, they wouldn't say he's white. So to me, why change?"

1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
Related: The ‘A’ word, A step forward, Toxic talk: Hating Obama, More more >
  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , African-American, African-American Issues, Barack Obama,  More more >
  • Share:
  • RSS feed Rss
  • Email this article to a friend Email
  • Print this article Print
Re: Black like him?
very well written and obviously thought out. as a black person, i wish a person of color had actually crafted and explored certain segments of it. but the conclusion left me wishing, as always, that cab drivers, who oft rudely ignore them, and law enforcement types, who often prey upon them, would view black folk in such soft, eloquent shades of gray. i'll keep my black pompom... for significant change...hardly obama.
By jeffmcnary on 02/13/2009 at 10:56:50

Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   ALL QUIET ON THE TIMES CO. FRONT  |  April 09, 2009
    The Globe crisis leaves New York speechless. Plus, Morrissey Boulevard's problematic political fan club
  •   CATHOLIC TILT  |  April 02, 2009
    James Carroll justifies his faith
  •   FIRST CUT  |  March 25, 2009
    Buyouts shrink the Globe newsroom — but not enough
  •   HE'S NUMBER THREE  |  March 19, 2009
    How seriously should Boston take long-shot mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea?
  •   HOW WEIRD IS STEPHON MARBURY?  |  March 10, 2009
    Brace yourselves for the Starbury show, starring Stephon Marbury — perhaps the strangest pro athlete ever to suit up in a Celtics uniform.

 See all articles by: ADAM REILLY

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2009 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group