Barack Obama: The first what?

Sam Smith

Barack Obama’s black father lasted less than a month. Obama was raised by a white mother and an Indonesian stepfather and later by white grandparents.

But according to the rules of the day, skin color trumps everything. Which means that an awful lot of people are going to think of someone like Obama as black no matter who was at home raising him or where he grew up. Especially if he’s wearing a hood or walking down an alley.

How much do we think that way? A check of Google search found 97 million references to Obama as the “first black president,” 24 million as the first “post racial president” but only two million as first biracial and 1.5 million as first multi ethnic one.

There was an interesting discussion in 2011 on the Zacola Public Square, in which Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law professor who has written on race, argued that:

“Obama is black, first and foremost because he looks black. That alone triggers all of the reflexive prejudice and animus that define the black experience in the United States. One could engage in a philosophical discussion on the nature of racial identity, personal affinity, culture, etc., but for practical purposes, races are a product of racism and racial habits–not the other way round. And racism is rather crude and simplistic. The typical racist identifies and hates black on sight–he doesn’t care about the complexities of mixed parentage, Ivy League education, or immigration status. And even non-racists reflexively assign people a racial identity on sight.”

But that leaves open questions such as: does calling Obama the first black president simply reinforce these unpleasant precedents and would Obama have done better politically if he had adopted a different ethnic brand?

I suspect so. He did have some say in the matter but chose not to take it. For example, on his 2010 census form he only checked the box for African American.

Yet in the wake of his Trayvon Martin case comments, black Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree told MSNBC: “I’ve known Barack Obama since he was a student at Harvard. . . and today for the first time he unequivocally and completely embraced the black community.”

In my book, the Great American Political Repair Manual,  I discussed the matter this way:

As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that “complexions run into each other.” Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that “it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term ‘race’ from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase ‘ethnic group.’ That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand.” Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our “most dangerous myth.”

 Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

 Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that’s not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:

“The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two ‘races’ have the same skin color. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable ‘white race.’ What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.”

I sense that Obama walked into something of a self-made trap on this matter. After being vetted as safe to be the “first black president” by a string of white establishment guardians ranging from the CIA front business for which he worked while young, the Chicago political machine, and the Democratic Leadership Council, this politician with not much of a record couldn’t really walk away from the brand that got him the job in the first place.

To be sure, it helped him win the office by bringing out the white liberal and black vote, but since then we have had had a strange situation in which the most conservative Democratic president in almost a century is regarded by many as a crazy black radical. It makes no sense but then if you live by clichés, you can die by them as well.

What if, instead, Obama had decided to not to be the first black or first post-racial president (a nonsensical status which couldn’t possible exist In today’s realities) but the first bi-racial or multi-ethnic president?

This was, in fact, his true ace. Here was someone in an ethnically charged and confused land whose father was black, mother was white, stepfather Indonesian (and a nominal or practicing Muslim), and his grandparents members of two of the most respectable religions in America: Baptist and Methodist.

Looked at from a political point of view, such a story could be used to describe someone who not only understood the conflicts in America and reflected them but had experience dealing with their results.

But as the “first black president” he has had little to say because he did not even bring with him the stories, feelings, and politics of those who had lived deep black lives. As Duke Ellington said,  it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Instead he mainly took the hits that come with being black.

If he had been more true to his actual background, it might have been different. His real experience was in multiculturalism not blackness, and that’s precisely what America can’t figure out how to live with.

If he had been able to overcome his empathy deficiency or learned that the best spin sometimes is just sincerity, it might have been a different story.

But while the color of his skin determined the reaction to him by many, the source of his funding was what determined his actions. Free of his indenture to Wall Street he could have helped latinos and blacks form coalitions that would better represent 29% of the population they now occupy. He could have pursued economic issues that are the best remedy for ethnic hostilities and the real reason the powerful foster these hostilities. But like the Democratic Party as a whole, Obama did nothing to bring white middle and lower class workers into the fold. What had helped make the New Deal and the Great Society was scrapped and made easy pickings for the Republican right.

Part of the problem is that too many believe that if we just talk enough about a problem like ethnic disparity it will go away. It doesn’t work for dysfunctional families and it won’t work for a dysfunctional nation. What works is rising above victimhood, lessening the talk and increasing the action, and finding new friends, often in unexpected places.

And too often we approach these things like post-modernist academics who confuse deconstruction with solution. That’s why in all the words on the Trayvon Martin case, Dick Gregory may have come up with the three best: boycott orange juice.

Further, one of the obstacles is a media and an elite that likes to oversimplify things. Which is why we hear endlessly about the need for diversity yet seldom celebrate it. Every American of a mixed heritage is another ignored story that might help us in the right direction. Instead, you just call Obama the first black president and that takes care of it.

Somewhere out there, though, may be someone – perhaps a woman whose mother was Puerto Rican, father black and husband a white Jew – who will tell the story differently and help us learn something that I once tried to explain this way:

Despite one’s individual culture, it is virtually impossible to live in America and not be interdependent with other ethnic groups. We are not unlike the Bedouins who relied on settled Arabs for trade, their culture partially defined by others. Anthropologist A. E. Kroeber  called the Bedouins a half culture or part culture, which is not a bad way of thinking of ourselves. This concept places us nearer to where we actually are than where we sometimes say we are: neither separate nations nor integrated into one, but constantly intersecting. If we can develop a model for successful and equitable interdependence it will help us solve the puzzle of how one maintains one’s ethnic integrity in a polyglot society. And then multiculturalism could even start to be fun.

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2 thoughts on “Barack Obama: The first what?

  1. Interesting, but I would say he’s black because he says so. It’s an individual choice, and white folks especially have no real business telling people with ties to blackness how they should identify.

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