Obama and Slavery

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Some black Americans are convinced that Senator Barack Obama is not black or not black enough Stanley Crouch is a good example of someone holding such a view. The reasoning seems to me to be not so much that he's mixed race (which is compatible with being black) but more that he is not descended from West African slaves in the U.S. What that has to do with the concept of blackness in the U.S. is something I can't understand. Most Americans treat Barack Obama as black, and thus he is black by the operational concepts of race at work in this context. But it's certainly true that some components of what some black Americans see as crucial to their black identity are not part of his life at all (or at least not naturally; when he puts on a Southern black accent to speak at the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that doesn't count as normally speaking that way), and being descended from West African slaves in the U.S. is one of those elements.

But now it turns out that Obama's white mother is descended from white slaveowners. It's sort of ironically funny, but what serious import does this revelation have? It's worth thinking about what significance people might find in this. The same is true of every black American descended from white slaveowners who raped their slaves, which produced mixed race offpspring who were then labeled as black. That ancestry is fairly common among black Americans today. There is one difference in this case, though. Senator Obama's maternal ancestors who were the beneficiaries of white anti-black racism (whether intentional or not) are much closer in his line than is the case with those the eventual result of slave rape. In fact, the victims of white anti-black racism are not at all in his line, at least until him, since he of course is treated as black in a society that still manifests racism. But it is the latter fact that would make him black, not the former.

Perhaps justice issues related to ancestry from slaves that some black people will have and he won't (or won't as much). But that issue is a problem for those who think certain kinds of justice are due to all black people. Trying to get around that problem by defining those who would not benefit from such proposed measures aren't really black seems to me to be illegitimate.

But this does (technically) lay to rest the claim that Senator Obama's ancestry didn't have anything to do with American slavery. For some fun video, see this Racialicious post, which contains Debra Dickerson's appearance on The Colbert Report (defending the same position as Crouch) and then a Saturday Night Live parody of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton discussing how black Obama is.

6 Comments

Jeremy,

You write:

he reasoning seems to me to be not so much that he's mixed race (which is compatible with being black)

Why is that? Why not the reverse, i.e., that he's mixed race implies he's not black and that it compatible with being white?

It makes no sense to me.

What you said isn't the reverse of what I said. My own view is that being mixed race (where the mixing is black and white) is compatible with any of the four following properties:

1. being black
2. being white
3. not being black
4. not being white

I think Vanessa Williams is mixed race, black, and not white. Her skin is too dark to be white. But there are some mixed race kids whose hair is blond and whose eyes are blue, with very little trace of black parentage in their look. It's arguable that they might be white as well as mixed race but not black. There might be cases of someone who is mixed who is neither black nor white, and I suppose there might be cases where the person is both black and white. I'm at least open to all of those. My point here is mainly that it's coherent to call Barack Obama black while also insisting that he's mixed race. I think both are true in his case.

he of course is treated as black in a society that still manifests racism

The irony seems to be that he is treated as black by white racists, but, according to your report, as not black by those black racists who seem more concerned with his racial background than with his policies.

Peter, I'm not sure that's necessarily racism. It involves a belief in a certain kind of racial essence, according to which some culture is necessary to be a member of the race. Philosophers generally call that racialism, not racism. There may even be moral problems with the view (aside from the pure fact that it's empirically false). But it's not tantamount to racism. At least I'd need to see an argument if I were to be convinced that it's racism in any way more than perhaps contributing to overall structures in society that amount to structural racism. Many perfectly innocent beliefs contribute toward that, so why wouldn't these?

Jeremy, as I see it, while this is certainly not as objectionable as things like segregation in the old South, it is still racism to judge a candidate on their race rather than their policies. It is perhaps legitimate to choose a candidate whose cultural background is similar to one's own, and that may be a valid reason for some people not to choose Obama, but cultural background is not necessarily tied to race or ancestry, certainly not remote ancestry.

Are they judging him on his race? Some people might be, but if they're voting for Hillary Clinton rather than him I don't see how it's judging him on his race. It's not as if they're not voting for him because they see him as white. It's that they're voting for the one they think will do the best job or the one they think can beat the Republican nominee most easily. Some might say that an "authentically black" candidate might better serve their interests from having the same cultural background or something (a legitimate enough consideration, if it's among many others), but then that in his case he doesn't get such a boost and has to stand among the other candidates. That was in fact the sort of person I was talking about.

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