Is Obama just black, mixed/bi-racial, or both black and white?

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A friend of mine just brought this story to my attention. There are lots of interesting questions to ask about how the census keeps track of race, and this article brings out several of them.

There's no bi-racial or multi-racial category. There used to be no option at all for those who didn't identify as just one race. You had to pick one or leave it blank. In 2000 they added the option to check more than one box. You still can't say that you're bi-racial or multi-racial, though, meaning that you don't consider yourself fully any of the races you check. You have to be fully each of them or not at all.

Given that, we might expect what this article brings out. Some children of a black parent and a white parent end up checking just "black". Others end up checking both "black" and "white". I'm sure some just leave it blank. What interests me is the percentages who think the second option is legitimate. According to the numbers given in the article, 53% of white people say President Obama is mixed race, and only 24% say he's black. But the numbers go in the opposite direction from black respondents. 55% say he's black, and 34% say he's mixed.

One reason more black people say he's black and not mixed is that they see how others identify you as definitive of what race you are. Hence the quote from the woman who said that if you put a hoodie on Obama and had him walk down a dark street you'd get everyone saying he's black. It's been my experience that the one-drop rule, which classified someone as black just for having one relatively recent black ancestor, is far more strongly operative among black Americans than it is among white Americans, especially of my generation and younger. Sam once told me that she thinks this is because a lot of black Americans have more invested in the one-drop rule. If that's true, there's a real irony there, because the one-drop rule was developed in order to serve the interests of white segregationists.

I think part of what's going on here is that a lot of black Americans (and mixed-race Americans who, by their looks, will be classified as black) experience a reality of being treated a certain way, and this applies more because of how they look than because of what racial group their parents belong to. That leads them to conclude that the one-drop rule is still operating as strongly as it ever did. One very interesting item in this article is the guy who claims to be both black and white. He did check both boxes, and it's because he really does think of himself as fully both. Check out the responses in the comments on the BET reprinting of this article to see how strong the resistance among a lot of black people will be to such a claim.

Then a lot of white Americans do something very different. They want racial problems to be over. They want to be post-racial. So they're happy to mess with traditional ways of classifying people, especially if they see those as immoral. Those who are young enough and in certain parts of the country have been in more racially-enlightened spheres of influence where they've been taught to see race as less important, and thus care a lot less what race someone is, and that's led many of them not to have ever heard of the one-drop rule or seen anyone assuming such a thing. Their natural inclination is to see mixed-race people as mixed. They'd call Obama half-black, perhaps.

This includes me, and by "me" I mean my unreflective intuitions on these matters based purely on how I was raised and the environment I grew up in, i.e. how people around me classified people according to race. I grew up thinking the child of a black parent and a white parent would be half-black and half-white, just as Elrond in The Lord of the Rings is half-elf and half-human, his daughter Arwen is 3/4 elf and 1/4 human, and her son with Aragorn is 3/8 elf and 5/8 human. (That's actually ignoring Aragorn's way-back elvish ancestry through Elrond's half-elf brother, but that's so far back that it's negligible in comparison, and, for the record, shouldn't really count as incest either.)

I'd never heard of the one-drop rule or even seen any signs of anyone assuming it until I was in graduate school, and I was taught that this was the law in the South during segregation and is still how everyone thinks about race. (It's always interesting to be told how you think about race when it's obvious to you that the way of thinking is completely new to you.)

I've long known that I have heterodox views on race. People on both the left and the right have strongly disagreed with almost every substantive view I've ever taken on race. But here I'm not just talking about my own views. If the statistics given in the article are reliable at predicting what the views of Americans in general think (and you can see the Pew source here, which seems to me to say they are), then a majority of white people in this country and a strong enough minority of black people think that President Obama is not black but mixed race. That means the one-drop rule is at best not completely operative. This is with someone whose skin is dark enough that a lot of people still do just call him black, including himself. What would people say about a child of a black and a white parent whose skin is much lighter? I'd expect the numbers to be even more strongly in favor of "mixed" rather than "black".

But then the very same survey turned up only 1% of respondents choosing more than one race for themselves, while 16% of them indicated that they're of mixed race. Does that mean they're applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to Obama? That would be weird. But all this really shows is that there seems to be a much higher chance of getting someone to self-identify as mixed than there is to get them to identify as a member of two different races.

Perhaps that's because, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, they tend to think checking off both boxes mean they're fully both, and they don't think of themselves as fully both but only part each. Perhaps it's not because they're inconsistently applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to others. Perhaps it's just a function of the unavailability of a mixed category. But either way, I think it's pretty obvious that contextual factors, even slight differences in wording, can have a huge impact on how we think about racial classification. Most academics who discuss racial classification seem to me to underestimate how strong such effects are.

As to the question in the post title, the answer is "yes".

2 Comments

I grew up in the South and have never heard of the one-drop rule, so I guess that proves your point about young people. I'd go ahead and make the conjecture that your "certain parts of the country" is actually most of the country. The only real exceptions I've seen in the Chesapeake Bay area, but other parts get stereotyped based on their history.

yes obama is mixed his half Kenyan (east Africa) and half white American

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