Barack Obama and Racial Identity

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jeff house
Barack Obama and Racial Identity

 

jeff house

Obama's struggle with is own racial identity forms the core of his book, "Dreams of My Father".

The following is an interesting review, though the book itself is WELL worth reading:

quote:

For whatever reasons -- his absent African father, his relation to his mother, the identity traps and distortions thrown up by America's racist history, his own unique DNA -- he chose to self-consciously affirm his identity as a black man. He agonized over what it meant to be a black American. He feared being seen as a sellout. In an attempt to find out what blackness was, and by extension what he was, he threw himself into the black community, working as a community organizer in Chicago. He was driven by a primordial quest: to find out who he was, and to become that person.

[url=http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/02/05/obama_race/index.html]htt...

robbie_dee

I was going to start another thread about this, but I thought I might put it here instead, as its kind of related.

If Obama were elected president, obviously he would be the first president to legitimately self-identify as black. But some historians suggest he may actually be the seventh president of "mixed" racial heritage, following a line of prominent men with hidden pasts stretching back to Thomas Jefferson.

quote:

Today, as Sen. Barack Obama takes what he hopes will be one more step toward becoming the nation's first black president, the Internet is filled with stories that state such a milestone already has been reached -- several times over.

The political ascent of Mr. Obama, a man of mixed racial heritage who identifies himself as black, has reignited the discussion of presidential ethnicity that dates as far back as Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States was described by a political opponent as the "son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father."

In addition to Jefferson, the books, magazines and newspaper articles found on the Web name five other U.S. presidents who may have had black ancestry, but never publicly acknowledged it: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Despite author Toni Morrison's infamous 1998 declaration, Bill Clinton was not on the list.


[url=http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08036/854713-176.stm]Monica Hayes, "Racial heritage of six former presidents is questioned," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 5, 2008[/url].

[ 05 February 2008: Message edited by: robbie_dee ]

Unionist

Why are we talking about DNA?

Surely a person's identity in society is what matters - not checking her genome or studying her family tree.

Black people are those who view themselves as black and/or are viewed by others as black - within the social context ([i]because it might be different in other societies[/i]).

aka Mycroft

quote:


Originally posted by robbie_dee:
[b]
If Obama were elected president, obviously he would be the first president to legitimately self-identify as black. But some historians suggest he may actually be the seventh president of "mixed" racial heritage, following a line of prominent men with hidden pasts stretching back to Thomas Jefferson.[/b]

Reminds me of an old South African ad from the 80s I saw on YouTube. The ad was promoting a muckraking South African newspaper expose of the African (ie Black) ancestry of various senior (white) Afrikaner leaders. There really is no such thing as racial purity (and there is a strong argument that "race" is a social construct) and I suspect there is evidence that virtually every president of the US is "mixed race".

As for whether Obama is "Black enough", the fact is that the vast majority of American Blacks have European as well as African ancestors due to the legacy of habitual rape of black women by white slaveowners and their kin (there's an argument that the word motherfucker was not actually coined to refer to incest but instead originally referred to whites who raped black female slaves) as well as mixed race relationships (coercive and non) between whites and blacks since slavery (hello Strom Thurmond!).

[ 05 February 2008: Message edited by: aka Mycroft ]

Cueball Cueball's picture

Its a ridiculous thread. Its an embarrasment to a progressive board. Let the morons discuss wether Obama is black or not. Fucking stupid.

[ 05 February 2008: Message edited by: Cueball ]

jeff house

Yes, that certainly trivializes the issue.

Obama's importance comes from the fact that he makes no attempt at passing as white, or "biracial".

His struggles with his own identity are what is interesting, and instructive.

robbie_dee

Um, my point was not to trivialize Obama's racial identity. I don't question whether or not he is "black enough." I am supporting Obama, and I am doing so in part because I think his background would give him a unique and vitally important perspective as president. That background, by the way, is not just as a black American but also as someone who spent his formative years in Indonesia and Hawaii, which are socially, economically and culturally quite different both from each other and from the mainland U.S. Also as someone who spent quite a lot of time and thought as an adult trying to reconnect with his "African" (as opposed to "African-American") roots. I read his book and that latter narrative was probably the part I found most powerful.

I thought the article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some interesting context on the rather complex and tragic history of race in the US. Indeed I think the possibility that there may have been a president or presidents in the past who concealed part of their ancestry in order to emphasize their "whiteness" only further highlights the importance of what Obama's candidacy represents.

I apologize if my intent was not clear.

[ 05 February 2008: Message edited by: robbie_dee ]

jeff house

I understand that, and merely wanted to avoid thread drift.

Of course, no one is talking here about whether Obama is "black enough".

We are actually discussing the process Obama went through to achieve his racial identity and self-understanding.

The book, and the book review, discuss that question well.

robbie_dee

I really liked "Dreams from My Father." I thought it gave a lot of insight into where Obama is coming from. I also found his writing style itself very compelling.

"Dreams from my Father" is an interesting counterpoint to Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope." I am trying to read "The Audacity of Hope" now, but I am finding it to be coming across (at least so far) as pretty much the same hackneyed political prose I am used to seeing from other US politicians. Lots of talk about representing the views of "real Americans" as opposed to "Washington insiders" and about "bridging the gap" between Republicans and Democrats without putting forth any sort of genuinely novel or interesting policy ideas for doing so.

I think if I had read "The Audacity of Hope" first I probably would not be supporting Obama. The reason I am supporting him probably has more to do with my perception of his character, as I understand it from his first book, rather than any of the policy ideas he is advancing right now. The candidates I really agreed with on policy, Edwards and Kucinich, have unfortunately dropped out, so I have to basically look at Obama as just the lesser evil on that front. I really [i]want[/i] to believe, though, that some sort of perspective he may have gained from his unique background, would allow him to be something more than another uninspiring DLC corporate handmaiden if he actually became President.

Makwa Makwa's picture

quote:


Originally posted by Cueball:
[b]Its a ridiculous thread. Its an embarrasment to a progressive board. Let the morons discuss wether Obama is black or not. Fucking stupid.[/b]

Once again white progressives chime in and declare authoritatively whether or not the analysis of people of colour has any merit. More than that, they declaim that anyone who dares analyze the subject of racial self identity within the north american construct is a 'fucking stupid moron.' Dam, can you declaim your intellectual supremacy any louder? I suggest you read some of the African American analysts on the subject, such as [url=http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/01/22/obama/]Ms. Debra J. Dickerson[/url] before making such insulting comments.

jeff house

There is nothing progressive about it.

Unionist

Makwa, are you suggesting we should take the following seriously:

quote:

"Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

jeff house

I think it was the contemptuous dismissive nature of the comment that was offensive.

Makwa Makwa's picture

quote:


Originally posted by unionist:
[b]Makwa, are you suggesting we should take the following seriously: [/b]

Yes, unionist, I am suggesting that we consider the arguments and discussion of knowledgable African American writers and thinkers seriously. Is that so unbelievably radical?

The concept of aboriginal identity, particurly when it comes to those of mixed racial heritage is very critical to what it means to be aboriginal in First Nations communities, but all decisions of what this means in real life is left to the white federal government. It seems to me that the dismissal of African American and African Canadian thought is a part of the same brutal colonial mindset that denies First Nations a voice in determining who is legally designated as a First Nations person.

Unionist

quote:


Originally posted by Makwa:
[b]Yes, unionist, I am suggesting that we consider the arguments and discussion of knowledgable African American writers and thinkers seriously. Is that so unbelievably radical? [/b]

Not at all, Makwa. The reason I asked you was because I am inclined to [b]agree[/b] with the analysis presented in that excerpt.

In fact, I have been saying over and over and over again that the only thing I see in common between Canadians of Haitian and Jamaican and UEL and Sudanese origins is the fact that they are subject to racial discrimination. I was intrigued to see a knowledgeable Artican American writer and thinker making an analogous statement.

I haven't finished my reflections on the article, but thanks very much for posting it. Whatever else it is, it's not simplistic.

martin dufresne

quote:


I have been saying over and over and over again that the only thing I see in common between Canadians of Haitian and Jamaican and UEL and Sudanese origins is the fact that they are subject to racial discrimination.

Yes and your point?
This common racial discrimination is IMO a [b]huge[/b] issue, and my (admittedly limited understanding) is that this is what constructs the "Black" category and makes it relevant politically. When we realize that the problem is our standpoint and not their various identities, that commonality of being-seen-as-Black-and-treated-as-such helps us grasp our racism and deal with it. Maybe...

Boarsbreath

And you'd better believe "identity" is important, for Obama most of all. That it has little to do with DNA is even clearer when you see people discussing "Latinos"...even more than "black" or "African-American", or "aboriginal", that both is and isn't an identity.

They're ways of talking about identity, and culture, and community. They're not correct or incorrect as labels in some objective sense...so what matters is how people talk with them. And there, Obama would attract me just for what I gather is a very sensitive & intelligent book (Jeez, a serious presidential candidate who writes books...)

Coyote

I remember there was a lot of umbrage in some quarters after Tiger Woods declared that he didn't consider himself to be Black. Now, Tiger had a point - he is more Asian than he is Black if one follows his lineage. But as one comedian said: "If you hear a cop say 'N-----r put your hands up', Tiger, he's talking to [b]you.[/b]"

I don't think it's non-progressive to discuss the impact of Obama's rise to prominence, and what effect it has on our discourse and social understanding of race. I mean, that construction is being manipulated on very realpolitik terms as we speak by powerful political players of all stripes.

I can't remember who wrote it (and I'm being a little lazy and not googling - how's that, too lazy to google. I'm pathetic) but the most striking thing that I have read this campaign was the Black writer who said that he caught himself not wanting to watch Obama speak for too long on television because every moment he did increased his anxiety that he would watch another prominent Black leader gunned down in his prime. It's a remarkable insight into our political culture.

Unionist

quote:


Originally posted by martin dufresne:
[b] Yes and your point?
This common racial discrimination is IMO a [b]huge[/b] issue, and my (admittedly limited understanding) is that this is what constructs the "Black" category and makes it relevant politically. When we realize that the problem is our standpoint and not their various identities, that commonality of being-seen-as-Black-and-treated-as-such helps us grasp our racism and deal with it. Maybe...[/b]

Well of course being victims of racism is hugely important. But to view people as victims only, and to conflate cultural and political differences, is a form of stereotyping which accepts the oppressor's categories.

martin dufresne

I see you switching attention back to "them" and raise you five slippin' an' slidin' weaseling White Heterosexual Adult Male points.
Also I would back-edit "standpoint" in my post above to "standpoint and racist behaviour".

Coyote

And I agree, unionist. But aren't the oppressor's categorization one of the defining aspects of racism? Isn't it the very guts of racism? And as such, does it not need to be analyzed?

Unionist

quote:


Originally posted by Coyote:
[b]And I agree, unionist. But aren't the oppressor's categorization one of the defining aspects of racism? Isn't it the very guts of racism? And as such, does it not need to be analyzed?[/b]

Analyzed, yes. Adopted - no.

When I hear people talk about "the black community", or "the Jewish community", it gives me the creeps.

Cueball Cueball's picture

The point is Makwa, that the whole campaign has been reduced to surface symbolism, of electing the first woman to the presidency, or the first black person. The reduction of the campaign to these two poles is probably the most trivializing and patronizing aspect of the whole. It is tokenism writ large.

Irrespective of the qualities of Obama's book and his search for identity, the constant reiteration of this theme only reinforces the functionality of that particular discourse.

[ 05 February 2008: Message edited by: Cueball ]

Boarsbreath

...which is why Bill C did his notorious thing emphasising Obama's support among black voters.

aka Mycroft

quote:


Originally posted by Boarsbreath:
[b]...which is why Bill C did his notorious thing emphasising Obama's support among black voters.[/b]

But I thought Clinton was America's "first Black president"?

B.L. Zeebub LLD

quote:


Originally posted by martin dufresne:
[b]I see you switching attention back to "them" and raise you five slippin' an' slidin' weaseling White Heterosexual Adult Male points.
Also I would back-edit "standpoint" in my post above to "standpoint and racist behaviour".[/b]

Why are you the only White Whateversexual Adult Male allowed to speak with critical authority, Martin?

Aren't you simply reifying political narratives designed largely by the White Europecentric dominated academy (and let's face it, better than 90% of the theory you engage in is just that) and claiming to speak on behalf of the downtrodden without their consent? Who voted [i]you[/i] their spokesperson?

It seems that you give yourself every right to speak on "their" behalf, but deny that right to anyone you don't agree with.

[ 07 February 2008: Message edited by: B.L. Zeebub LLD ]

Maysie Maysie's picture

From The Angry Black Woman:

quote:

I’ve been a registered voter since I was 18 and generally candidates don’t look like me. But no one seems to be interested in insisting that voting for the white guy is influenced by race or gender, it’s only when the candidates differ from what we’ve been taught to view as the norm that suddenly our votes can’t possibly be based on issues.

[url=http://theangryblackwoman.wordpress.com/2008/02/06/skin-bits-issues-and-... Black Woman: Skin, Bits, Issues and Voting[/url]

[ 07 February 2008: Message edited by: bigcitygal ]

B.L. Zeebub LLD

Can't seem to get your link to work, bigcitygal. There's no URL therein... [img]wink.gif" border="0[/img]

[ 07 February 2008: Message edited by: B.L. Zeebub LLD ]

AfroHealer

Right on bigcitygal:

I could not have said it better. We gotta end this racist misdirections.

When racialised communities vote for a white male. Nobody questions if its race based.

We collectively need to give our heads a shake, and ask ourselves why we have chosen to adopt this racist discourse.

Why in the collective political discourse, white christian males are normal, and everyone else is "special". [img]frown.gif" border="0[/img]

B.L. Zeebub LLD

He who owns the gold, makes the rules, unfortunately.

AfroHealer
B.L. Zeebub LLD

Cheers.

Maysie Maysie's picture

Thanks AfroHealer. I fixed the link.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

quote:


Originally posted by AfroHealer:
[b]Right on bigcitygal:

I could not have said it better. We gotta end this racist misdirections.

When racialised communities vote for a white male. Nobody questions if its race based.

We collectively need to give our heads a shake, and ask ourselves why we have chosen to adopt this racist discourse.

Why in the collective political discourse, white christian males are normal, and everyone else is "special". [img]frown.gif" border="0[/img] [/b]


Like many progressive people the idea of voting for a white Christian male makes me nervous. But I agree whole heartily with the sentiment in the link BCG provided.

quote:

Shockingly voters (whether male,female, LGBT, black, white, Asian, Latino/a or NDN) are usually capable of deciphering which candidates share their personal belief system.

In following this I end up voting for a white christian male because he is one of the most progressive voices in our House in spite of being a christian.

[url=http://billsiksay.ca/bio/index.html]Bill's Bio[/url]

Boarsbreath

Mycroft: Yes, that's what made Bill's move so shocking. Him of all people. Goes to show -- just being much better than most politicians doesn't have to imply being a fine human being.

aka Mycroft

Being in a particularly masochistic mood I listened to the truly hideous Zelda Young Show on CHIN-AM this Sunday and heard an interview with someone from something called "Israpundit". He argued that Barack Obama was not "legally" African-American because his Kenyan father is partly descended from Arabs meaning Obama is really only 1/8 African and is really an Arab-American.

First of all I wasn't aware that there was a "legal definition" of "African American". Is this in a hitherto unpublished appendix to the Nuremberg Laws perhaps? I believe Jim Crow laws had varying "tests" to determine whether someone was a "Negro" or "colored" - several states evidently used something called the "one drop rule" in which having a single "drop" of black blood made one black (in which case Obama is black) - Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act" of 1924 employed this "rule". Similarly, eugenicist Madison Grant wrote that "The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew." This doesn't answer the question of what the cross between a black man and an Arab is? I guess it depends on which group you despise the most. I guess it depends on which group you despise the most and for Israpundit and Zelda Young that would be Arabs.

Oh, and because I'd like ohara to notice this and hopefully say something about Zelda or join me in writing a complaint to CHIN-AM asking them to improve their "Jewish programming" so that it isn't such an embarrassment to the community I'll gratuitously say the magic words Canadian Jewish Congress and Israel in hopes that he'll appear.

[ 26 February 2008: Message edited by: aka Mycroft ]

aka Mycroft

Sorry, browser problems.

[ 26 February 2008: Message edited by: aka Mycroft ]

Scott Piatkowski Scott Piatkowski's picture

Now you're repeating [b]your own[/b] posts. [img]smile.gif" border="0[/img]

martin dufresne

Zeebub went:

quote:

Aren't you simply [jargon edited out of charity] and claiming to speak on behalf of the downtrodden without their consent? Who voted you their spokesperson?

No one and I am not that and I am not claiming to speak on anyone's behalf either. Glad I could disabuse you of those notions, you're welcome. I am, as a White person, trying to suss out how we supercilious paler-skinned folks generally treat darker-skinned people and focus the discussion on that. Feel free to sit it out if you prefer.

adam stratton

martin dufresne,

You are an annoying character and many Babblers have told you so, though expressed differently.

martin dufresne

Why thank you, how civil of you... [img]wink.gif" border="0[/img]
You see, this is part of White privilege: we merely "annoy" each other, trade gentle barbs but within what one could call a kind of invisible "bubble", a club, where our legitimacy is never really at stake.
Do you know there is a growing number of "whiteness studies" courses in academia that poke at the boundary of that club, its unwritten rules? If I may test your annoyance threshold, I am sure that some Babble threads would prove priceless research material - and I am not presuming I would pass such a test.
Just remember that the people outside of this "bubble" are treated with much less mercy.

Publicfinance

Why can't the US stop obsessing about the fact Obama has a A Kenyan father and focus on his policies and character. I don't know about him, but Tiger Woods has gotten extremely irritated at US journalists who call him "black" when his Mother is Thai. The majority of Americans have mixed ethnicity, why the race-obsession?

At the end of the day who the H**L cares what colour Obama's skin is, I wouldn't vote for him because I don't agree with his economic policies, not because his Dad was from from Sub Saharan Africa