President Obama unequivocally and unhesitatingly made it official: he's African-American. That may sound silly and facile to say that but his checking the box "African-American" on his census form did two things. It made meaningless the incessant chatter of whether Obama should be called mixed race or African-American. It recognized the hard and unchanging reality that race relations and conflict in America are still framed in black and white. The one-drop rule in America renders anyone with even a trace of African ancestry in their genealogy as black. It's a delusion that calling oneself mixed race, no matter how light complexioned they are, will not earn them a pass from the lash of racial persecution.
Obama has never gotten a pass despite having one of the world's most recognizable names and faces and power positions. As other blacks, he could fume at being bypassed by taxis, racially profiled by police on street corners, refused being shown an apartment by landlords, followed in stores by security guards, denied a loan for his business or home purchase, confined to living in a segregated neighborhood, or passed over for a corporate management position.
The roughly six million or 2 percent of Americans who checked the biracial census box may take comfort trying to be racially precise, but most also tell of their own bitter experience in feeling the sting of racial bigotry in the streets and workplace. Obama has related his racial awakening in his best selling bare-the-soul autobiography Dreams From My Father. He self-designated himself as African-American, and took pride in that then, and that hasn't changed.
A mere check of the biracial designation on his census form would not spare Obama from any of the routine petty racial harassments and annoyances -- the subtle and outright forms of discrimination. The biracial box is a feel-good, paper designation that has no validity in the hard world of American race politics. The instant that Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring in February 2007, and through his relentless, hyper pressurized presidential battles, the vile, venomous, racial pounding has been non-stop. The Joker Posters, the Confederate and Texas Lone Star flags, the racial taunts, digs, cracks, insults, and slurs, the ape and monkey depictions of him and First Lady Michelle Obama on tens of thousands of web sites is a horrid testament that even a president is not exempt from racial loathing, bi-racial or not.
Despite the real and feigned color-blindness of many voters, nearly 60 percent of whites still did not vote for him. Most based their opposition to him on Republican political loyalties, ties, regional and personal preferences. But a significant minority of white voters did not for him because he's black, and they did not hide their feelings about that in exit polls in the Democratic primaries and the general election. Tagging him as multiracial or biracial made absolutely no difference to them, let alone changes their perception that he was black.
Even though Obama has never called himself anything but African-American, and now has made it official on the census form, the sideshow debate over whether Obama is the black president or the biracial president still creeps up. The debate is even more nonsensical since science has long since debunked the notion of a pure racial type. In America, race has never been a scientific or genealogical designation, but a political and social designation. Anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black and treated accordingly.
Blacks were ecstatic over Obama's candidacy and his presidential win. They were unabashed in saying that they backed him with passion and fervor because he is black. Many would not have cheered him with the same passion if he touted himself as a mixed race candidate.
The thrill and pride for them was that a black man could beat the racial odds and climb to the political top; substituting biracial for black would not have had the same meaning or significance to blacks. The talk about Obama being anything other than black infuriates many blacks. Their anger is legitimate. If Obama doesn't run from his black identity then the biracial card appears as a naked effort to snatch Obama's history-making presidency from them. It's also an implicit denial that an African-American can have the right stuff -- the smarts, talent and ability to excel in any arena.
Obama's presidency was and still is a significant step forward for black and white relations in America, not mixed-race relations. The nagging racial slights and indignities that many African-Americans suffer, and the racial ridicule that Obama is routinely subjected to, is an eternal reminder that race still does matter, and matters a lot to many Americans. Obama's self-designation of himself as African-American made what's painfully obvious official.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.