THE BLOG
06/14/2008 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Silly Debate Over Whether Obama is Black or Mixed-Race


Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave the best answer to the question whether he's black, mixed race or something in between. He recently told a Chicago fundraiser crowd that to some he wasn't black enough, and he then promptly added that others say he might be too black. He's right; the knock against him has either been that he is too black or not black enough, not that he is too mixed race or not mixed race enough. Despite his occasional references to his white mother and grandmother, Obama by his own admission has never seen himself as anything other than being black. He says that's it been that way since he was 12. It's that way for those whites who flatly say that they won't vote for him because he's black. His Democratic primary losses to Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky showed there are legions of white voters who feel that race does matter to them. Few have said that they oppose him because he's mixed race.

Yet, the silly debate continues to rage over whether Obama is the black presidential candidate or the multi-racial candidate. The debate is even sillier when one considers that 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. Put bluntly, anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black, and treated accordingly. Their part-white ancestry doesn't give them a pass from taxis refusing to stop for them, clerks following them in department stores, from being racial-profiled by police on street corner stops, from landlords refusing to show them an apartment, or being denied a promotion. The mixed race designation doesn't magically make disappear the countless other racial sleights and indignities that are tormenting reminders that race still does matter, and matter a lot to many Americans.

Indeed, from the moment that Obama tossed his hat in the presidential rink a year ago, the mantra of the press and the public has been, "Is America ready for a black president?" Not "Is America ready for a mixed-race president?" The equally incessant mantra is that Obama if elected will make history as America's first black president not the first mixed-race president.

That tells much about the still frozen public attitudes and perceptions about race and politics in America. The deepest part of America's racial fault has always been and still remains the black and white divide. This has spawned legions of vile but durable racial stereotypes, fears, and antagonisms. Black males have been the special target of the negative typecasting. They've routinely been depicted as crime prone, derelict, sexual menaces, and chronic underachievers. There are slightly more than 6 million persons that self-identify themselves as mixed race in America. The number of persons with a black and white parent is a minuscule less that one half of one percent.

By contrast, African-Americans (mixed or not) number more than forty million in America and make up about twelve percent of the population. The designation then of "mixed race" is so new, benign and amorphous it softens racial attitudes and dilutes racial hostility. It carries none of the negative racial baggage that black or African-American does.

This is the big reason that scores of blacks have been frenzied over Obama's candidacy. They have turned out in record numbers in some primaries and have given his candidacy the greatest boost forward. They have been unabashed in saying that they back him with passion and fervor because he is black. It's hard to imagine that they'd cheer him with the same passion if he touted himself as a mixed race candidate. The thrill and pride for them is that a black man could beat the racial odds against blacks and scale the political heights.

The stock line is that Obama's candidacy shows how far America has come in that a black man has a real shot at grabbing the top elected spot in the land. No one says that Obama's candidacy shows how far America has come in that a mixed race man can win the White House. If Obama does win the presidency the new line will be that it shows not just how far America has come on race (meaning racial attitudes toward blacks), but that America has finally arrived on race (meaning racial attitudes toward blacks). Substituting mixed race for black would not have the same meaning or significance to blacks or whites.

If Obama grabs the White House, he'll claim it as a triumph for all Americans. Many blacks will claim it as a triumph for them. They'll both be right.


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is
The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).