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When Obama Became Black, But Not Lwo or African

12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two days after Barack Obama was elected president, one of my students came to see me in my office. He was shocked that the prediction I had made in the fall of 2007, well before the Iowa Caucus, has become reality. Yes, I had predicted in class, at a time when no one gave Obama a chance, that Obama would become president of the United States in 2008. What explains the accurate prediction?

Most Americans expressed the same type of shock on Election Day. Much of the shock and skepticism reflects the racial divide and contentiousness between "whites" and "blacks" in America. The divide has made it almost impossible for the two groups to have any confidence in any African American candidate's chances of winning the presidency. Each group has its own reasons for the lack of confidence. For African Americans, the reason is the psychological neutralization and the many past failures stemming from their historical situation. The old blues song "Been down so long that down don't bother me" had become their anthem. James Baldwin captured this neutralization when he told us that his father "was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him." For "whites" the reason is the sense of entitlement, which makes them assume automatically that America is a "white country," in which "blacks" have no chance to become president. New immigrants from all parts of the world have for the most part accepted and internalized this two-pronged assumption.

With regard to Obama, this lack of confidence was easily displayed throughout the electoral process, from the primaries to the general election. Apart from a handful of supportive prominent African Americans, such as Oprah Winfrey, most African Americans did not give Obama any chance to win the presidency. As a result, they did not support him during the primaries. They overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton. Some of them claimed that the "Bradley effect" would prevent Obama from winning and, thus, caused them to support the winning alternative that Clinton represented. Still, many others maintained that Obama was not "black enough." No surprise, then, that, when the Iowa Caucus revealed that "whites" could and would support Obama, African Americans progressively fled the Clinton cart to jump on the Obama wagon. And it was no surprise that they shed tears of shock when Obama won the general election.

The automatic assumption of "white America's rule," on the other hand, revealed itself in many ways during the primaries through coded words and slogans of the Clinton campaign and the media. Recall references to "white hard working class" (who presumably supported only Clinton as opposed to "black" Obama) and the emphasis on Obama as the "black candidate." It was even more visible during the campaign for general election. Through his surrogates and running mate Sarah Palin, McCain inflamed his supporters with barely veiled racial and bitter jabs at Obama. Obama has insisted throughout his campaign and in his victory speech that he will be an American president for every American. Yet the two groups -- "blacks and whites" -- and the media have gleefully branded him "the first black president."

The two groups are victims of the same historical trap: the discriminatory "one-drop" rule inherited from slavery. They arbitrarily impose the "black" label on those who do not ask for it. The "one-drop" rule requires that a person be made "black" when he/she even remotely shares some genetic makeup with a person of the "black race." There is no logical reason for Obama to be referred to as "black candidate" or "black president." His mother was obviously "white." Unless one is committed to completely erasing his mother's legacy, why is Obama's "white" side made "black"? And if the focus is on his father, it is worth noting that in Kenya, his father's homeland, people are not referred to as "black" but as members of a given ethnic group or tribe. In his case, the logic would require that Obama be referred to as a "Lwo," his father's ethnic group. But no one has -- and rightly so -- called Obama a Lwo. Even if "black" is an accepted term for Americans of African descent, it does not apply to Obama for a couple of reasons. Indeed, early on in the campaign many African Americans did not think that Obama was "black enough" precisely because his father was from Africa and not a descendant of slaves, and his mother was white. Moreover, a close reading of Obama's own Dreams From My Father is revealing. Many (and perhaps most) African Americans have European ancestors' blood in them without knowing these ancestors. They choose to repudiate their "white" side in favor of the "black" side. Obama never repudiated either of his two sides. He sees himself as the by-product of a deliberate, albeit brief, love relation between his mother and father.

In October 2007, before the Iowa Caucus, I published an opinion essay (the Daily Orange and Blackamericans.com/blogs/news) promoting the Obama candidacy. I opined that Obama is neither "black" nor "white." He is a special type of American. He is the offspring of the two groups that have the longest been closely associated with each other in the United States: Africans and Europeans. Their long closeness has bred racial discord that affects all other groups in the United States, including new immigrants. I argued that, as the offspring of the two groups, blessed with a keen intellect, Obama was uniquely qualified to mend the fracture caused by his two progenitor groups. I predicted that Americans would support Obama because he was the clearest alternative of social cohesiveness. So while it was shocking and even bizarre to my students that I predicted boldly an Obama victory, it was not to me. The prediction was based on a single major test: Is the candidate authentically, equally, and irreversibly committed to the two core antagonistic groups? No candidate in the history of the United States -- Democrat, Republican or independent of any race -- has ever passed this test. All other things being equal, Obama's dual heritage allowed him to pass it. This explains his impressive victory. Even without the economic crisis, Obama would have won. Obama won not because he is "black" but because he is an authentic and intelligent mixed product of Africans and Europeans -- and Asians since his stepfather was Asian.

Obama is, thus, not a "black president," and will not be. He is an American president. His victory is a clear repudiation of the arbitrary and discriminatory imposition of the term "black" on those who do not ask for it. It delivers both "Black Americans" and "White Americans" from the historical trap, in which each group uses the term "black" for its own reasons (and advantage) but with the same expectations of failure. It also frees other ethnic groups and new immigrants from the forced "taking side" that the two core antagonists have locked them in. Freed from this historical burden, all can now work together to make the Obama presidency what it is supposed to be: a truly transformational political regime.