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Senator Barack Obama and Racial Identity

The fact that Barack Obama has become a major candidate for President of the United States while serving as a first-term Senator from Illinois shows that race is one of the most important elements of personal identification in our nation today. Obama is known principally for his keynote speech given at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which he urged Americans to put racial divisions behind them and become one people. In other words, his racial identity and stated position on race (combined with articulateness and photogenic good looks) have propelled him politically into the limelight.

Yet, Obama’s own identity introduces complexity into the discussion. His father was a black African from Kenya; his mother, a white woman from Kansas. Mixed-race identities are assumed to be black. However, Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His identity therefore violates the prevailing political paradigms; and politics is the driving force behind racial discussions, especially in academia. The following newspaper article lays bare some of the issues.

Multiracial candidates raise questions about racial labels

Race can no longer be defined in black and white; as Americans’ identities become more complex, the very existence of race is being increasingly challenged.

“Whether he wins the Democratic nomination, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency is sure to fuel a debate over what racial and ethnic labels actually mean in an increasingly diverse America.

Much of the attention is based on the Illinois senator’s potential to become the nation’s first black president. But some people wonder whether he would be. The Illinois senator’s mother is white, and his ancestors did not come to America by way of slavery (his Kenyan father came to this country to study). Obama identifies himself as African American.

Author Debra Dickerson recently caused a small ruckus when she wrote for that she doesn’t consider Obama black: ‘Black’ in our political and social reality means those descended from west African slaves,’ she wrote. Rush Limbaugh has taken to mocking Obama’s claim to his own heritage, calling him a ‘Halfrican American.’

The U.S. senator from Delaware and Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph Biden recently credited Obama’s appeal to his being ‘the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and is a nice-looking guy.’ What he meant, precisely, is the subject of wide discussion.

Race is elusive concept

In the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 7 million Americans described themselves as being of more than one race, and this number is expected to climb steadily for some time.

Of all candidates vying for the 2008 presidency, Obama’s less-than-clearly defined cultural identity might be the one that best represents America’s future.

The more we think about race, the more elusive the concept becomes. The meaning of terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ vary in different parts of the world.

Even well-intentioned terms such as ‘African American’ fall short. That terms excludes those of African descent who are white, for example, and stamps a cultural identity on people who see themselves simply as ‘Americans.’

‘Hispanic’ (a term referring to ethnicity, not race) also frustrates. It was adopted officially during the Nixon administration as a corrective to ‘Spanish American’. But the term is so broad that many people say that it’s meaningless and even misleading. Expect more discussion on this should presidential contender Bill Richardson, the half-Hispanic governor of New Mexico, pick up in the polls.

Race is a human invention

In science, race barely exists. Genetically, differences from one population to another are generally no greater than among individuals within the same population.

The Anthropological Association of America has long held that race is a human invention, a social construct that arose around the time of global expansion in the 15th century - largely to justify poor treatment of certain peoples.

‘We’re not saying it doesn’t exist, but it was a human invention,’ says Peggy Oberbey, director of the organization’s project ‘Race: Are We So Different?’ now showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota. ‘ It does exist - it is real. But it is not scientific and biological.’

The organization also has worked to minimize the U.S. government’s emphasis on race and was one of the groups urging the change in the 2000 census that allowed for multi-racial identification.

‘These differences in people are important,’ said Oberbey, ‘but our identities are more complex now.’

David Canton, an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College, cautions that we can go too far in minimizing our acknowledgement of race.

‘With home ownership, wealth, health, infant mortality, we see that race does matter, so there have to be policies that address these matters,’ she said. Otherwise, we risk creating an institutionalized form of what he calls ‘colorblind racism.’

By acknowledging race, he says, we can address the problems: ‘First, we have to admit that we live in a society with white privilege.’

People can choose to identify themselves however they want, Canton says, but the real issue is how others perceive you. ‘If a mixed-race kid walks into a department store, he’s going to be identified as black.’

Cheryl Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College, teaches her students that race doesn’t exist scientifically. But perceptions of it do and come with real consequences.

‘We were taught to see people in those terms,’ she said, adding that this has also affected our behavior. ‘So, of course, there is such a thing as race.’

Although Greenberg would like to see an end to unequal treatment along racial or ethnic lines, she says she hopes that our differences will continue to berecognized.

‘I’m not sure it’s desirable to get to the point that we don’t notice those things,’ she said. ‘Just as it is a part of our culture, you don’t want to pretend there aren’t differences.’

Oberbey also appreciates the differences in populations but prefers the term ‘ancestry’ to ‘race’. The difference is more than semantic, she says. It allows for people to possess two lineages - one from each parent - and for a much more complex cultural identity than broadly and arbitrarily drawn racial groupings.

‘I think our hope in the long term is that people will look beyond race,’ Overbey said. ‘Over 100,000 years, we have been mixing and mating for all of this time, and our identities are much more complex than we like to think.’”

“Multicultural candidates raise questions about racial labels’, by William Weir, special to The Hartford Courant. Star Tribune, February 10, 2007, p. E10

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