One of the jobs of a journalist is to keep cleaning up one's own mind.
It is so easy to drift into a colloquial world in which habit, cliche
and spin conspire to make one an unconscious co-conspirator in the myths
of the time.
For example, I've been calling Barack Obama black.
Yet the only way Obama is black is if one accepts a definition that is
culturally rather than scientifically derived.
White liberals want Obama to be black because it helps them feel that
this election is another freedom ride and blacks accept Obama as black
in a long tradition of turning the majority's cruelty to their own
purposes, thus expanding their base in American society.
As a scientific matter, however, race is a racist concept and doesn't
exist. It was invented as a tool of prejudice and still manages to
survive despite even DNA evidence to the contrary. Race is to culture as
intelligent design is to evolution. Here's the way I put in The Great
American Political Repair Manual:
What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of
cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a
German philosopher noted that "complexions run into each other." Julian
Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could
banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human
affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That
would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at
hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most
Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our
laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that
which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that
which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that
which is fluid is declared immutable.
Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who
declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black.
Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish),
language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has
little impact on our views.
Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics,
and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the
ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of
the abuse of power.
DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race.
In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of
Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between
humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions
(such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to
dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's not the sort of
thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S.
Martin has written:
"The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans
from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have
the same skin color. . . There is no clearly distinguishable 'white
race.' What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about
two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are
slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African,
but the deviation is vanishingly slight."
One of the reasons that so many consider Obama black is because of the
one drop rule, which Wikipedia explains like this:
According to the United States' colloquial term one drop rule, a black
is any person with any known African ancestry. The one drop rule is
virtually unique to the United States and was applied almost exclusively
to blacks. Outside of the US, definitions of who is black vary from
country to country but generally, multiracial people are not required by
society to identify themselves as black. The most significant
consequence of the one drop rule was that many African Americans who had
significant European ancestry, whose appearance was very European, would
identify themselves as black.
The one drop rule originated as a racist attempt to keep the white race
pure, however one of its unintended consequences was uniting the African
American community and preserving an African identity. Some of the most
prominent civil rights activists were multiracial but yet stood up for
equality for all. It is said the W.E.B. Du Bois could have easily passed
for white yet he became the preeminent scholar in Afro-American studies.
He chose to spend his final years in Africa and immigrated to Ghana
where he died aged 95. Other scholars such as Booker T. Washington and
Frederick Douglass both had white fathers. Even the more radical
activists such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan both had white
grandparents. That said, colorism, or intraracial discrimination based
on skin tone, does affect the black community. It is a sensitive issue
or a taboo subject. Open discussions are often labeled as "airing dirty
Many people in the United States are increasingly rejecting the one drop
rule, and are questioning whether even as much as 50% black ancestry
should be considered black. Although politician Barack Obama
self-identifies as black, 55 percent of whites and 61 percent of
Hispanics classified him as biracial instead of black after being told
that his mother is white. Blacks were less likely to acknowledge a
multiracial category, with 66% labeling Obama as black. However when it
came to Tiger Woods, only 42% of African-Americans described him as
black, as did only 7% of White Americans.
But politics isn't science; it isn't even traditional culture. It's its
own world. Thus we have a man who hopes to be America's first black
president whose only upbringing by a black parent ended when he was two
Barack Obama's mother is white. His stepfather was Indonesian. The
grandparents with whom he was sent to live when he was ten were white.
But according to the media and his supporters, Obama is still black.
In Obama's case this is a myth that's a little hard to sustain, but by
keeping his white relatives sternly away from the media and by playing
up his culturally tangential connection to Kenya including a
media-enhanced visit, he's done an impressive job.
But journalists aren't meant to play along with myths. Obama isn't
black. Since the word race shouldn't even be used these days, it would
be best to call him bi-ethnic or multicultural. There's nothing wrong
with this; it just doesn't seem to attract as many votes and dollars.
If you look at Obama's life from a purely cultural standpoint, he is
mainly part Indonesian and part Hawaiian, impressive but not exactly the
deep pockets campaign fundraisers are looking for except for the fact
that one of his school mates was Steve Case.
What is troubling about Obama's past is not what it was, but what he and
his supporters have made it out to be. For example, it's dishonest to
make his white relatives off-limits to the press. It is misleading to
make him into an icon of American black culture. It is pure spin to give
so much mileage to a Kenyan father who left the family when Obama was
two and so little to his white mother or the white grandparents who
There is also a disturbing hidden parallel between Barack Obama and Bill
Clinton. Both had fathers who failed their families. Both relied heavily
on extended family for the love and support parents are supposed to
provide. Both still seem to be seeking personal love and admiration in a
massive public forum. It may be an unfair comparison, but America
certainly suffered because of the screw-ups in Clinton's family. It
should be at least fair for Americans to wonder whether they want vote
themselves into another group therapy session.
If Obama would campaign as a multi-cultural candidate and tell us what -
other than pulpit style cliches - his messed up past might suggest in
terms of public policy, he would be a more honest and appealing
candidate. He might help us grow out of race. But his advisors probably
already know that the number of Americans willing to reveal their
multi-cultural past on Census forms is miniscule and actually dropping.
And he has clearly found that playing to the liberal evangelicals is
So instead, all we're getting is another political fairy tale.
OBAMA'S WHITE MOTHER
CHICAGO TRIBUNE - For [Chip] Wall and a few dozen others, Obama on the
campaign trail often brings to mind Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama's mother
and a strong-willed, unconventional member of the Mercer Island [WA]
High School graduating class of 1960. "She was not a standard-issue girl
of her times. . . She wasn't part of the matched-sweater-set crowd,"
said Wall, a classmate and retired philosophy teacher who used to make
after-school runs to Seattle with Dunham to sit and talk -- for hours
and hours -- in coffee shops. . .
In his best-selling book, "Dreams From My Father" and in campaign
speeches, Obama frequently describes the story of his mother, who died
of cancer in 1995, as a tale of the Heartland. She's the white woman
from the flatlands of Kansas and the only daughter of parents who grew
up in the "dab-smack, landlocked center of the country," in towns "too
small to warrant boldface on a roadmap.". . .
Her parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham -- he was a boisterous,
itinerant furniture salesman in downtown Seattle, she worked for a bank
and was the quiet yet firm influence at home -- moved to Mercer Island
in 1956, after one year in a Seattle apartment. The lure was the high
school that had just opened and the opportunity it offered for their
daughter, who was then 13. Stanley Dunham died in 1992, and the Obama
campaign declined to make Madelyn Dunham, 84, available. . .
Boyish-looking, Stanley Ann was prone to rolling her eyes when she heard
something she didn't agree with. She didn't like her nose, she worried
about her weight, she complained about her parents -- especially her
domineering father. Her sarcasm could be withering and, while she
enjoyed arguing, she did not like to draw attention to herself. The bite
of her wit was leavened by a good sense of humor. . .
In a recent interview, Obama called his mother "the dominant figure in
my formative years. . . . The values she taught me continue to be my
touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics.". . .
Madelyn Payne was born in the oil boomtown of Augusta, to stern
Methodist parents who did not believe in drinking, playing cards or
dancing. She was one of the best students in the graduating class of
1940. And, in ways that would foretell the flouting of conventions by
her daughter Stanley Ann, Madelyn was different. . .
Four years older, Stanley Armour Dunham lived 17 miles east, in El
Dorado. In 1920, El Dorado, with a population of 12,000, seemed to exist
solely for the purpose of drilling holes in the ground. And for good
reason. In 1918, the El Dorado field produced 9 percent of the world's
The Dunhams were Baptists. Unlike the Paynes, Stanley Dunham did not
come from the white-collar crowd. Gregarious, friendly, challenging and
loud, "he was such a loose wheel at times," said Clarence Kerns, from
the El Dorado class of 1935. . .
Stanley Ann began classes at the University of Hawaii in 1960, and
shortly after that, Box received a letter saying that her friend had
fallen in love with a grad student. He was black, from Kenya and named
Obama. . .
The Dunhams weren't happy. Stanley Ann's prospective father-in-law was
furious. He wrote the Dunhams "this long, nasty letter saying that he
didn't approve of the marriage," Obama recounted his mother telling him
in "Dreams." "He didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman."
Parental objections didn't matter. For Stanley Ann, her new relationship
with Barack Obama and weekend discussions seemed to be, in part, a
logical extension of long coffeehouse sessions in Seattle and the
teachings of Wichterman and Foubert. The forum now involved graduate
students from the University of Hawaii. They spent weekends listening to
jazz, drinking beer and debating politics and world affairs.
The self-assured and opinionated Obama spoke with a voice so deep that
"he made James Earl Jones seem like a tenor," said Neil Abercrombie, a
Democratic congressman from Hawaii who was part of those regular
gatherings. . .
Although he didn't say it at the time, Abercrombie privately feared that
the relationship would be short-lived. Obama was one of the most
ambitious, self-focused men he had ever met. After Obama was accepted to
study at Harvard, Stanley Ann disappeared from the University of Hawaii
student gatherings, but she did not accompany her husband to Harvard.
Abercrombie said he rarely saw her after that.
"I know he loved Ann," Abercrombie said, but "I think he didn't want the
impediment of being responsible for a family. He expected great things
of himself and he was going off to achieve them."
The marriage failed. Stanley Ann filed for divorce in 1964 and remarried
two years later, when her son was 5. The senior Obama finished his work
at Harvard and returned to Kenya, where he hoped to realize his big
dreams of taking a place in the Kenyan government.
Years later, Abercrombie and another grad school friend looked up their
old pal during a trip through Africa.
At that point, the senior Obama was a bitter man, according to the
congressman, feeling that he had been denied due opportunities to
influence the running of his country. "He was drinking too much; his
frustration was apparent," Abercrombie said. To Abercrombie's surprise,
Obama never asked about his ex-wife or his son.
NY TIMES, 2004 - Mr. Obama, 42, was not raised by black parents. His
mother, who is white and from Kansas, split with his father, a Kenyan
economist, when he was just a toddler. His father returned to Africa -
and visited his son just once, when Barack was 10.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's mother and her parents raised him, mainly in
Hawaii. He did not grow up in a black world and his family had no
particular connection to the black experience in America. . .
Mr. Obama seems to have realized early on that his situation would
present him with some odd and complicated choices. In his memoir,
"Dreams From My Father," he writes that he did not talk much about his
mother's whiteness because he feared that "by doing so I was
ingratiating myself to whites" - a shrewd assessment of white people for
a 12-year-old, and an even shrewder assessment of himself.
He would, therefore, go in the world as black because he thought it was
the right thing to do, and because - it's clear from his book - he loved
and missed and was mad at his father. . .
In a May article about Mr. Obama in The New Republic, Noam Scheiber
wrote, "The power of Obama's exotic background to neutralize race as an
issue, combined with his elite education and his credential as the first
African-American Harvard Law Review president, made him an
African-American candidate who was not stereotypically
BBC - Mr Obama is named after his father, who grew up in Kenya herding
goats but gained a scholarship to study in Hawaii. There the Kenyan met
and married Mr Obama's mother, who was living in Honolulu with her
parents. When Mr Obama was a toddler, his father got a chance to study
at Harvard but there was no money for the family to go with him. He
later returned to Kenya alone, where he worked as a government
economist, and the couple divorced. When Mr Obama was six, his mother,
Ann, married an Indonesian man and the family moved to Jakarta. The boy
lived there for four years, but then moved back to Hawaii to live with
his grandparents and attend school.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE - Obama was born in Hawaii. His mother was an
18-year-old white college student, whose parents had moved to Hawaii
from Kansas. His father, Barack Hussein Obama, was an African, a native
of Kenya employed as a low-level clerk who wrote letters to 30 colleges
in the United States asking for a scholarship before getting an offer
from the University of Hawaii. Obama already had a wife and family in
Kenya when he married Obama's mother, Stanley Ann. When he left
Honolulu, Stanley Ann and their two-year-old son did not go with him
because he could not afford it on the scholarship Harvard offered. Obama
saw his father again only once - when he was 10 and his father came to
LINDA CHAVEZ, TOWN HALL - Obama never fully comes to grips with the
single fact that is responsible for his own confusion about who he is.
Obama was abandoned: first by his father, a Kenyan undergraduate who met
and married Obama's mother while on a scholarship at the University of
Hawaii, and then by his mother, who remarried after Obama's father left,
divorced again, and sent Obama to live with his grandparents. . .
Obama tells us less about his mother, who was still alive at the time he
wrote this book. She is missing through most of the book. Even when
Obama describes his time in Indonesia when he lived briefly with his
mother and her second husband, an Indonesian, the details are sketchy.
What does come across, indirectly, is Obama's sense of loss when his
mother sends him back to Hawaii to live with her parents, while choosing
to keep his younger half-sister with her. Obama describes his awkward
reunion with his grandparents at Honolulu's airport: "suddenly, the
conversation stopped. I realized that I was to live with strangers."
This can't have been easy on a 10-year-old boy.
"Dreams from My Father" never directly grapples with the question of
what these abandonments did to shape Obama.
MSNBC - At school, Obama was surrounded by the island's richest and most
accomplished students. America Online founder Steve Case, actress Kelly
Preston and former Dallas Cowboys lineman Mark Tuinei, who died in 1999,
attended the school around that time. Pro golf sensation Michelle Wie,
17, is a student there now.
ONE DROP RULE
WIKIPEDIA - The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the
United States that holds that a person with any trace of sub-Saharan
ancestry (however small or invisible) cannot be considered white and so
unless said person has an alternative non-white ancestry they can claim,
such as Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal, they must
be considered black.
This notion of invisible - intangible membership in a "racial" group has
seldom been applied to people of Native American ancestry. The notion
has been largely applied to those of black African ancestry. Langston
Hughes wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of
different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States,
the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all
in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro,
therefore black. I am brown.". . .
Before 1930, individuals of mixed European and African ancestry had
usually been classed as mulattoes, sometimes as black and sometimes as
white. The main purpose of the one-drop rule was to prevent interracial
relationships and thus keep whites "pure." In 1924 Plecker wrote, "Two
races as materially divergent as the white and negro, in morals, mental
powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without
injury to the higher." In line with this concept was also the assumption
that blacks would somehow be "improved" through white intermixture. . .
In the case of Native American admixture with whites the one-drop rule
was extended only as far as those with one-quarter Indian blood due to
what was known as the "Pocahontas exception." The "Pocahontas exception"
existed because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from
Pocahontas. To avoid classifying them as non-white the Virginia General
Assembly declared that a person could be considered white long as they
had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood.
In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling on the case of Loving v.
Virginia, conclusively invalidated Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity
Act, along with its key component, the one-drop rule, as
unconstitutional. Despite this holding, the one-drop theory is still
influential in U.S. society. Multiracial individuals with visible mixed
European and African and/or Native American ancestry are often still
considered non-white, unless they explicitly declare themselves white or
Anglo. . . By contrast these standards are widely rejected by America's
Latino community, the majority of whom are of mixed ancestry, but for
whom their Latino cultural heritage is more important to their ethnic
identities than "race." The one-drop rule is not generally applied to
Latinos of mixed origin or to Arab-Americans.
The one drop rule does not apply outside of the United States. Many
other countries treat race much less formally, and when they do
self-identify racially, they often do so in ways that surprise
Americans. Just as a person with physically recognizable sub-Saharan
ancestry can claim to be black in the United States, someone with
recognizable Caucasian ancestry may be considered white in Latin
America. . .
Professor J.B. Bird has said that Latin America is not alone in
rejecting the United States' notion than any visible African ancestry is
enough to make one black: " In most countries of the Caribbean, Colin
Powell would be described as a Creole, reflecting his mixed heritage. In
Belize, he might further be described as a 'High Creole', because of his
extremely light complexion.". . .
Another consequence of the one-drop rule is that multiracial children of
Black and White couples are less likely to self-identify as White as
children of Asian and White couples. . .