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Sam Smith: Why Obama Is Called Black

Why Obama Is Called Black

By Editor Sam Smith

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 dangerous myth."

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.[20] 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 laundry."

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 years old.

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 raised him.

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 paying off.

So instead, all we're getting is another political fairy tale.



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 oil production.

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.,0,3977057,print.story


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 African-American."


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 visit.,0,5157609.story


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. barack_obama_and_the_breakdown_in_family


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.



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. . .


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