The White House couldn’t wait to trumpet the news: When President Barack Obama completed his official form for this year’s census he declared that he was… are you ready for this?… black.
For the next 24 hours, the announcement led the news in the national media. It was the top story on CNN.com, the network news shows, cable television and just about everywhere else I looked. For nearly a week, you couldn’t escape it: “The President of the United States says that he is black!”
Give me a break, please. Obama has been trumpeting his blackness for decades. Appearing on Late Show with David Letterman back in 2009, Obama brought the house down when he said, “First of all, I think it’s important to realize that I was actually black before the election.” Harty-har-har. When the laughter died down, Letterman played the perfect stooge by asking, “How long have you been a black man?”
Lost in all the chortling are two very important points. First of all, Obama isn’t really black; he is a person of mixed race. In the olden days, he would have been called a mulatto.
Second, the president had every opportunity to recognize this on the census form. It is no longer necessary to select between black and white (or Asian or American Indian, for that matter). If it is more accurate to say so, you can check two or three or even four boxes.
To the best of my knowledge, Tiger Woods has not disclosed what he said on his census form. But in the past he has identified himself as a “Cablinasian”—that is, a combination of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. It’s not only a more honest declaration than our president made; it also suggests that Tiger doesn’t take the matter of race as seriously as Obama does.
Then again, it’s his talent at golf, not his color that has made Tiger Woods one of the wealthiest and most famous athletes in history. While Obama obviously believes that it is his blackness that enabled him to become our president—not to mention a multimillionaire—thanks to the sales of his best-selling book, Dreams of My Father, which chronicled his search for his black identity.
His fixation with his black identity also helps explain why he and his wife Michelle could be members of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church for so many years, without uttering a word of protest over his preacher’s overt racism. Obama remained a member in good standing of the church (which described itself as “an instrument of Black self-determination”) until it began to cost him votes.
But what about Obama’s white heritage? In declaring on the census form that he was black, the president in effect disowned his own mother; not to mention her parents—his maternal grandparents—who raised him for most of his childhood. All three were unquestionably white. The only black in the family was the father who abandoned him in childhood. I can appreciate how traumatic that abandonment must have been. But does that justify ignoring the white half of your heritage? Doesn’t that strike you as a tiny bit ungrateful?
By the way, there’s an interesting footnote here. While the changes to the census form were being debated 10 years ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil-rights groups fiercely opposed allowing people to select multiple races to designate their heritage. At the time, they were concerned that too many “blacks” would check other boxes as well, with the result that “black” numbers would drop dramatically—thus reducing how much aid and other federal favoritism would continue to be bestowed on them.
It turns out that there was no basis for this concern: To the relief of everyone campaigning for more government benefits, any person who identified himself or herself as even partially black is included in the “black” total.
Does anyone besides me detect something incredibly racist in this whole issue? I keep thinking of the plot of “Show Boat,” one of the greatest musicals in the history of U.S. theatre. I’m sure most of you remember the 1951 movie starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. If you don’t, rent it sometime soon. It is absolutely enchanting.
In case you’ve forgotten, the plot turns on a bitterly racist fact of the times. Pete, the thuggish engineer on board the Cotton Blossom show boat, makes a play for Julie La Verne, the leading lady. Julie’s husband Steve, the leading man, beats him off. Swearing revenge, Pete tells the local sheriff that Julie is a mulatto and that she and Steve are guilty of miscegenation, which was a crime in Natchez, Miss., at the time.
Before the sheriff arrives, Steve takes a knife, cuts Julie’s hand, and swallows some of her blood. He then tells the law and the crew that he, too, is black—because he has “one drop of Negro blood in him.” Witnesses confirm that this is, in fact, true, and the sheriff drops the charges. Of course Steve and Julie have to leave the show and the ship.
In much of America at the time (the story takes place in the 1880s, when the scars of the Civil War still ran deep), one drop of Negro blood was all it took to be considered black.
I would like to believe that we in this country have come much further since then. I’d like to believe that the majestic words spoken by Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention are true, when he proclaimed, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America.”
I’d like to believe it. But by his racist response to the U.S. Census, Obama has shown he doesn’t. In fact, his actions have delayed the day when they will be true. Shame on him for what he did… for denying his heritage and for helping make old wounds bleed anew.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.