Melissa Harris-Lacewell: Barack Obama: Black by Choice





[Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough.]

President Obama created a bit of a stir in early April when he completed his Census form. In response to the question about racial identity the president indicated he was "Black, African American or Negro." Despite having been born of a white mother and raised in part by white grandparents, Obama chose to identify himself solely as black even though the Census allows people to check multiple answers for racial identity....

But Obama did more than disrupt standard definitions of blackness; he created a definitional crisis for whiteness. Imagine for a moment that a young American falls into a Rip Van Winkle sleep in 1960. He awakens suddenly in 2008 and learns that we are in the midst of a historic presidential election between a white and a black candidate. He learns that one candidate is a Democrat, a Harvard Law School graduate, a lecturer at the conservative University of Chicago Law School. He also discovers that this candidate is married to his first wife, and they have two children who attend an exclusive private school. His running mate is an Irish Catholic. The other candidate is a Republican. He was an average student who made his mark in the military. This candidate has been married twice, and his running mate is a woman whose teenage daughter is pregnant out of wedlock.

Now ask our recently awakened American to guess which candidate is white and which is black. Remember, his understanding of race and politics was frozen in 1960, when a significant number of blacks still identified themselves as Republican, an Ivy League education was a marker of whiteness and military service a common career path for young black men. Remember that he would expect marriage stability among whites and sexual immorality to mark black life. It's entirely possible that our Rip would guess that Obama was the white candidate and McCain the black one....

Which brings us back to Obama's Census choice. Despite his legitimate claims on whiteness, he chose to call himself black. As historian Nell Painter documents in her new book The History of White People, white identity was a heavily policed and protected border for most of American history. A person born to an African parent and a white parent could be legally enslaved in America until 1865. From 1877 until 1965 that person would have been subject to segregation in public accommodations, schools, housing and employment. In 1896 the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal in the case of Homer Plessy, a New Orleans Creole of color whose ancestry was only a small fraction African. President Obama's Census self-identification was a moment of solidarity with these black people and a recognition that the legal and historical realities of race are definitive, that he would have been subject to all the same legal restrictions had he been born at another time. So in April, Obama did as he has done repeatedly in his adult life: he embraced blackness, with all its disprivilege, tumultuous history and disquieting symbolism. He did not deny his white parentage, but he acknowledged that in America, for those who also have African heritage, having a white parent has never meant becoming white.


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