Following Barack Obama’s Iowa win the media has been buzzing about how a black man man named Barack Obama won a state that is one of the whitest in the Union. All the pundits and even uber-liberal Bill Maher keep mentioning that Barack Obama is a black man. I’m interested in understanding and explaining why Barack Obama is labeled as a Black man. Besides the fact that Race is very relative and a socially constructed labeling mechanism we can still analyze it as a labeling mechanism and accept that it is effective as such.
First point i should clear up is that Barack Obama was born of a Black father and a White mother. So why is he considered Black and not White? I’ve seen people who are considered to be white with darker skin and darker hair than Barack Obama. Is it his facial features? that seems pretty superficial. To me it goes deeper than that. American society has a very hegemonic conception of race and that conception is inherently racist against those of black origin. Back in the day if you were as little as 1/32 black you had to register as such in certain states. The purpose of this style of labeling was the belief that if you had any black blood in you, you were tainted, you were still black. In this way “blackness” is akin to dirtiness. if something is only a little bit dirty, it’s still dirty; if something is a little bit clean that doesn’t make it clean. Just like how Barack Obama is black and not white. If you were one of millions who automatically bought into this system of labeling it doesn’t make you racist necessarily, it just makes you part of racist society.
It also seems that supporters of Barack Obama prefer that he be labeled as a black man rather than a man of mixed race. Although America has come a long way in its acceptance of black people the majority of the population is slower in coming to accept the idea of inter-racial relationships and people of mixed race as equals. There are still many Americans who openly accept black people into their communities and work-places but would not let their white daughter date a black boy or feel that inter-racial relationships are unnatural or wrong. What comes to mind is the image of black men portrayed in America’s first block buster film “The Birth of a Nation.” That image of black men persists in the collective conscious of many white Americans. Barack Obama’s supporters are at least unconsciously aware of this when they choose to label Barack Obama as black rather than mixed.
It is still important to recognize the power of labels. Although Barack Obama is of a mixed background it should be recognized that race is often determined by superficial qualities and that even though Barack Obama is the son of an black African immigrant and a white Midwestern woman he has grown up and lived life as a black man in most people’s eyes. By being labeled as a black man and by being percieved as one he shares in the experience of being a black man in America.