Why is Barack Obama Black?

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.


8 Responses to “Why is Barack Obama Black?”

  1. 1 Urs Senn
    January 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Glad to see the mixed race question addressed. Hybridity is an intellectually challenging position too few grasp well enough in a world that tends to absolutes. Same here in Canada, where the question usually appears in the context of the indigenous-white mix: if you’re like Obama, you’re Indian.

    I’d like to hear Obama himself comment. Again, viewed from Canada, where multiculturalism began with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau applying American philosopher John Rawls’ justice model, his comment would stimulate much interest. Is America, right now, capable of such stimulation?

  2. 2 Matt
    January 15, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    I totally agree with your sentiments to the point that I am looking for ways to inject this argument into the political dialogue. I found your site by googling the issue as i am “hot” about it and want to get involved!! No sense rehashing what you have already said — Obama is of mixed race – why has everyone so comfortably – and I might add without rebutttal from the Obama camp (an entirely diferent issue) — fallen so easily into labelling him a black man. As a Caucasian man in an interracial marriage to a woman of color, with a mixed race daughter — I find that now is the quintessential time to write Op Eds, blogs, whatever to get this into the mainstream dialogue — and I am looking for feedback from more media savvy folks than myself on how best to do that. Food for thought — has the media establishment taken to calling Tiger Woods a Black Man??

  3. 3 amirman
    January 15, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    i was “hot” about the issue too since it seemed to me that people were claiming to have overcome racism all while falling victim to it. i’m in an interracial marriage as well and i want my son to grow up in a society that is comfortable with that. regarding your wish to get into the dialogue, commenting on blogs is one way, you can always start your own (as i did) by checking out http://www.wordpress.com or a similar free service, or you can always try grafitti.

  4. 4 amirman
    January 15, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    @urs senn
    in the American media, politics is treated with the same level of hype as Hollywood news especially with anything having to do with race. Anything relating to race raises a big stink, people don’t like facing up to the fact that racism still exists where it’s not expected. My guess is that Obama’s strategy is to not engage in any race issues for fear of the stink.

  5. 5 Mariama
    May 12, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    After reading this I totally understand where you’re coming from. I’m currently doing a research paper on Obama and how the mainstream media identifies his race (mixed or black). One thing I think that many fail to understand is labels are always going to be around and simplistic as they seem, you have to understand people don’t like to make issues more complex than they are. I believe Obama labels himself as a “black man” because his experience has been that of a black man. For example when he was at Harvard I doubt anyone said “Hey did you see the new mixed kid on campus?”, I’m sure it was more like “Did you see the new black kid?” Or if he were to get chased by cops (hypothetically speaking, of course), they’d describe him as a black man. And of course it would still be labeling, but that’s how it is everywhere, whatever you look like that’s how people identify you, it’s as simple as that, that’s how society is and I don’t see that changing anytime in the near future. For the people who are in interracial relationships and reproduce, expect that your child will most likely be labeled as black and that’s just the way it goes…

  6. August 21, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I think the only person’s opinion that matters as to whether Barack sees himself as black, white, or both is Barack’s!

    He is the one who is living his life which is subjective unto himself.

    The more attention we collectively give to the issue on race, will only bring more attention to the issue of distinction between the races.

    Nothing lasts forever, not even bigotry and ignorance pertaining to a central issue that has absorbed a nation.

    Let it go already…

    All of you.

    It is up to the individual to transcend the illusions of the ego. Whether you view your self from a place of black or white.

    There’s really no such thing.

    It is as possible to fuel the issue from either side as long as you are focusing on either side.

    I don’t think Barrack really cares. He just wants to be a leader who sees great potential for his fellow brothers and sisters regardless what color, race, or creed they were socially conditioned to believe themselves to be.

    black, white, red, yellow, green, purple with white poka dots…

    Let’s get on with it already!

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hi, nice to meet you

the above statement is intended to give my blogue a more personable ambiance than the cold, web 2.0, plastic interfaced alienation of the rest of the internets. although it is a lie because i have yet to meet you please be assured that i would like to use this virtual real estate of mine to engage in dialogue with many positive, informed, and creative netizens of the web wide world such as yourself. This preemptive meeting is a self-fulfilling prophecy of our eventual association. If you enjoy tea, by all means, take this opportunity to enjoy a cup...

my name is Amir. I'm a student of Sociology and History. I live in the rural reaches of eastern Kentucky with my wife and son. I am studying to be a High School teacher where it will be my goal to inspire and nurture critical thinking skills in students. I like to blame my frequent failure to capitalize correctly on my affinity for the prolific author and poet e.e.cummings who taught me that capitalization is more useful for EMPHASIS rather than propriety whereas it is most likely the fault of a lazy left pinky or ring finger.

Enjoy your visit; it was nice to meet you.

when are you?

January 2008

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