Why President Obama Is Black

I’ve had students challenge President Barack Obama’s Blackness, asking why it is that he and everyone else seems to consider him Black although he has approximately equal Black and White parentage. Usually I just talk about the one drop rule and social perception without going much deeper. Often students will chime in that Obama never really had a choice, insisting that Black was the only race he could have been in America.


The revelation of his single Census box identity as Black has ratcheted up this conversation and led to some interesting responses. Melissa Harris-Lacewell suggests that Obama created “a definitional crisis for whiteness” by transforming the expectations of what Black and White lives are supposed to look like. She believes Obama won election in 2008 largely because his life hit all the marks previously associated with success in the White community and his decision to identify himself as Black is a deliberate effort to embrace his Blackness.


John Judis subtitles his piece on the subject “Why Barack Obama Isn’t Black” and discusses the one drop rule as a legacy of slavery and racism while positing that Obama did the expected but not best thing by indicating himself as Black only. Refusing to accept the paradigm, Judis seems to say, is the only way to remove the power of race as a social construction.


Even though I understand the hue and cry, the President’s choice seems remarkably simple to me: He thinks of himself as Black. That in no way diminishes his affection for his mother and grandparents; it certainly doesn’t elevate his absent father. Barack Obama was born in America and has been defined as Black for his entire life. How many of us have ever said (or even thought) Barack Obama is the 43rd White man to become President? Our country does not define Whiteness in the same ways we define Blackness and President or not, that’s the reality for Barack Obama in the same way it is for everyone else.


Judis wants the President to begin challenging conventional notions of race by checking more than one box. I would suggest that Harris-Lacewell provides a great answer to that request. Living as he does, accomplishing what he has, being who he is challenge race theory more than any form possibly could.



4 thoughts on “Why President Obama Is Black

  1. “How many of us have ever said (or even thought) Barack Obama is the 43rd White man to become President?”
    Good effing question!
    (You really do have a thing about that head nod thing, don’t you?)


  2. I was fascinated to hear a colleague ask the same question. She would have no problem identifying someone with one Jewish parent as Jewish, however.


  3. Bonnie, this is especially interesting to me because most people who are Jewish actively choose that identity in some way or other. It’s pretty hard these days for someone in the US to hide their skin based identity. People sometimes get confused (like with my niece who was often assumed to be biracial) about the details but not about the fact of otherness.


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