Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Is Senator Obama Black Enough?

by Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

Actually, I think the question isn't so much "inherently flawed" as it is instructive/revealing about the operation of race and racial thinking in this country in ways that even people who consider themselves progressive may find uncomfortable. Certainly, the question itself highlights the "social construction of race," which we enact implicitly all the time, but almost never affirm explicitly.

It's instructive to note that the question of whether Senator Obama is "black enough" has become increasingly salient for a lot of people in proportion to his political ascendancy. People may have started asking whether he is black enough in 2004 after his convention speech, with references to his non-slave ancestry, biracial parentage, Harvard law degree, non-civil rights background, etc. But the question of Senator Obama's blackness becomes more significant only now that a plausibly black candidate poses a serious challenge to prevailing expectations. In fact, I'd say that from the moment he burst onto the national scene, the prospect of his sooner-than-later becoming a viable presidential candidate was part of what fueled those early questions about his blackness.

It is also interesting that the media typically frame the issue of Senator Obama's blackness as if this is a question only African Americans are debating. (Actually, I question the degree to which this is being debated at all. We can't ever lose sight of the media's role—as agents, rather than mere conduits—in establishing the parameters of "race talk" in this country.) But to the extent that an active debate about Senator Obama's blackness really is taking place, I strongly suspect that much of it is taking place among white Americans. Many white voters who otherwise might like and support him may well conclude that they cannot support a "black" candidate for president. The president, after all, is not only the country's chief executive, he more than anyone else is its public face and embodiment, ­not to mention the "leader of the free world." We tend to infer too much about the state of race from the successes of a relatively few people of color, but this particular "first" would be a biggie.

For a lot of people of all stripes, whether or not Senator Obama is black enough/too black remains to be determined. Part of the answer will depend on the Senator himself­, his political and policy positions, whom he's seen as reaching out to, etc.­, and part on the dynamics of the campaign, including poll numbers. But an important part will also owe to interracial signaling. Some white voters will conclude that he's too black as African Americans and other non-white voters move to embrace him, quite apart from what he himself says or does. And some black voters will grow suspicious because whites seem to like him. So, Senator Obama himself will have only limited power to shape how people answer the "blackness" question. What better indication of the fluidity and contingency of race in today's America?