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?


  1. Wendy G. Smooth, Assistant Professor of Women's Studies and Faculty Affiliate, Kirwan InstituteMarch 2, 2007 at 11:43 AM

    I agree that this question of "black enough" in regards to Senator Obama is the wrong question. What does it mean to be "authentically black?" There are several tests of authenticity emerging. One of the circulating tests is based upon one’s attachments to civil rights era politics and even more so direct experiences of Jim Crow style racism, the hallmark of the civil rights era. By the standard of this test, most black Americans born into the post-civil rights era are destined not to qualify as “authentically black.” Of course, such measures fail to take into account the transformations that mark racism in the post civil rights era and the responses that those living in these times are using to combat its transmutations. Beyond discussing the parameters and merits of the various measures of what constitutes “authentically black,” we have to examine another question. Under what conditions do we see tests of authenticity leveraged? I am convinced that these discussions of authenticity are more about how political power is constituted in black America and who gets to speak for black America.

    Black political leadership has been understood as evolving from the ranks of civil rights leaders—high profiled civil rights leaders. Those who have direct claim to 1960s civil rights activism have been ordained as the authentic, certified leadership of black America. In the absence of those credentials, one’s claim to hold the interests of blacks in this country is questioned. This poses a problem for those who did not have the honor of marching alongside Dr. King. This is all the more troubling when we think about how narrowly that circle of leadership was constructed such that many activists were denied access to the title of leader by virtue of their social identities as black women and or black gays.

    So what of those who do not carry the legacy that traces their black interests and activism to that moment of civil rights activism? Well, for those who are interested in leadership of the black community, they are to request such permission from the civil rights establishment. Anything short of directly requesting such permission, one’s authenticity is up for question. Without such deference to the civil rights establishment, then questions of authenticity arise. These frequently launched questions of authenticity must be understood as exercises in power leveraged by a generation of black leaders to discredit those who want to move an agenda without seeking the establishment's pre-clearance.

    Senator Obama can take solace in not being the first black presidential hopeful to experience such questioning from the civil rights establishment. Think of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign. During Chisholm’s run for the White House, the historic National Black Political Convention took place in Gary, Indiana in which black leaders set out to devise a new black political agenda—think Tavis Smiley’s covenant with black America 1970s style. In the wake of Chisholm’s historic campaign, Chisholm was not extended an invitation to speak during the convention nor did convention delegates endorse her presidential candidacy. Over the years, civil rights establishment leaders have cited many reasons for their failure to support Chisholm including justifications that it was “not her turn” and that she was not sufficiently committed to representing black interests and could not be considered a representative of black America.

    In the contemporary context, this question of black authenticity has been used in state and local races as a weapon against new comers who sought to challenge the civil rights establishment leadership-- without prior permission. Senator Obama might even draw upon his own political history with Bobby Rush for inspiration. I imagine Corey Booker who challenged long term Newark mayor Sharpe James could talk for hours with Senator Obama about black authenticity questions in the wake of challenging the establishment. As the next generation of black leaders seek to move into elected office and community leadership positions, they might assume that questions of authenticity are par for the course.

  2. Seems like this discussion has not addressed Senator Obama's record and accomplishments in Illinois, has not addressed his work on the South side of Chicago, has not addressed the fact that he won the WHITE vote overwhelmingly in Illinois in his run for the senate, and has not discussed his own experience with racism. Is there a measure of how much racism he has to endure to prove himself "black enough"? My wife and I are enthusiastically supporting Senator Obama and we are finding wide support for him among folks of diverse backgrounds, including whites.

    More questions: Is Hilary woman enough? Is Bill Richardson Latino enough? A better question to address: when will the WHITE candidates stand up and be counted for their whiteness and privilege???

  3. This is a question that cannot be answered in the abstract. More important is who's asking? Is Obama Black enough for whom? Or for what? Does he have to be Black enough to win? Or less Black to win?

    This is one of those lightning rod questions that former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld would say is "unknowable."

    What is instructive is that he has taken the race card away from everyone. He speaks of an American vision that shapes a new reality for us all. He will be asked the tough policy questions; his experience will be challenged; his voting record will be scrutinized; his life story will become an open book (which he anticipated, and is making lots of money from). None of these questions has a "Black enough" answer for the President of ". . . the United States of America."

  4. There's another article on this topic that may be of interest - it's in The Nation and it's by Patricia Williams.

  5. Having now read the articles, I would add that I agree with Dr. Smooth and therefore find Bruce Dixon's article of interest. Given that there is not one homogenous black community, singular, returns us to questions of Obama's actual politics. Although he doesn't have a long record, some of the points Dixon raised about his actions and votes in the past are troubling to some. As Dixon also points out, the media centering the debate around authentic blackness occludes substatntice issues and is a disservice to those who want to discuss such issues. It also reifies once again, that notion of a homogenous singular black community, and such homogenization, as Dr. Smooth points out, has already been wielded from widely flung quarters for the puproses of oppression and marginalization.

    I am not suggesting, though, that discussion of blackness should be 100%ditched in favor of policy discussion. Given the social realities, institutionalized positioning of, and responses to blackness, it remains pertinent even while fraught with the dangers described above.

    I hope there is a way to have both discussions simultaneously, while moving the latter to less "spurious" (Dixon) discourse.

  6. In today's context, my main question is whether Obama is "antiwar" enough? Everything else (am I being reductive enough?) is a non-issue. (Making chants when President Obama bombs Iran would just be too easy.)

    I don't have the statistics on me, but the sharp increase in Black incarceration rates since the "Black President" Clinton's 1994 crime bill has taken place in the same period that has seen the greates number of Black mayors, polce chiefs, etc.

    You can't whitewash, Blackwash, or Brownwash capitalism. Ask the millions who have suffered under the Black and Brown ruling classes in the postcolonial states.

  7. The idea of Obama being black enough is plain silly. But if this is the way America needs to discuss race and culture, then so be it. At least it isn't "too" harmful of a public discourse.

    Garling Gauge has a good take on it:


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