RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge

A woman holds up a Kenyan flag as Barack Obama greets supporters during a Democratic rally in Austin, Texas. Photograph: LM Otero/AP
Is Obama black enough?

Nine years later, the US has its best chance yet to elect an actual - as opposed to metaphorical - black president in the Democratic senator for Illinois, Barack Obama. Born to a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas, Obama's favourite book as a teenager was Malcolm X's autobiography. After graduating, he did grassroots campaigning work in the black community in Chicago; after he was elected to the Senate, he joined the Congressional black caucus. Yet somehow Obama's racial identity remains a subject of perennial scrutiny. His mixed-race heritage and solid midwestern timbre have left some claiming he is not black at all. His background - raised by his white mother and grandparents in Hawaii and Jakarta, he attended Ivy League colleges and then taught constitutional law at university - fits no known mould of black American life.

Some refer to Obama as a racial category all to himself: in the eyes of those who praise him he is a new, different and (by implication) better kind of black politician than those who have previously strode across the American political landscape. To others his background suggests a lack of authenticity. He's black alright, but simply not "black enough". A poll showing black Americans backed Hillary Clinton by three-to-one seemed to bear this out, although another poll in yesterday's Washington Post suggested that black voters are starting to support the black candidate in greater numbers.

"When black Americans refer to Obama as 'one of us', I do not know what they are talking about," wrote the African-American columnist Stanley Crouch in November. "He has not lived the life of a black American ... If we end up with him as our first black president, he will have come into the White House through a side door - which might at this point be the only one open."

This kind of talk made the journalist Marjorie Valbrun, who is Haitian-American, mad: "It makes me angry," she wrote in the Washington Post recently. "I'm angry for Obama, too. People are asking whether he's black enough to represent them. I ask, black enough by whose standards? Why must Obama's life follow the same track of 'authentic' black folk to pass this litmus test?"

It's not just a talking point among African-Americans. During an interview with CBS's Steve Kroft, who is white, just two weeks ago, the line of questioning went as follows:

Kroft: Your mother was white. Your father was African?

Obama: Right.

Kroft: You spent most of your life in a white household?

Obama: Yeah.

Kroft: I mean, you grew up white.

Obama: I'm not sure that would be true. I think what would be true is that I don't have the typical background of African-Americans . . .

Kroft: You were raised in a white household?

Obama: Right.

Kroft: Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?

It is a debate which tells us at least as much, if not more, about America's racial, ethnic and political obsessions than it does about Obama. So do these perceptions matter? Why do they matter? And how?

The answer to the first is easy. They do matter. In a political system where style is at least as crucial as substance, every aspect of how a candidate is perceived matters. During the 2000 election, the media criticised Al Gore's choice of polo shirts five times in eight days; in 2004, John Kerry was slammed for looking too "French". So every facet of a candidate's personal story is spun. In a world where George Bush, the teetotal, expensively educated son of another president, can be sold as an Everyman to such an extent that the public say he is the candidate they would most like to have a drink with, perceptions are everything.

Far from being a stranger to this game, Obama is a master at it. At 45 he has already written a memoir and his speech to the Democratic convention, which launched him on to the national stage, was based primarily on his personal story. In his second, bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope, he has a whole chapter on family, most of which is about his own. With just two years of senatorial experience he may be new; but as a presidential hopeful he is no ingenue.

Under these circumstances it would be extremely naive to expect that the racial identity of a black presidential candidate in the US would not matter. In a country where black people comprise 12% of the population, just 1% of the Senate (Obama alone) and 44% of the prison system, race is no incidental matter.

The issue of why it matters is more complex and brings us back to the specific elements of Obama's story and how it relates to the intricacies of race and ethnicity in the US. To some extent we are a victim of loose definitions. "African-American" and "black" have been used interchangeably in the US to such an extent that they are regarded as synonymous. They are not. African-American, a term which entered regular usage in the late 80s, refers to a particular ethnic experience of black Americans of African descent. Black refers simply to Americans of African descent, which includes black immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin and South America. All African-Americans are black; but not all black Americans are African-American.

The political relationship between the two has always been close. Two of the greatest icons of black nationalism in the US - Stokely Carmichael and Marcus Garvey - were from Trinidad and Jamaica respectively. Malcolm X's mother was from Grenada; Louis Farrakhan's mother was from St Kitts and Nevis and his father from Jamaica.

These connections make sense. In their daily lives, all black Americans face racism. But there is more to the black American experience than racism and more to African-American identity than race.

There is - or should be - no debate about whether Obama is a black American. He is also, without doubt, a Kenyan-American. But the question of whether he is African-American or not remains hostage to interpretation.

The difference is not just academic. Unlike other black immigrants, African-Americans have had nowhere else they can call home and have seen generations of immigrants leapfrog them in social status even as they were denied the most basic rights of American citizenship. A few years ago there was an intense debate over the fact that two-thirds of the black students admitted to Harvard - some of whom were beneficiaries of affirmative action - were the descendants of Caribbean or African immigrants as opposed to African-American slaves.

"You need a philosophical discussion about what are the aims of affirmative action," Harvard sociology professor Mary Waters told the New York Times in 2004. "If it's about getting black faces at Harvard, then you're doing fine. If it's about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you're not doing well. And if it's about having diversity, that includes African-Americans from the South or from inner-city high schools, then you're not doing well, either."

In his speech to the Democratic party convention, Obama evoked the immigrant dream of how his father came from Kenya to "a magical place" - America. It is difficult to imagine the father of most African-Americans describing the US as magical in the late 50s - a period when civil rights protesters filled Southern jails if they were lucky and were murdered if they were not.

The fact that Obama did not rise through the church, meanwhile, in all likelihood relates not to his ethnicity but his generation. With official segregation now over, the black church is no longer the academy of black political leadership that it once was: Massachusetts' first black elected governor, Deval Patrick, was a lawyer and businessman; Harold Ford, the leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, is the son of a political family; and, like Condoleezza Rice, who is seven years his senior, Obama came through academia.

This is a victory for integration and with it comes the transformation of the nature of black American politics. Those who rose to prominence before had to be in some way sanctioned or at least endorsed by the black community first. Al Sharpton's base is in Harlem, as was Adam Clayton Powell's, Malcolm X's and Marcus Garvey's before him; Jesse Jackson's is on Chicago's South Side. Only 10% of the Congressional black caucus were elected from majority white districts. Now these leaders arrive fully formed, having made their careers in predominantly white institutions. The black community is no longer sufficiently cohesive to be the sole or even the main breeding ground for black candidates. Black newspapers, once a crucial element in black politics, are folding. So black candidates are no longer answerable, in a way that they once were, to the black community. The result is a new sense of ambivalence from the community, even a certain degree of suspicion, about where black candidates are coming from and whom they plan to represent.

Obama is the first viable national candidate of this era to face these issues. (Colin Powell, a Jamaican-American who is four years older than Jackson and rose through the military, would have completely broken the mould had he stood in 1996.) He has the blessing of Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry but has yet to get an endorsement from any of the major black political figures. Jackson came closest. "All of my heart leans toward Barack," he said in January. "He is a next-door neighbour, literally. I think he's an extension of our struggle to make this a more perfect union. I will talk to all of them, but my inclinations are really toward Barack." Harry Belafonte, the calypso singer turned activist, has said: "We don't know what he's really about." Sharpton met Obama in January also but failed to commit to him.

When it comes to issues relating to race, no one has yet suggested that Obama is anything but a bona fide liberal. He is a vocal supporter of affirmative action and was one of 12 senators to receive a 100%, grade A rating from the nation's oldest civil rights organisations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for his first legislative session. And, like the overwhelming majority of black Americans, he opposed the war before it started and continues to call for American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.

So whatever ambivalence about Obama exists among black Americans has less to do with what he has done than who he is and what he might do. The various ways in which so many white politicians and commentators have referred to him - the "articulate", "clean" candidate who "transcends the racial divide" - are all coded ways of saying he is not like the other black candidates they have had to deal with in the past.

Obama knows this, too. In The Audacity of Hope, he recalls sitting in the Illinois senate with a fellow white Democratic legislator as they watched a black colleague (whom he refers to as John Doe) deliver a speech on why eliminating a certain programme was racist.

"You know what the problem is with John," the white senator asked him. "Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white."

Obama reflected. "In defence of my black colleague, I pointed out that it's not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take - too angry? Not angry enough? - when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents. Still, [his] comment was instructive. Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America."

To this extent, race has less to do with skin colour or heritage than it does to do with performance. This is not limited to black people. When Hillary Clinton spoke at the Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem on Martin Luther King day last year, she was widely ridiculed for putting on an unconvincing ebonic display which involved comparing the Congress to a plantation. Her husband, with his Southern drawl and voracious appetites, performs "blackness" well; but Obama, with his Harvard degree and midwestern, racially ill-defined accent, does not perform it so well.

At the heart of this performance is the notion of "racial authenticity" - the idea that black is not just what you are but what you do. Moreover, it suggests that there is a right way to do "blackness" and a wrong way to do it. Just as working-class English people in professional careers might still drop their aitches to show they haven't forgotten their roots, so does Obama have to prove, on some unprovable level, that he is "down". Bill Clinton went to Yale, but doesn't sound like it; Obama went to Harvard, and it shows.

Such demands are obnoxious and are based on the same illogic that saw the incompetent, business-supported mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, re-elected after hurricane Katrina, and castigates critics of misogyny in rap as Uncle Toms.

Most intriguing, in all of this, is how those who wish to police these racial borders claim that Obama's mixed-race heritage denies him essential blackness. They certainly must be forgetting the famous black people who are of mixed-race parentage, from Bob Marley to Halle Berry; or the basic truth that race has no basis in biology or science; or that, thanks to mass rape during the slave trade, nearly all African- Americans are actually mixed-race.

How it matters has yet to be seen. In what might be a closely fought Democratic primary, the votes of black Americans will be crucial in clinching the nomination. This is particularly true now that the Democratic party has moved the South Carolina primaries, where the black vote comprised 49% of the total democratic vote in 2004, to the top of the calendar, giving it a far more influential role in selecting the final victor. But the black vote is not a solid bloc. Far from it. Three years ago, no single candidate in the South Carolina primary received more than 37% of the black vote. There may, indeed, no longer even be such a thing as a black vote.

If Obama makes it through the primaries then the black vote is in the bag: in presidential elections, 88% of black Americans vote Democrat. If anything, the fact that he is a black candidate will increase that. This could make a difference in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Florida, where black Americans comprise a sizeable portion of the vote.

White voters, however, are an entirely different proposition. In the past, white voters have always told pollsters that they were happier about voting for black candidates than they actually were. In what is now known as the Wilder effect - after the former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder - the actual vote for a black candidate has been about four points less than that predicted by the pollsters.

But white America is changing, too. In 1958, asked if they would vote for a black candidate, 53% of white voters said they would not; in 1984, it was 16%; by 2003, it was just 6%. According to a recent Washington Post poll, being over the age of 72 (like John McCain), a Mormon (Mitt Romney), twice divorced (Rudy Giuliani), or a smoker (Obama), are all bigger issues for voters than the race or gender of a candidate.

Moreover, they seem to have stopped fibbing. A report by the Pew research centre, which matched the polls to the actual results for four black candidates in state-wide races, found that they were highly accurate. "Fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself," concluded the Pew report.

Underpinning all of this is the fact that while Obama's racial credentials are being relentlessly examined, those of the white candidates are simply presumed. (Hillary Clinton's gender has, of course, come in for ruthless examination and will continue to do so.) For while these questions are being asked of Obama, they might be better put to his white opponents. There is an assumption that black people will flock to a black candidate that simply does not apply to their white counterparts. Yet the fact remains that the Democratic party has only won the white vote once since the second world war. The demographic with which both John Kerry and Bill Clinton fared worst was - you guessed it - white men. The question of how black is Obama is interesting and relevant. But the issue of how white and female is Hillary Clinton may yet prove more crucial.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
No Place Like Home – A Black Briton’s Journey through the American South
book review
'The idea of retracing the route is a great one, urgent and necessary.'
 follow on twitter
Help me Twitter. The quote: ""You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming." is most commonly…
RT @the_hindu: #DataPoint | This Thursday, @sonikkalogan takes a look at the #US gun violence epidemic, as mass shootings continue to grow…
City workers get double-digit wage rises while lowest-paid see 1% increase - “Them’s the breaks”
RT @LRBbookshop: On 15 Sept we'll host an evening celebrating the life and work of Dawn Foster, with @BizK1, @piercepenniless, Lynsey Hanle…
‘Just now I’m goin; To take a Fascist town. Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey — And here we shoot ‘em down.’ Love…
RT @DrJoGrady: We must all oppose the treatment of @lazebnic and @gkhiabany by @GoldsmithsUoL. Informing students that the @GoldsmithsUCU m…
RT @richardlmac: The suspension of @GoldsmithsUoL academics Des Freedman & Gholam Khiabany is a scandal. A rogue SMT bullying two principle…
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc