Debating Whether Obama is Black, White, Biracial or “Other”?

During the long electoral campaign, and now after the election, there has been continuing debate over how black President-elect Barack Obama is. Media reporters and pundits have recently, even excitedly, accented questions about whether he is black, white, biracial, or some other mix. Many like Associated Press reporter, Jesse Washington, have recently asserted that increased intermarriages and a “decline of racism” in the United States have been

dissolving ancient definitions. The candidate Obama, in achieving what many thought impossible, was treated differently from previous black generations. And many white and mixed-race people now view President-elect Obama as something other than black.

These post-election efforts by various people to make President Obama substantially or mostly white, not really black, fit well into a white racial framing that cannot accept a highly talented and successful black American for what he (or she) really is, but must find in him (or her) some white-like aspects in order to make him an “exception to his race”—to favor him, vote for him, or regard him with respect. Blackness is so negatively viewed within the dominant white frame that the majority of whites seem to feel it necessary to assert his whiteness (e.g., his light skin color or his mother and grandmother) over his blackness (e.g., his father or African relatives).

Washington notes later on that this new, mostly white (but some biracial) folks’ questioning of the blackness of Obama will create negative reactions from many black Americans

who feel that at their moment of triumph, the rules are being changed to steal what once was deemed worthless — blackness itself.

We also see in this reporter’s words more “decline of racism” talk that will curse us over the coming four years because it fits well into the contemporary “colorblind” version of the old white racial frame that, among other things, insists there have been shifts in numbers of individual actions such as blatant frontstage bigotry and hate crimes (which actually may not have decreased in the last fifteen years–we do not have good data), yet always ignores the continuing reality of institutional and systemic racism.

Over the next four years, how will President Obama be viewed by most whites? As fully black American, or as more white than black?

And will he be willing or able to act aggressively against racial discrimination in this society?

What is your take on all this?


  1. JDF

    It’s first important to note that not all do/will view Obama the same way, of course. That said, I’ve had issues with Bonilla-Silva’s Latin Americanization theory of race in the U.S.; i.e., the notion that our racial stratification system is changing from a biracial (white and black) to a triracial system (white, black, and an in-between group). I think that the collective conscience of this nation is still rooted in the “not a drop” mentality, and we see this in most of MSM coverage of Obama. Thus, those with most power and influence see Obama as black. And of course, the solid majority of those in power are white. The question I think is not whether whites see Obama as black (they mostly do), but what kind of black man they see him as. Obama’s campaign was meticulous in doing what they could to assure whites he wasn’t a “militant” or “angry black man.” His Father’s Day speech and race-based affirmative action rhetoric are just two examples of this.

  2. mordy

    I think this is all some kind of bizarre racial armchair quarterbacking. President Elect Obama has never wavered in what he considers himself. For others to seems rather audacious to me. I think most Whites will regard him as Black American. Obama hasn’t yet demonstrated any overt desire to take on racism. It is a burden that I think is unfair to heap upon him. He is already being saddled with undoing 8 years of criminal behavior in the white house and the worst economic crisis in most of our lifetimes. I really don’t think it should be incumbent upon our first Black president to tackle 400 years of racism too. It appears he will try to guide the nation in the right direction , but there simply hasn’t been any indication he plans to tackle it head on.

  3. Dan

    I’m a white man married to a black woman and I view Obama as black.

    Like GDAWG said, the One-Drop rule, which was adopted by nearly every state in the country, was a basis for discrimination and inequality. Now that a man who has white genealogy has become President, whites want him to be considered white now? Please… White people by and large refuse to enter the race dialogue be it through guilt or simple lack of knowledge because they view it as negative and here is something in regards to race they view as “positive” and they want to instantly make it their own. This is perfect proof of white privilege, nevermind Obama’s repeated insistence that he is black which is ignored by many white Americans who insist he isn’t. Yet another situation where my people embarrass me.

    I say when whites voluntarily and whole-heartedly enter the race dialogue in an honest and truthful manner and are patient enough to come to a resolution with their black and other ethnic countrymen and women, THEN they can attempt to insist what and who, in terms of race, is white and who isn’t. Until that time though, the unresolved past will always be our legacy; the one drop rule. Simply striking the law from the records is not enough because it’s echoes continue to resonate toady.

    On a personal note, my wife is pregnant and our child is due in July, meaning it’s conception occurred a week or so before Nov. 4th and will be born during Obama’s first year as President. I hate to toss corny labels around but is our baby an “Obamababy”? Either way, we will be sure to teach him his heritage on both sides and let him make up his mind whether he identifies with one, the other, or both.

  4. Ashley

    Whether Obama is considered black or not, I am sick and tired of the black community insulating him criticism. As a politician, Obama has mostly done what makes white voters feel comfortable. He can criticize the black community for its faults, but cannot criticize the white community for its contribution to the present injustice that plagues this country today. I don’t respect that, and I respect Tavis Smiley for holding him accountable. I supported Obama, but I will criticize him when he does not deliver. In addition, his office is flashing that they have four black cabinet members–what they did not say, was that 3 of the posts have typically not been cabinet positions. He gave other, more vocal races, key cabinet positions (with the exception of the Attorney General). It’s so hard being apart of the black community because it seems as if we love a man as a symbol, more than we love our black community. Don’t criticize me for discussing some of the negatives. And if even if we support a candidate–it does not mean we cannot see their flaws.

  5. Stanton

    the man is whatever he feels like he is. he is 2 races, therefore he has the option of self identifying.

    just as someone else on here said, white people are forcing him to say biracial simply because of the fear of a black person being successful, they want to take him down a peg.

    i am biracial too, and i hate it when people do this…you are only biracial to them when they see fit. i am a black girl first, biracial second, to white people. everyone assumes i am black and treats me as black….and when they find out i am biracial…people either change their tone or ignore that and still consider you black, until you do some great thing, that they want to take credit and ownership for.

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