Jewish World Review August 24, 2004 /7 Elul 5764
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A man for all racial reasons
Some people, particularly those who are tone deaf to the ironies of life, have a problem with Barack Obama's race. They have a hard time deciding what it is.
Ever since the Illinois Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate burst onto the national stage with a riveting keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, I have been hearing from readers who question why the media, including me, insist on referring to him as "black" or "African-American" when he is "really" biracial.
Are we trying to render his white Kansas mother irrelevant? No, I say, we're just recognizing that the realities of race have more to do with psychology, sociology and politics than actual science.
The perspective of my questioners was well-expressed by one of my favorite political writers, William Saletan, in his coverage of the convention for Slate.com's Web site:
"Obama isn't exactly black," he wrote. "His mother is white and came from Kansas. His father came from Kenya. Obama is, in short, African-American--a term that [Rev. Jesse] Jackson Sr. has too casually applied to people many generations removed from Africa, often through other continents. Obama's [late] father went back to Africa years ago, but that doesn't change the hue of his son's skin or remove his African name, Barack. So the son embraces his blackness."
True enough, but I was jerked alert by the curious declaration that "Obama isn't exactly black." It made me wonder: How long does one have to be in America, by Saletan's standards, before one is "exactly black"
Without even trying, Obama seems to have touched off the biggest national debate over race labeling that I can recall since the Census Bureau announced that in 2000 everyone would be allowed to check more than one racial box for the first time. About 2.5 percent of those who checked "black" checked at least one other box too, which was about twice as many as census officials expected.
And that was the nation's biggest race-labeling dust-up since Tiger Woods called himself a "Cablinasian" (for Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian) on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
That's fine for Tiger Woods, if it works for him. I have always believed that people should be entitled to call themselves what they want to call themselves. You have nothing if you don't have the right to define yourself. In fact, a healthy debate over racial labels ultimately moves us toward the cosmic truth that racial labels are meaningless.
But most of us still live in the world where, as author James Baldwin once wrote, "Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality."
Obama, in pursuing his political goals, is well aware of political realities in Africa and in America, his native land. He knows that people see his complexion before they learn about his family tree, but, as he says, he refuses to be limited by labels.
Rather, he uses his intercontinental roots to better serve his mostly black district where he is a state senator, and, he hopes, the entire state as its senator in Congress. As Maria de los Angeles Torres, an associate political science professor at DePaul University, put it, "He's not denying race; he is talking about race in a different way."
Does race still matter in America? For evidence that it does, unfortunately, one need look no further than Barack's Republican opponent. After a bizarre sex scandal that eliminated Jack Ryan, the GOP primary winner, Republican Party leaders were forced to find a hasty replacement. After screening more than a dozen hopefuls, state GOP leaders chose (drumroll, please) black talk-show host Alan Keyes, a former GOP presidential candidate.
The party made no secret of the fact that Keyes' race was a plus. It even overwhelmed Keyes' biggest negative, that he was a Maryland resident. Details, details.
That's OK. It is downright inspiring to see the Party of Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln stretching its big tent wide enough to include Maryland.
Keyes, a riveting speaker, first came to national fame as a spokesman for the Reagan administration's ultimately failed policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa's white-minority apartheid government. Now he's helping the GOP hide the disarray within its Illinois ranks.
He's also helping push black progress ahead, making it a virtual certainty that Congress will get its third black senator since Reconstruction in November, a possibility that, with Keyes or without him, already was looking quite certain. Now, that's progress.
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