Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Is Obama Black, or Simply African-American?

America's obsession with racial politics is fanned daily by the press. An unending stream of articles continues to examine Obama's status from the perspective of his skin color.

A recent variation on this theme is to examine the quality of Obama's "blackness": in Detroit, a survey received responses like: "He is not black enough" or "That is what you get, when you have a mixed child raised by a white mother."

These responses point to a painful and divisive topic within American society: at the intersection of race and culture, the situation of mixed-race children is highlighted to an uncomfortable degree.

Obama, like Alicia Keyes and Halle Berry, is the result of a brief marriage between a Black man and white mother; after the marriage disolved, he was raised by his mother. Young Barack did not grow up in the "hood" of Harlem, Watts, or Detroit. He grew up in a middle-class, college-educated, white extended family. He may be African-American, but Detroiters are wondering if he's Black.

And not only Detroiters. Black Entertainment Television's Jeff Johnson notes that there's a difference between "Obama the president" and "Obama the personality," saying, "he's my president, and not my homie."

Obama's life has hardly been that of a "homie": a private prep school in Hawaii from fifth grade until his senior year in high school; before that, a paradoxical mix of private Roman-Catholic elementary schools and a Madrasah in Indonesia. His life experience places him far outside the mainstream of African-Americans. He spent no significant amount of time in the continental United States until after graduating from high school; after that, he was at Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

Obama's mother is from Kansas, and studied Anthropology and Russian at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington. Obama's father was separated from his mother long before the couple's actual divorce, and so young Barack had no formative influence from his African father as a child.

Americans continue to try to understand their new president: is he Black? is he African-American? is he Hawaiian-Kenyan-Indonesian?

How does he view the African-American culture, if he grew up in an white extended family, away from the major Black urban centers? How does he understand American society, if he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia?