Barack Obama is the product of a black African father and a white American mother. But, you would not know it from media coverage, university lectures, polling data, religious sermons, and your neighbors’ voting behavior. Americans love to simplify their world so mixed race people are difficult to categorize given our black-white mentality. But racial identity is no longer a simple matter. The ways in which Americans collude in ignoring Barack Obama’s race demonstrate that while the demographics of our society have changed, our ability to think inclusively remains under-evolved. It is very difficult to talk about race in American society as a result.
Interracial marriages have tripled in the United States since 1970, which constitutes about 400,000 marriages per year today, according to the Richmond Free Press. This represents a dramatic increase in the number of Americans with more than one racial identity. Their off springs are challenging racial categories. For instance, in at least 10 states, the percentage of multiracial Americans between ages 5 and 17 is at least 25%, according to 2000 census data, which is greater than the overall 19% for this age range. It is old news that America is demographically changing, yet we fail to recognize that we need new language to talk about our differences. Instead, we will continue to play the “race card” in talk about our differences.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s recent controversial comment about race in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries:
“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on. The Associated Press found how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. There’s a pattern emerging here”.
At least one African American politician characterized her comments as divisive. Conservative political news commentator Patrick Buchanan came to Hillary’s defense. He says that there is a double standard when it comes to talk about race. Basically, Buchanan argues that when white Americans talk about black people, their words are scrutinized more than when a black person make statements about white people. He believes that when someone describes “facts” about racial differences, such as reported racial differences in poll results, it is absurd to claim racial animus. He is correct. There is an absurd double standard. The culprit, however, is our out-dated thinking about race, identity, and what it means to be American. Politicians need to understand that ignoring that Obama is bi-racial can lead to accusations of race baiting and racial animus.
Consider Indiana and North Carolina voting patterns in the primaries across racial groups as examples. Indiana is 88% white American, 9% African America, and 5% Hispanic. In North Carolina, African Americans, white Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans constitute 21.7%, 74%, 6.7%, and 2% respectfully. Clinton won by 2% of the vote in Indiana. Indiana exit polls showed that Clinton got the majority of votes from white Americans, as she had in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obama received more than 90 percent of the African-American vote and about 40 percent of white votes in North Carolina. The question becomes how much impact does Obama’s bi-racial identity have on the results. We will never know the answer to the question until pollsters ask it.
Pollsters want to know if race plays a role in voting, but they collude in racial politics by not asking if Obama’s mixed race has any impact on voting outcomes. If Barack is half white, then a considerable number of white Americans should be comfortable voting for that part of him they identify with. Using the same logic, many blacks should vote for him as well. The point is that mixed race candidates pose special challenges in making sense out of poll data. Coverage that ignores the fact that Obama is both black and white undermines the democratic process. West Virginia is 94.9% populated by white Americans. Hillary Clinton will likely win that state by a large percent, but she will not receive 100% of the vote. We deserve to know how the white Americans voting for Obama view him along racial lines.
Research supports this view. It turns out that when an African American shares many traits stereotypical of white people (e.g., “intelligent”, successful, “articulate”, and bi-racial), white Americans have a difficult time categorizing the person along racial lines. They tend to create a special category for the individual so as to maintain the integrity of their black-white racial distinctions. This is referred to as subtyping. So even if white Americans ignore Obama’s bi-racial background, they will sub-type him because he does not fit their stereotypes of black people. In my experience, African Americans also make faulty assumptions about Barack. Their experience in American society leads to over-emphasis on his skin color. He is African American whether he likes it or not from their point of view. A common justification is that he has been forced to identify as black in American society because it is so race conscious. The result is that Barack’s bi-racial identity is both an asset and a stigma for him at the same time.
American beliefs about race remain out-dated in the face of a multi-cultural, multi-racial reality. How do we get out of it? We need to recognize, embrace, and celebrate our achievements in blurring the racial boundaries. This is the way we help Americans get out of the crazy, unproductive identity politics.