Why Obama Chose “Black” on His Census Form
That, after all, is the box he checked on his U.S. Census form. Though he could have ticked the category representing the heritage of his white Kansan mother in addition to that representing the heritage of his black Kenyan father, the president of the United States in effect chose to identify himself solely as his father’s son.
Some see the Census decision as an official confirmation of something that required no affirmation. As this poster wrote on Hip-Hop Wired: ”Uhhh why did [we] need White House officials to confirm this? Did everyone else not get the memo that this is the first Black President?”
Others, especially those seeking greater recognition of many Americans’ multiracial identities, were let down by that decision.
Michelle Hughes, president of the Chicago Biracial Family Network, told the Chicago Tribune that she received several emails from surprised friends within moments of Obama’s decision being made public.
“I think everybody is entitled to self-identify. If he chooses to self-identify as African-American, that’s his right,” she said. “That being said, I think that the multiracial community feels a sense of disappointment that he refuses to identify with us.”
A commenter responding to the CNN story on Obama’s decision wrote that by picking only one racial identity, he chose to separate Americans rather than unite them, even though he could have “stood up for my children, who have been told they are not black enough or not white enough.”
“[L]ike it or not, he is not black, he is not white, he is multi-racial and should not be shamed of it,” wrote the commenter.
But though Obama can be seen as denying half his roots, and even as turning his back on his fellow neither-here-nor-there Americans, I think I get why someone like Obama might want to identify purely as a black man.
On the realpolitik side, there are the cut-and-dried electoral considerations. Yes, the number of Americans who describe themselves as being of mixed race is on the rise, having increased 25 percent between 2000 – when the U.S. Census Bureau first allowed respondents to pick more than one race – and 2007, while the nation’s overall population has grown 7 percent in that time, according to this MSNBC article by Mike Stuckey.
But in that year, multiracial Americans still constituted less than 2 percent of the population, compared with 13.5 percent for blacks in 2008. That’s 41.1 million black people, but less than 5 million (according to one count) Americans of mixed race.
There are other political considerations, too. Numbers speak loud, so identifying as black rather than as multiracial can be a way of granting additional power to black Americans as a demographic group; it can affect the extent and distribution of government policy and expenditure, and it can shape the public perception of which voters are worth wooing. And when as high-profile a (half-)black man as the president of the United States identifies solely as black, that can potentially have the effect of artificially increasing the number of “blacks, African Americans or Negroes” not only by inspiring those who fit that description to fill out the Census form but also, possibly, by spurring those who aren’t sure if they fit that description to check just the one box. Perhaps this is part of what Hughes meant when she said she thinks the president’s choice “will have political, social and cultural ramifications.”
Of course, there’s more to it than pure politics.
Even presidents can be presumed to have personal and family considerations, such as an individual sense of belonging likely bred at least in part of the external appearance that typically precedes inclusion in one group and exclusion from another. Obama’s personal story and the American national story would have been different if he had come out looking more like his mother, Ann Dunham, who died of cancer in 1995.
And there’s also a certain satisfying story arc, a narrative simplicity even in the face of a complex tale, that comes from Obama’s identification with a specific group rather than with a jumbled agglomeration of members of Some Other Race.
On the national level, there’s an element of pride in being able to say that those who dreamed of being the first black president will now have to content themselves with dreaming of being merely the next black president – something that just wouldn’t come out the same if you were to replace “black” with “multiracial.”
And yet, somewhere between my belief that personal and communal considerations (not just political ones) may well have played a role in Obama’s decision and my belief that ultimately it’s none of my business how any individual identifies himself – even when that individual is the president, and even when his decision is announced by the White House press secretary – I can’t help but ask the nagging elephantine question: After all these years, is the one-drop rule still in effect?
For all the potentially positive reasons for identifying as black – and only as black – is Obama ultimately saying that no matter what you accomplish, even if you become president of the United States, you will still be defined by whichever ethnic group is furthest from that of the Founding Fathers, the quintessential WASPs?
Maybe what Obama is really saying is that that’s okay with him.
Photo by jurvetson
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