In today’s America, Barack Obama is black. But he shouldn’t be. Born to a white mother and a black father, Obama’s prescribed racial identity is nothing more than a holdover from racist policies of the past. In a nation growing more racially diverse by the moment, we should see Obama for who he is: A man — like many Americans — who is beyond racial classification.
Throughout the Illinois Senator’s presidential campaign, he has been repeatedly asked about how his race will affect his prospects for the White House. When quizzed last year by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Obama responded, "Are there folks who might not vote for me because I’m African-American? No doubt."
But why do we consider Obama black?
Earlier this week, I caught up with Ward Connerly, a conservative black civil rights activist who is pursuing ballot initiatives in several states this November that if passed, would ban the consideration of race in hiring and education.
When I asked him whether there was any part of him that was excited about Obama’s candidacy, he said yes. "A little part of me would like to vote for him, but there is too much at stake to vote for that symbolism of shedding the past. To close escrow on Obama totally undermines those who argue institutional racism but I would not want him to be president just to have that symbolism."
To Connerly, Obama is far too liberal. But like Obama, Connerly comes from a mixed-race background. Connerly’s consists of Irish, French, Indian, and African. He emphasizes that the smallest portion of his ethnicity is African — an important fact in his personal story since he says he has been identified by others as black his entire life.
"Am I allowed to say I’m Irish?" he asks, recalling a time when he addressed a business lunch in Pittsburgh on a past St. Patrick’s Day. When he told the attendees that he would make his remarks quick so he could march in the Irish pride parade outside, many in the crowd chuckled. Connerly says he made the comment to prove a point. "Your eyes don’t see brown skin as the features of an Irishman," he told them.
Connerly says he sympathizes with Obama’s attempt to racially define himself. "Why do we as a society force him into a specific category? If he said ‘I am white,’ he’d be looked at with disbelief."
America’s history is marred by the one-drop rule, a series of Jim Crow-era statutes and policies that defined a person with any African ancestry whatsoever as non-white. State legislatures used the rule to prevent interracial marriage and it wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such statutes as unconstitutional.
So why hold on to the rule? Why can’t we see Obama and Connerly as Americans beyond racial classification? After all, they are representative a thriving — and growing –segment of our population.
With the federal government’s recent addition of a "mixed-race" category to our national census, America is now home to nearly three million interracial marriages — nearly 5 percent of all unions nationwide. And these statistics represent just a baseline. Since "Hispanic" is not considered a race, but rather an ethnicity, the statistics do not include marriages between whites and Hispanics — a category certainly thriving in the Southwest. Likewise, a marriage between a Japanese wife and an Indian husband would not be considered interracial since both ethnicities are considered under the same Asian racial umbrella.
Today, the U.S. Census recognizes 63 unique racial categories. These include some traditional races, including white and black, but 57 others are merely combinations of other races. How should we define the children born to such marriages? Obama married a black woman and Connerly’s wife is white. How should their children be racially classified?
Obama talks at length about our nation’s future. In the four mail pieces that have arrived at my central Denver home in the last month (I’m a registered Republican), he talks about "change we can believe in." I want to believe in an America where racial discrimination –including the one-drop rule — becomes a thing of the past.
By continuing to force Americans, including Obama and Connerly, into stagnant race boxes, we do a disservice to every citizen seeking to be seen as an individual, and not simply for his or her skin pigment. In doing so, we only give credit to failed racial policies of the past.