Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why President Obama is the First Black President and NOT the First Biracial President

As promised, this installment is going to talk about who is actually black, and why President Obama is referred to as the first “African American president,” rather than the first “biracial president.” This might be a little bit confusing for some, but I’ll do my best to make it as clear and painless as possible.
So, regarding the president:

• His mother was white
• He was raised by his white grandmother
• He is Ivy League educated
• He can properly conjugate verbs
• He is the leader of the free world
• He is a black man

Okay, so some of you are scratching your heads and trying to figure out how I arrived at that conclusion. There are actually a couple of reasons, the first one being this: If Barack Obama was simply “Barack Obama, electrical engineer,” “Barack Obama, attorney at law” or “Barack Obama, unemployed convicted felon with nine children by seven different women who owes $78,982.11 in back child support”—he would most definitely be considered black. Were he not an internationally known politician, would you pass President Obama on the street and upon seeing him say: “Hey, you’re half white, aren’t you?” No. You wouldn’t. If you are a fellow African American, you might nod and greet him with, “Wassup Bro?” If you’re white, you might say “Hello” or possibly clutch your purse or wallet tightly while trying not to make eye contact as you walk a bit faster in any direction away from where he is (it’s just sarcasm, folks). But he would be treated in the same manner as any other black man.

To be honest with you, aside from being the president and being raised by his white grandmother, Obama sounds quite a bit like my oldest brother. My brother is a black man, he is quite adept at the English language, he also holds a law degree from an Ivy League school and according to my mother’s birth certificate (much to the state’s chagrin) our mother is white. Upon seeing our half-Irish (but still ‘colored’ as they said in her day) grandmother with her milky porcelain skin and fine, straight hair that flowed past her knees holding a baby of the same hue, the registrar classified them both as white. So the only real difference between my brother and Barack Obama is that our grandmother—while a big part of our lives—did not raise him. Oh, and the whole presidential thing too.

It’s also kind of funny to me that people feel that since Obama was raised by a white woman he should be considered white or at least half white. After all, scores and scores of Southern (and some Northern) white children in America were raised by black women—even breast-fed by them. Are those people to be considered black or mulatto? And let me address the word “mulatto.” It is derived from a Spanish word for a little mule. We know that mules are the product of the mating of a donkey and a horse, and that generally, mules cannot reproduce. They are considered a hybrid species and are generally bred to do labor. It is said of mules that they are “more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses (white people), and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys (black people).” I assure you that neither I nor any of my friends or relatives is a hybrid creature or descendant of beasts, so please—DO NOT refer to us as mulattoes.

You see, this classification as “biracial or interracial” and the like is a pretty new thing. Most Americans went by something known as “The One Drop Rule.” It is absolutely real—it was signed into law in eleven states in the early 1900s, with eight more states using the “blood fraction” rule to achieve the same result. It remained law in the United States until the Supreme Court deemed it illegal in 1967. Even in 1985, a Louisiana woman, Susie Phipps, was denied having her case challenging her racial classification as “colored” heard by the federal Office for Dispute Resolution. Phipps was white in appearance, all of her friends and known relatives were white. She had been married twice to white men and she had lived her entire life believing she was white. Upon applying for a passport, she checked “White” on the application and was later told that her birth certificate had been filed as “colored” because the midwife who delivered her said one of her parents was “colored.” I guess my mother should stay out of Louisiana or they might revoke her Negro card!

The purpose of “The One Drop Rule” was to protect slavery and plantation owners. Prior to that, the rule was that if a person had any discernible European (white) blood said person was considered white and free. Later, classification as white was changed to include only those with matrilineal (from the mother’s side) white blood because too many slave masters were producing mixed-race children with their female slaves and those children were considered white and free, thus affecting the financial bottom line. An example would then be this: if a white man and a black woman produce a child who looks white, that child is black. That white-looking child could effectively marry a white person and their children would be black. It could go on for generations and although those ancestors might have no apparent black features or even identify as black, according to U.S. law, if slavery were reinstated tomorrow, they’d be slaves.

So there it is. In all of its shame and glory, that is why President Barrack Obama is America’s first black president. Some might say that times have changed and that he should be considered biracial. I, on the other hand, see him as a black man, and as he explained to David Letterman, “I was black before the election.” Therefore, if the president sees himself as a black man and U.S. law bears that out, why can’t everyone else?


  1. You have a keen eye, ear and sensibility for "all things race" in America. Sounds like a CNN special report (or weekly column) doesn't it?

  2. Grace, from your lips to God's ears :-)