Commentary: Why question Obama's racial bona fides?

The Rock Hill HeraldFebruary 1, 2009 

According to some sticklers, we're still awaiting the election of the first black president of the United States.

While for millions of Americans, the election of Barack Obama makes waiting unnecessary, a few stubborn carpers say we need to hold up. Obama, they tell us, is not really black, he's biracial.

Some of these naysayers even have gone so far as to criticize the president for being ungrateful for his white ancestry. They suggest that in claiming to be black, as was his Kenyan father, he is dismissing his white mother.

Obama, of course, has never shied away from the fact that his father was black and his mother was white. In fact, he wrote a book about it, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance."

He also has unsparingly credited his mother and his maternal grandparents for his success in life.

During the presidential campaign, discussions occasionally arose about whether Obama was "black enough" to be fully accepted by fellow African-Americans or whether he was "too black" for some white voters to support. But those were questions that dealt with cultural issues, not genetic ones.

Obama is black. The fact that some whites want to deny or downplay that fact is rich with irony.

Throughout most of our history, he would have had no choice in the matter. Under the "one-drop rule" commonly recognized during slavery and, later, during Jim Crow segregation, he would have been labeled black by white society – no objections permitted.

Under this definition – also known as the "one black ancestor rule" or the "traceable amount rule" – one drop of black blood made a person black. That definition, which originated in the antebellum South, eventually became the standard accepted by the entire nation, one that even was recognized by state and federal courts.

Social historians think the "one drop rule" is unique to the United States. No other nation in the world uses that measure to determine who is black and who isn't. The curse of slavery and our preoccupation with race have shackled us with this insupportable notion that even people who look white must be labeled as black if they had any blacks at all in their family tree.

What are the motives, then, of the people who are so intent on labeling Obama as "biracial"? Many, if not most, African-Americans have some white ancestry, so why single out Obama?

One guess would be that they are so reluctant to admit that America has elected a black president, they are desperate to brand him as something other than black.

That won't work, of course. Our tragic history of race relations demands that we acknowledge the milestone – and view it as progress – that Obama's election represents. We may not have entered the "post-racial" era yet, but this election brings us closer to it.

Race is largely a social construct with little biological significance. Dividing ourselves into distinct categories based on skin color is an old and ignorant habit, but one for which we still suffer the consequences.

Humans share 99.9 percent of their genome with one another. The remaining 0.1 percent accounts for traits such as skin color, which are largely superficial. Scientists note that there is more variation within races than between them.

And if we trace our family trees back 150,000 years or so, we would find many common relatives. All us modern humans are descended from a population of about 5,000 individuals living in sub-Saharan Africa, near, perhaps, where Obama's father was born.

It will take some time but, if the planet survives, we someday will acknowledge that the only race that really matters is the human race.

ABOUT THE WRITER

James Werrell is the opinion page editor for the Rock Hill Herald. He can be reached by e-mail at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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