Not Saussure

January 23, 2007

Is Barack Obama black?

Filed under: usa — notsaussure @ 1:20 pm

Shows how much I know about American politics. I thought Tim Worstall was joking when he wrote, on Sunday, of Barack Obama:

I’ll lay good odds that at least some people claim that he’s not really black as he’s of direct African descent, and thus has not shared the genetic and cultural burden of slavery

Then, the very next day, I read in Salon the following, by Debra J. Dickerson:

Obama isn’t black.

“Black,” in our [i.e. US] political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

A reasonable enough point in its way, perhaps; I frequently wonder about the usefulness, in some contexts, of talking about ‘Europeans’ since it’s not always completely obvious that a Norwegian and an Italian will necessarily have a great deal politically or culturally in common.

Indeed, it’s a point I’d like her to have taken further, since I think it would have lead her to the conclusion that the ‘third-generation Harlemite’ was ‘black’ in a way that Condoleeza Rice isn’t, despite having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights struggle.

And I’d love to hear her explain to a Jamaican Rastafarian that neither he nor Haile Selassie could properly be considered ‘black’, at least not in American terms.

UPDATE: In today’s Salon, Gary Kamiya explains that

Barack Obama is black — he just isn’t “black.”

which I hope clarifies matters.

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30 Comments »

  1. Or… blackness is defined by an historical grievance. That stinks.

    Comment by Matt_c — January 23, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  2. Oh good grief! Is this for real!??

    Let me get this straight … so if black isn’t black anymore, unless of a certain heritage, does this mean because I am third generation Irish descent, living in England, I am/am not green?? I am all colour-confused … but if I can choose, then I confess, I have always had a certain fondness for maroon!

    xx

    Comment by queenminx — January 23, 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  3. Barack Obama Isn’t Black!

    Christ, that didn’t take long.

    Trackback by Tim Worstall — January 23, 2007 @ 5:57 pm

  4. I fear it is perfectly serious, Queen Minx; read the article, and you will discover that, apparently:

    Notwithstanding their silence on the subject, blacks at the top are aware (and possibly troubled?) by Obama’s lottery winnings: “black” but not black. Not descended from West African slaves brought to America, he steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law School) without having borne any of the burden, and he gives the white folks plausible deniability of their unwillingness to embrace blacks in public life.

    Bloody Africans … come over here and take our places at Harvard Law School…

    It’s an astonishing article.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 23, 2007 @ 7:21 pm

  5. I guess attitudes like that explain, to a small degree anyway, how the Democrats failed to win the last two presidential elections.

    Comment by Steve — January 23, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  6. Arr, Jayzus. And dey say de oirish are t’ick!

    xx

    Comment by queenminx — January 23, 2007 @ 8:37 pm

  7. Now that is just ridiculous!!!

    Comment by ThunderDragon — January 23, 2007 @ 8:57 pm

  8. In the 1980s there were arguments advanced for black sections of the Labour party with delegated voting rights. One objection often raised was the difficulty of defining the eligible membership of black sections. I remember being at a party meeting at that time, listening with increasing disbelief to a statement that we were being asked to adopt that began “Black is a colour of resistance” and ended up including all Irish people in the definition of black.

    Oddly, this was about the same time as a slightly different definition of Irish-blackness appeared in Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments”.

    Comment by Mark — January 23, 2007 @ 9:23 pm

  9. ‘Now that is just ridiculous!!!’ – exactly which bit of nonsense were you referring to ThunderDragon??

    smile!

    Comment by queenminx — January 23, 2007 @ 10:20 pm

  10. I think Dickerson does have a point, to some extent. Obama might not be black by the American’s usual standards. His father was African, but his mother was white, and he grew up in the states. So even though he might have that unique African perspective on race, which differs some from the American point of view, he did grow up in the States. Quite honestly, he has the upper hand, he’s got two sides to look at it from. In the end, if he calls himself black, then he is because he obviously feels like it. Sometimes it’s not about where you’re born or what you look like; it’s what you feel like.

    Comment by Brightshadows — January 24, 2007 @ 2:59 am

  11. […] the various responses to the piece, I think that Malik probably comes closest to hitting the nail on the head. It’s always […]

    Pingback by A little more on Barack Obama’s “black”.black ness and…girly girls. at Dr. Lester K. Spence — January 24, 2007 @ 3:25 am

  12. The contention over whether Barack Obama is black or “black” or not.

    Comment by ThunderDragon — January 24, 2007 @ 9:33 am

  13. I wrote an article about Dickerson’s piece as well. Its not something that has come up often about Obama even in America but it is an interesting thing shows how the definition even of race is very maleable.

    Comment by gracchi — January 24, 2007 @ 10:05 am

  14. Me, I say that white is the new black.

    Comment by John Smith — January 24, 2007 @ 11:31 am

  15. I suggest everybody drop talk of slavery unless they intend to acknowledge that all pink people (like me) were slaves too. The gangsters (calling themselves aristocrats or whatever) may have called us serfs, vassels, yarls, villeins, bondmen or peasents but slaves is what we were.

    And, of course, every drug-addicted prostitute paying her cash to a ponce is a slave. Every woman or child abused by a thug male in the domestic context is effectibvly a slave. A multitude of women from central and eastern Europe are brought over for ‘good jobs’ but are enslaved as prostitutes.

    And the people in far western Sahara are mostly slaves too, I understand. We hadly need to mention the entire ‘untouchable’ caste in India, supposed to be a modern country now.

    It took until 1945 for the British working class to be entirely liberated. As domestic servants, 6 million before 1914, and 2 million betwixt the world wars, were still efectively slaves, just like African Americans under segregation were still effectively slaves.

    Tell me the old, old (whole) story please. As to Obama, I like him -but I have been fooled before.

    Cheers, Cy Quick at mydigest.wordpress.com

    Comment by mydigest — January 24, 2007 @ 9:34 pm

  16. I still want to be maroon. Or, maroon and lime, striped.

    Oh! That’s vertical stripes, not horizontal.

    Sorry, all you horizontally striped people, no offence!

    x

    Comment by Queen Minx — January 24, 2007 @ 9:56 pm

  17. I do hope the English made you welcome Queenminx. Of course there is no-place like home, as opportunists happy to live at the expense of those they profess to despise never fail to point out, and as I’m sure you’ll discover should you ever decide to go back to yours.

    Comment by Philip — January 24, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

  18. We try to maintain a civilised blog here, Philip, and to refrain from completely uncalled-for personal attacks on other people who leave comments.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 24, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

  19. I am Not Saussure what he was ‘attacking’!!

    I mean, how can ‘home’ be a place where maroon and lime green horizontal striped people live??

    Do you think he is getting his oompapa-loompa’s mixed up with his ovalteenies?

    Besides, I am English, ergo … I am ‘home’!

    I am also, a tad baffled!

    Sheesh kebab!

    wink!

    Comment by Queen Minx — January 25, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  20. Queen Minx, I seem to recall reading that various fashion designers were being criticised by anti-fur campaigners for making mink coats and then dying them in all manner of exotic stripes and colours to disguise their supposedly cruel origins– do you mean to tell that, in fact, they didn’t need to dye the skins?

    Comment by notsaussure — January 25, 2007 @ 10:11 pm

  21. Why is even considered to be black. He is half white.

    I think he is “blite”.

    Comment by onefortheroad — January 31, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  22. I don’t know this blog, and come upon it by way of a Google related to the subject.

    I simply want to say all of you being European in your experience and outlook, could have no idea of what it means to be ‘black’ in America.

    Simply put, Black-Americans, despite whatever socio-economic diversity that exits within the Black-American community, there is one thing that we all share in common, the experience of *generational* struggle to exist and progress in American society. From Nat Turner to Fredrick Douglas to Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois to Malcom X to Martin Luther King to Condolezzi Rice. This is a separate and distinct heritage.

    A heritage that Barrack Obama does not share and one which he cannot relate in a first hand manner. He has no parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents, nor I would imagine any relatives who are or have been a part of the Black-American struggle in America.

    For the majority of native born Black-Americans, the general comment is Obama who? We do not know him. Virtually, all Black-American politicians have some *heritage* connection to the Civil Rights Movement in America. Obama does not. Obama’s political success within the state of Michigan, where he is a representative in the U.S. Senate, is NOT born of Black-American support.

    Think about it, suppose some half-Irish bastard of the British royal family were made King of Ireland. First thing the Irish would say is that he’s not Irish. Certainly half of the Irish would say that. It’s no different.

    Obama talks a very nice game, but does he know of which we came?

    For what it’s worth, Dickerson, author of the Salon article is wrong in her comments re West Indian Americans. For West Indians share a similar slave heritage, and for those generational American-West Indians, a shared American discriminatory experience.

    Obama, like ALL immigrants to America of non-western European descent, who their access and opportunities to those who struggled before them, Black-Americans. Obama’s place in Harvard is a place fought and paid for in blood and sacrifice. His place is in the Senate is one founded upon the sufferings of generations.

    It’s nice that a lot of white, liberal middle and upper-middle class Democratic women from the American mid-West are in love with, but that speaks nothing to me.

    Comment by John Coltrane — February 3, 2007 @ 5:54 am

  23. So Bill Clinton was the “first black president” and Barack Obama is not Black enough? Greaat. Make no mistake, when Obama walked down the steet before he was famous and people knew his background, I bet that people gave no distinction between whether he decended from African slaves or an African immigrant father. He was seen as Black! And though he is not a product of the African American heritage described above, he no doubt experienced on some level racial prejudice as other blacks do on a daily basis.

    People need to stop concerning themselves with the debate of whether or not he is black or “black enough”. Yellow, Black, White, Brown, Purple, who gives a sh*t! Barack Obama is an intelligent man who has the potential to be a great president. Stop wasting time on this issue and debate on whether he can bring real change. That is the issue!

    Comment by Wahine30 — February 4, 2007 @ 1:01 am

  24. John Coltrane does not believe that the ‘lower class’ in the British Isles ever suffered as much as African Americans? It is a matter of history! When the industrial revolution applied to agriculture made land-workers redundant and they moved mines and factories, they lost even the protection of being able to eat from offal and hedgerow.

    But you can start with the works of Charles Dickens and the 1970s TV series Upstairs Downstairs. These are mild versions. Country girls taking jobs as skivvies, routinely raped, and then slung onto the sreeet when showing pregnancy is just a sample of the abuse.

    You could bear in mind Henry 6 “Once more unto the breech dear suckers. Dudes at home, now abed, will think themselves accursed they were not here to get chopped in service of their Owner and King-Asshole.” (No P.O.W. status and ransom for the bond-men, mate.)

    I was born lower-middle class and, after grammar school, went downwardly mobile into the upper working class. My Dad’s Mum’s Dad was killed by a kick in the head from a horse. He and his Housekeeper wife were in the slightly-higher grade of servant.

    Before World War 1, there 6 million domestic servants here. The war brought giant leaps in technology and 4 million moved to better jobs, still treated like disposable resource. It was only after WW2 when Attlee brought us the Welfare State that we were out of inferior status to the upper and upper-middle class.

    After legal freedom from the feudal system which was simply slavery, about 400 years ago, we were still ‘discrminated against’ until 1945. We only saw the final end of toff Tory Prime Ministers as Grammar School boy Heath came to power in (1970?).

    It is true, however, that skin colour makes it a whole lot easier to enslave, or discriminate against, a class of people. I often attack Hollywood but this is one area where they do a good job. Movie after movie simply ignores the skin colour issue. By so doing, they show the idiots, both pink and cafe-au-lait, how to behave.

    Cy Quick at mydigest.wordpress.com

    Comment by mydigest — February 5, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  25. For those who don’t know, Obama spent many of his formative years in Indonesia. Overseas! His Kenyan father was absent in his life. He then went to live with his white grandparents in Hawaii and attended a prestigious private school there. He says in his book that he did not experience the same problems that most black americans face. Especially not on a daily or regular basis. Obama is half white! Why is that so hard to accept. It should be embracedthat he has a global mindset and is not caught up in some of the tunnel vision that most Black and White Americans live in. I Love Barack Obama!!! He is a sound politician. He’s fair, he’s honest, he’s diplomatic and he cares about what happens to this world. He won’t be the first “black” president (he’s half white) but who gives a damn. He’ll be the first truly worthy president. Go Obama!!!

    Comment by La_Nubiana — February 8, 2007 @ 1:24 am

  26. These comments are very educational. This sort of conversation needs to take place on a regular basis. The real question remains what is “black” anyway? Who gets to define it? It can’t be DNA because I can have more DNA in common with a European than a so called African American. Like most African Americans, I am a descendant of Liberian slaves, Native Americans and Irishmen. I’m a combo. I’m a non-offensive brown girl who is not too light and not too dark. With four generations of college education in my background, I am articulate enough to impress white people who collect most of their information about black people from tv and film. However, since I played tennis in the ghetto of Cleveland on the weekends, I know enough slang to have a “black” conversation with someone who has never attended college at all. I have been told by some white people that I’m not “black” because I didn’t sound ignorant enough and because I don’t listen to misogynist hip hop. Yet most of my charity work benefits black people here and all over the world. So I ask the question again, what is “black” and who gets to define it?

    Comment by oneintwenty — February 14, 2007 @ 7:56 pm

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  28. PEOPLE ARE SO FREAKIN STUPID…EVERYTHING IS NOT ALL ABOUT COLOR PEOPLE..JUST TO LET EVERYONE KNOW THAT ANYTIME YOU ARE MIXED WITH THE AFRICAN(BLACK)RACE YOU ARE NO LONGER WHITE, YOU ARE COLORED..IF YOU WANT TO SAY BLACK HEY THATS FINE..BUT YOU ARE NO LONGER WHITE…THE WHITE RACE IS THE WEAKEST RACE AND THE BLACK IS THE MOST DOMINANT OF ALL…WHAT THE HELL, CREATION STARTED IN AFRICA, WHITE PEOPLE DESCENDED FROM AFRICA IF YOU DO YOUR RESEARCH, ITS JUST THAT WHITES LOST ALL THE MELANIN IN THEIR SKIN…THE BLACK RACE IS THE ONLY RACE THAT CAN PRODUCE ANOTHER RACE THATS HOW DOMINANT THAT RACE OF PEOPLE ARE(FACTS).WHEN WILL PEOPLE LEAVE RACE ALONE AND LOOK AT THE REAL PICTURE..OUR BLOOD IS THE SAME UNDER OUR SKIN(BLUE)SAME ORGANS AND EVERYTHING ELSE..THE WORD HUE MEANS OF COLOR AND MAN MEANS,WELL YOU ALREADY KNOW..SO HUMAN MEANS COLOR OF MAN..IF THATS THE CASE WHITE PEOPLE ARNT HUMAN..GET IT..THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE THROUGH OUT THE WHOLE WORLD ARE OF COLOR AND THE WHITES ARE JUST BLAND(FACTS).SO OUR NEW PRESIDENT IS A HUMAN..GET IT..GROW UP AMERICA ITS TIME FOR A FREAKIN CHANGE…GOD BLESS

    Comment by jerome — February 15, 2008 @ 6:45 am

  29. barack obama is not black when will people see sence and the truth i am aslo from two backgrounds a white and black one im colored just like obama he is no more black then he is white. i have been considerd as white in africa and as black in europe its sick shit..it is true obama may have more dominent black jeans but either way he will never be a black person but only in america ther is a one blood drop rule which means if u have a small percentage black in ancestry line then u are considerd as full black thats the way america is run..so obama nos no different but to consider himself as black,,

    Comment by joseph willombe mitchell — November 1, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  30. HOW CAN A WHITE WOMAN PRODUCE A BLACK CHILD. WHEN IT HAPPENS PLEASE LET ME KNOW OBAMAS MOTHER IS WHITE SO HE CAN ASLO IDENTIFY AS WHITE OR BLACK BUT HE IS MIXED RACE {HALF/CAST}. SO IF HE IS BLACK THEN ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE MIXED RACE.IT DOESENT TAKE BRAIN SIENCE TO FIGURE IT OUT?????????????JUST THINK ABOUT IT AND ASK YOURSELF THE BIG QEUSTION

    Comment by joseph willombe mitchell — November 1, 2008 @ 8:55 pm


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