Monday, May 07, 2007

WHY WE CALL OBAMA BLACK

Sam Smith

One of the jobs of a journalist is to keep cleaning up one's own mind. It is so easy to drift into a colloquial world in which habit, cliche and spin conspire to make one an unconscious co-conspirator in the myths of the time.

For example, I've been calling Barack Obama black.

Yet the only way Obama is black is if one accepts a definition that is culturally rather than scientifically derived.

White liberals want Obama to be black because it helps them feel that this election is another freedom ride and blacks accept Obama as black in a long tradition of turning the majority's cruelty to their own purposes, thus expanding their base in American society.

As a scientific matter, however, race is a racist concept and doesn't exist. It was invented as a tool of prejudice and still manages to survive despite even DNA evidence to the contrary. Race is to culture as intelligent design is to evolution. Here's the way I put in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

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What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that "complexions run into each other." Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."

Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views.

Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:

"The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have the same skin color. . . There is no clearly distinguishable 'white race.' What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight."

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One of the reasons that so many consider Obama black is because of the one drop rule, which Wikipedia explains like this:

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According to the United States' colloquial term one drop rule, a black is any person with any known African ancestry. The one drop rule is virtually unique to the United States and was applied almost exclusively to blacks. Outside of the US, definitions of who is black vary from country to country but generally, multiracial people are not required by society to identify themselves as black. The most significant consequence of the one drop rule was that many African Americans who had significant European ancestry, whose appearance was very European, would identify themselves as black.

The one drop rule originated as a racist attempt to keep the white race pure, however one of its unintended consequences was uniting the African American community and preserving an African identity. Some of the most prominent civil rights activists were multiracial but yet stood up for equality for all. It is said the W.E.B. Du Bois could have easily passed for white yet he became the preeminent scholar in Afro-American studies. He chose to spend his final years in Africa and immigrated to Ghana where he died aged 95. Other scholars such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass both had white fathers.[20] Even the more radical activists such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan both had white grandparents. That said, colorism, or intraracial discrimination based on skin tone, does affect the black community. It is a sensitive issue or a taboo subject. Open discussions are often labeled as "airing dirty laundry."

Many people in the United States are increasingly rejecting the one drop rule, and are questioning whether even as much as 50% black ancestry should be considered black. Although politician Barack Obama self-identifies as black, 55 percent of whites and 61 percent of Hispanics classified him as biracial instead of black after being told that his mother is white. Blacks were less likely to acknowledge a multiracial category, with 66% labeling Obama as black. However when it came to Tiger Woods, only 42% of African-Americans described him as black, as did only 7% of White Americans.

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But politics isn't science; it isn't even traditional culture. It's its own world. Thus we have a man who hopes to be America's first black president whose only upbringing by a black parent ended when he was two years old.

Barack Obama's mother is white. His stepfather was Indonesian. The grandparents with whom he was sent to live when he was ten were white. But according to the media and his supporters, Obama is still black.

In Obama's case this is a myth that's a little hard to sustain, but by keeping his white relatives sternly away from the media and by playing up his culturally tangential connection to Kenya including a media-enhanced visit, he's done an impressive job.

But journalists aren't meant to play along with myths. Obama isn't black. Since the word race shouldn't even be used these days, it would be best to call him bi-ethnic or multicultural. There's nothing wrong with this; it just doesn't seem to attract as many votes and dollars.

If you look at Obama's life from a purely cultural standpoint, he is mainly part Indonesian and part Hawaiian, impressive but not exactly the deep pockets campaign fundraisers are looking for except for the fact that one of his school mates was Steve Case.

What is troubling about Obama's past is not what it was, but what he and his supporters have made it out to be. For example, it's dishonest to make his white relatives off-limits to the press. It is misleading to make him into an icon of American black culture. It is pure spin to give so much mileage to a Kenyan father who left the family when Obama was two and so little to his white mother or the white grandparents who raised him.

There is also a disturbing hidden parallel between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Both had fathers who failed their families. Both relied heavily on extended family for the love and support parents are supposed to provide. Both still seem to be seeking personal love and admiration in a massive public forum. It may be an unfair comparison, but America certainly suffered because of the screw-ups in Clinton's family. It should be at least fair for Americans to wonder whether they want vote themselves into another group therapy session.

If Obama would campaign as a multi-cultural candidate and tell us what - other than pulpit style cliches - his messed up past might suggest in terms of public policy, he would be a more honest and appealing candidate. He might help us grow out of race. But his advisors probably already know that the number of Americans willing to reveal their multi-cultural past on Census forms is miniscule and actually dropping. And he has clearly found that playing to the liberal evangelicals is paying off.

So instead, all we're getting is another political fairy tale.

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PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Here are a few tracks:

SAM SMITH'S DECOLAND BAND

'SHINE' 

JELLY ROLL

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND

APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal