Obama, The Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future

Obama, The Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future

Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters
Volume 31, Number 4 (2008)
pages 1033–1037
DOI: 10.1353/cal.0.0282

David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History
University of California at Berkeley

The focus of media depictions of Barack Obama as a “post-racial,” “post-black” or “postethnic” candidate is usually limited to two aspects of his presidential campaign.  First is his self-presentation with minimal references to his color. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, whose presidential candidacies were more directed at the significance of the color line, Obama has never offered himself as the candidate of a particular ethnoracial group. Second, the press calls attention to the willingness of millions of white voters to respond to Obama.  Some of his greatest margins in primary elections and caucuses were in heavily white states like Idaho and Montana.  He even won huge numbers of white voters in some states of the old Confederacy, and in the November election carried Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

But there is much more to it…

…Obama’s mixed ancestry generates some of the new uncertainty about blackness.  The white part of his genetic inheritance is not socially hidden, as it often is for “light-skinned blacks” who descend from black women sexually exploited by white slaveholders and other white males. Rather, Obama’s white ancestry is right there in the open, visible in the form of the white woman who, as a single mother, raised Obama after his black father left the family to return to his native Kenya. Press accounts of Obama’s life, as well as Obama’s own autobiographical writings, render Obama’s whiteness hard to miss.  No public figure, not even Tiger Woods, has done as much as Obama to make Americans of every education level and social surrounding aware of color-mixing in general and that most of the “black” population of the United States, in particular, are partially white. The “one-drop rule” which denies that color is a two-way street is far from dead, but not since the era of its legal and social consolidation in the early 1920s has the ordinance of this rule been so subject to challenge….

Read the entire article here.

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