Are you white enough?

Are you white enough?

Laura Miller, Senior Writer

From Jim Crow laws to workplace discrimination, the history of race and the American courtroom is incendiary.

Come January, Barack Obama will be sworn in as either the first black president of the United States or the 44th white one, or both, or neither, depending on how you interpret his race. Race is such a monumental force in American culture and politics that the idea that it has to be interpreted may strike many people as bizarre. Of course Obama is black, some might argue, judging by his appearance, or by his self-identification as an African-American or even by his marriage and important relationships with other African-Americans. Yet more than one commentator has complained that he isn’t “black enough,” by which they may mean that his complexion isn’t dark enough, or that he was raised by whites, or that his African father provided him with no heritage in North American slavery, or that he doesn’t sufficiently align himself with the policies of a certain portion of African-American political leadership.

The problem with race as Americans understand it is that it doesn’t really exist. It is a brutal fact of life for millions of citizens, and an inescapable problem for the rest, but it is also, as Ariela J. Gross writes in her densely researched “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America,” a “moving target,” whose definition and meaning is always in flux. Many of us can avoid encountering this strange truth in the imprecise realms of cultural and social life, but when it comes to the law, imprecision just doesn’t cut it. Gross’ book, a history of cases in which people have challenged their official racial designation, eloquently demonstrates just how difficult it can be to say what race—mine, yours, anybody’s—actually consists of…

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