Obama, Blackness, and Postethnic America

Obama, Blackness, and Postethnic America

The Chronicle of Higher Education

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

The Obama candidacy challenges our notions of identity politics

In their support for Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama, prominent black leaders have made it clear that black skin color itself is not as big a deal in American politics as it once was. The spectacle of John Lewis, Charles B. Rangel, and Andrew Young, among others, trying to persuade black Americans to vote for a white woman rather than the first black man with a real chance at the White House is a striking example of how the Obama campaign has become a postethnic phenomenon.

There are plenty of other signs as well. In a society long accustomed to a sharp black-white color line — and to relying on the rule of “one drop of black blood” to locate that line — commentators are discussing the choices of identity available to the mixed-race Obama. In a recent video on The New York Times Web site, Glenn C. Loury and John H. McWhorter, two prominent black intellectuals, casually reviewed Obama’s range of options. Yet it was not so long ago that the lightskinned Colin Powell declared matter-of-factly: “When you look like me, you are black.”…

…Obama’s mixed ancestry, however, is not what most generates the new uncertainty about blackness. Much more important is the fact that his black ancestry is immigrant rather than American-born. Before getting to that, however, let me clarify the postethnic flavor of the support for Clinton on the part of a substantial segment of the black political establishment…

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