It’s not just that he’s black, because he isn’t

On Election Day, The State ran a Eugene Robinson column connecting the Tea Party ire to the fact that the president is, well, black. He was quite moderate and reasonable about it, taking pains to say that “It’s not racist to criticize President Obama, it’s not racist to have conservative views, and it’s not racist to join the Tea Party.” This was followed, as you might expect, by a significant “But…”

And I think he makes a fair, if not airtight, case for the argument that the Tea Party would not be as big a phenomenon as it is if this president were not noticeably different from every president we’ve had before. I think that’s true. And I think for a lot of people, his alleged blackness forms a part of it. But that’s only because most Americans, black and white, seem to buy into the idea, promoted by the president himself, that he is, indeed, black.

But not I. As you know, I’ve never considered him to be black. I set out my reasoning in that double-length column in October 2008, “Barack Like Me” (in which I argued that Obama had as much in common with me as he does the average black American). Rather than revisit every word of it, I’ll give you one short reason why he is not “black” in the sense that it is used as a sociopolitical designation in this country: Not ONE of his ancestors was brought to this country as a slave. Not one. This puts him entirely outside the American narrative of race.

Aside from that, he was not raised as a black American. Blackness was something he personally decided to embrace as a teenager looking for an identity, as kids — particularly kids with childhoods as unrooted as his — tend to do.

And because of all that, I think Robinson gets it slightly wrong in his conclusion:

I ask myself what’s so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He’s black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious – witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, his religion and even his absent father’s supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.

Obama has made mistakes that rightly cost him political support. But I can’t help believing that the Tea Party’s rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control – that he’s different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race.

I come up with a different answer when I ask myself that same question — “what’s so different about Obama”? Sure, his being the child of an absent African father and a white mother makes him different from any other POTUS, ever. But so do several other rather glaring factors that may be related to his alleged blackness, but which could exist completely independently of the ambiguous color of his skin. Such as:

  • His name. “Barack Hussein Obama.” It’s extremely foreign. Set aside the connection with Islam and Arabic, and all the freight those carry at this point in history (such as the uncanny closeness to the name “Osama”), for a moment. Just in terms of being different, it’s easily light years beyond the name of anyone else who has even come close to occupying the Oval Office. The most exotic name of any previous president, by far, was “Roosevelt.” I mean, “Millard Fillmore” was goofy-sounding, but it sounded like an English-speaker. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that the first Catholic to receive a major party nomination had the vanilla/whitebread name “Al Smith.”
  • His father was a foreigner, regardless of his race. He was a man who spent almost none of his life in this country. He came here briefly, fathered a child, and went home. Show me the parallel to that in the biographies of former presidents.
  • While he never really knew his father (he had to learn about him at a distance, the way we learn about figures in history), he did know his stepfather, who was Indonesian. Young Barry spent a goodly portion of his childhood in Indonesia. In my earlier column I drew a parallel to my own childhood sojourn in South America, but I was there undeniably as an American. Barry Obama lived in SE Asia as an Indonesian, or as close to it as someone of Caucasian/African heritage could.
  • The fact that, to the extent that he is connected to African roots, it is a heritage that is totally divorced from most presidents’ sense of connection to Europe. I didn’t fully realize that until the Churchill bust episode, which caused some Brit to note something that hadn’t fully occurred to me: This is the first president the modern UK has had to deal with who doesn’t have the Special Relationship hard-wired into his sense of self, if not his genes. In fact, quite the contrary: Unlike any previous president (except maybe Kennedy, who spent his adult life living down his father’s pro-German sympathies leading up to WWII), Obama’s grandfather actually experienced political oppression at the hands of British colonialists.
  • His unearthly cool. His intellectual detachment, the sense he projects that he takes nothing personally. Weirdly, this takes a trait usually associated, in most stereotypical assumptions, with Northern Europeans, and stretches it until it screams. He looks at problems the way a clinical observer does. Probably more maddeningly to his detractors, he looks at his fellow Americans that way — as though he is not one of them; he is outside; he has something of the air of an entomologist studying beetles with a magnifying glass.

Bottom line, I think that last trait probably contributes most to the alienation many feel toward him. They sense that detachment, and they find it off-putting, and their minds grope for explanations, and they see all the other different things about him. That last one is one with which I can identify to some extent. I think one reason I’m a journalist (as are a lot of military brats) is that I moved around a lot as a kid, and was never quite of the place where I lived, and tended to look at a given place and its people with the detachment of an outsider. It wasn’t until I moved here to the place of my birth in my 30s (and I was only born here; I grew up everywhere else) that I embraced fully the identity of being a South Carolinian, but as a conscious act of will, rather like Obama’s decision to be “black.” I have a certain claim to it — mostly genetic (my family tree is three-fourths South Carolinian) — just as Obama has a genetic claim to blackness, but it’s nothing like the SC identification of someone who has lived, say, in Cayce his whole life.

As you can see, I still feel an affinity for Barack Obama, as I did in 2008. He has my sympathy, and since he IS my president, I hope he is successful as president — even though I supported McCain. And I in no way excuse the extreme, personal hostility to him among many of the voters who voted the Tea Party way on Tuesday. But I do find myself trying to understand it, based upon available facts. And I think the factors I listed above are at least as relevant as the color of his skin, if not more so.

28 thoughts on “It’s not just that he’s black, because he isn’t

  1. bud

    I already liked Obama but this makes me like him even more. I hope he IS detached. A president should think with his brain not with his heart. The previous president invaded a harmless, foreign country, in part, because he wanted to avenge an affront to his father. Is that what we want in a president, someone who makes major decisions because it “feels” right?

    Sure, a certain amount of intuition and gut instinct are needed when all the facts don’t line up. But I want a cerebral, intelligent president, not someone who’s motivated by greed and family history. The United States isn’t supposed to be run like the Corleone family. And we certainly don’t need a Godfather.

  2. SusanG

    While I haven’t really thought through whether I would agree that he’s having a harder time with Tea Party types because he’s black — I have to disagree with you on one point. You’re saying that he’s not really black, and thus that Robinson’s argument is flawed because of it. The issue being addressed is whether the Tea Party folks see him as black, and whether that contributes to him being seen as “other” and thus at least a little suspect. I think that, in general, he’s seen as black.
    I don’t think the fact that you don’t see him as black, or even whether he sees himself as black, is really the point, given that I doubt your thinking on this issue is a good indicator of the average Tea Party supporter’s thinking.
    (I have heard a Tea Party person say that “he’s not even really black”, but it was in the context of deriding black folks that they thought voted for him “just because he’s black” — and implying that black people who voted for Obama as stupid lemmings).

  3. Brad

    Yes, Susan, you’re completely right that the subject at hand is what THEY think, not what I think. And yes, as I said, most people, including Tea Partisans, are more willing to accept him as black than I am. But…

    My point is contained in that comment you quote: “he’s not even really black.”

    Implied in that statement is that Obama is something weird, and alien, and hard to define — for all the reasons I cited and more. People have trouble completely putting their fingers on it, and my own attempt to do so FOR them is, of course, inevitably flawed.

    He is SO strange and SO alien, so far from the mainstream, that this person you quote is saying, “he’s not even black.” “Black” is something we at least think we understand. But Obama is something far more otherly, this person is sensing…

  4. Phillip

    I agree, Bud. Some complain about “where is the fire we saw in the 08 campaign.” But anybody who voted for Obama because of the lofty campaign oratory voted for him for the wrong reason. The reflectiveness, the capacity for analyzing (and empathizing with all sides of an issue), the No-Drama-Obama, all that, to me screamed out: This is the right guy for these unbelievably challenging times.

    The “narrative of race” that you, Brad, say Obama is “outside” is now far more multi-faceted than the specific legacy of the African-American holocaust. Witness the brouhaha over immigration, and anxiety by some Americans of Euro descent as they transition from a majority to a plurality in the next 40 years. Robinson’s column is too simplistic in its conclusion; but Obama’s “otherness” of which you speak (and again, it’s only “foreign” from an Anglo or Eurocentric perspective) is even more symbolic of the wider changes in American society in this era. Robinson is correct to note the unusual prevalence of the “take our country back” cry among the TPers.

    The main reason why Obama’s experience of “blackness” is different from most African-Americans is NOT because of his father’s heritage and not because he’s not descended from slaves; it’s because Obama was lucky enough to avoid living in the mainland US until he went to college and once there, to quickly ascend through talent and work to higher echelons of accomplishment. If Barry Obama had grown up in the 1960’s and 70’s in Columbia SC instead of Hawaii, you can be darned sure that in the eyes of the dominant culture, he would be a young black man, whether he wanted to choose that label or not. Obama’s increasing awareness of the larger implications in American society as he grew up (despite being relatively cocooned from those) is what led him to finally self-identify as a black American.

  5. Herb Brasher

    Susan is correct; it is what others perceive, and the First Lady also contributes to that perception.

    Personally, I am proud to have an American president who is black, and I rejoice with my fellow citizens who are black. At the same time, I think there is an underlying racism in all whites that is partly inherited, and partly learned–whether we are aware of it, or not. It will probably take at least one or two more generations to get it out of our systems.

    In the meantime, we not only need to stop these foolish attacks on our country’s leader, but also work more side by side with all races. This is a tall order in my profession, because, as we all know, and it is a total shame to have to admit, this country is never more segregated than on a Sunday morning.

  6. Rose

    What you’ve described is very common for biracial and multiracial people. They have to decide how to self-identify – and that personal identity is not always what other people perceived them to be. They frequently do not fit into neatly descriptive little boxes. During the census, there were intense debates among people of color about how to list their racial identities; I recall a national MSM reporter (can’t remember his name) used his own family as an example – he, his parents, and his brother were each listing their racial information differently.

    Some people were able to vote for Obama because he wasn’t tied to America’s slave past. But for some people, the only thing that mattered was that his skin isn’t white.

    You are absolutely right. There is a lot of subtle racism that still exists. So subtle that many whites don’t even realize it.

  7. Steve Gordy

    There’s another factor in Obama’s lack of the anger which it’s become irrationally fashionable to associate with authentic blackness: until he went to college, he lived either in Hawaii (where everyone belongs to one minority or another) or in Indonesia (where he was visibly not part of the predominant group).

  8. Herb Brasher

    @Rose Thanks for the affirmation. I know it, because it wells up inside of me at times, and I am horrified by it’s very existence. I ask myself where this comes from, because it isn’t what I want to be, but it is there, nonetheless.

    Of course students of St.Paul, as I like to count myself, realize that it is an evidence of what he writes about in Romans 7. But I ask myself, why specifically this prejudice–where does it come from?– especially because it is something that I do not want, and have taken every effort to reject. I can only conclude that it is in the sub-conscious mind, something I absorbed in my childhood. ‘They’ went to the black high school, and ‘they’ lived in a different area of town, because ‘they’ were different, and that was the way it was supposed to be. I realize now that, though I always thought that I was not biased, I still absorbed this inner pride and separation from others different from me.

    I recently attended an evangelical conference at which a black pastor spoke and openly talked about the hurt inflicted upon the African-American psyche over generations. His talk was mind-opening. Since then, I have reflected more upon what he said, and I think the hurt is also, as always, not only inflicted upon the victim, but also on us, the perpetrators of the injustice. We whites have hurt ourselves, made ourselves petty and invictive, and thus don’t have the largeness of soul that it takes to open the doors of our community and to work alongside of those that we perceive, whether consciously or unconsciously, as different from ourselves.

    A lot of people probably think I am blathering on–so be it, but I’m just trying to work through something here.

  9. Norm Ivey

    The cool-headedness, the intelligence, the Teflon response to some affronts and the thoughtful response to others convinced me that Obama was the right one for the times. I’m glad I’m living at the moment in history when we have our first black (other-worldly, if your prefer) president. I’m proud to say I voted for him, and I’m still pretty happy with the job he’s doing.

    I’m not convinced that the Tea Party, white as it may be, is mostly about race. While there may be racism within its ranks, I think many–maybe most–of its members are sincere in their outrage and frustration. I think many of them are unable or unwilling to see that there are other viewpoints about how the country should move forward–they believe “their country” should be the way they envision it. They can’t see that “their country” is “our country”.

    The president’s ethnic-racial makeup is just a reflection of what the country is becoming. As our population morphs to be more like our president (multi-racial-ethnic-alien), the ruling-class majority is experiencing something akin to death throes. The world is accelerating and changing around them, but they are powerless to stop it. Their comfort zone is shrinking.

    I see change in the students I teach and my daughters’ friends. Race and other differences mean so little to them. Their comfort zone is larger than that of the Tea Party, of Herb and of myself. Their comfort zone grows as the Tea Party’s shrinks. More than having a black president, it’s this growth as a society that makes my heart swell with pride.

  10. Karen McLeod

    @ Herb, of course. While I cannot begin to imagine the pain that we have caused our black brothers, I think that the worst damage has been done to our own souls.

  11. Dave Dean

    You old left wingers have more bull than a bull a bull pasture. Suggestion for your next wave of inspiration; go into a profound diatribe as to how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. You folk are always good for a laugh. I especially enjoy your (all) convoluted wool gathering. Keep up the good work. You are frequently but seldom in doubt. President Obama has the same ailment.

  12. Shannon aka Scout

    I definately get an NF feeling from Obama, and probably E. J/P is the only one I’m not sure of, but I think probably ENFJ. They are idealists with enormous charisma. It fits.

  13. Kathryn Braun Fenner (Mrs. Stephen A.)

    @ Shannon/scout

    His speaking in paragraphs, and apparent lack of charisma whenever he gets out of his preferred zone would suggest he’s an introvert. Introverts aren’t all WYSIWYG like extraverts are. There’s a flip–if they are in their zone, they become like extraverts. Introverts don’t think out loud; that’s why they tend to state complete, measured thoughts. W was an extravert–hence the garbled, thinking-while-talking stuff. Clinton was more glibly verbal (is that redundant), but clearly seemed to be an extravert.

  14. Mark Stewart

    It’s very interesting to talk to what I assume to be Tea Party types post-election. It’s like a filter has been removed and they forget words carry.

    I would have down-played the racial aspect earlier, but I have heard enough comments this week to say that that part of the cultural anchor is still ripping up the seabed. Too many people seem to be unable to embrace difference and thrive on uncertainty.

    As Norm Ivey said, the composition of our country is morphing. It’s unavoidable – and I would argue for the best for our country’s future.

  15. Herb Brasher

    The deficits in the M-B psychological profiling are beginning to become evident–this is what I am/he or she is, and therefore I do this or behave this way. Hmmmm. Human beings are more self-contradictory than can be classified in neat slots like this, methinks.

  16. Shannon aka Scout


    I’ll buy that. It’s very hard to tell when the only perceptions you have of the person are filtered through the media. I do definitely agree that in one-on-one interviews he seems more introverted.

    Herb, I think if you really get into the depths of the theory some of those contradictions are explained more, but the simplified versions that have been co-opted by pop psychology books like Kiersey’s do sometimes come up short.

  17. Phillip

    Obama’s speech in Indonesia this week is a reminder that this is a century for new “Special Relationships,” something that is more vital for America than ever. While America will always retain its special historic ties with Britain, and with Europe in general, if we really “walk-the-walk” when it comes to the cause of freedom and democracy worldwide, we need to feel comfortable with leaders (Presidents) of different backgrounds who may feel their own special connections, be it to Africa, Indonesia, or perhaps someday India, other parts of Asia, Latin America, etc.:

  18. Brad

    Ah, now there you’re getting into dangerous territory, though…

    There’s a school of thought that over time has led us to embrace LOTS of leaders “of different backgrounds.” One of the terms for it is Realpolitik. We overlook differences in values — who are we to judge? — in forming these alliances, with our eyes on strategic goals.

    And sometimes that’s the thing to do. Other times it gets us in LOTS of trouble.

    The thing about our alliance with Britain is that whatever differences we may have, the core values are always shared.

    Ours is not a nationalistic country, in the sense of being inextricably tied up with race or language or religion, the sense we use generally when we apply that term to other countries. As Bill Murray said in “Stripes,” we’re mutts. And proud of it.

    But… there is something permanently special about the link with Britain.

    There was a “leader” (their term for editorial — so the linguistic link isn’t perfect) in The Economist a number of years ago… I cited it here recently, and I wish I could find it to get the quote directly… that indirectly explained the link well, while making the wonderful point that we are NOT bound to ethnicity in the usual way.

    It was contrasting what it meant to be Japanese to what it meant to be American. It first set out the extremely restrictive, race-based definition of being Japanese. Then it said you could be anyone from anywhere, even a little green man from Mars, and if you embraced and lived by a set of values set out by a bunch of guys of English descent in the 18th century, you were an American.

    So… being American is independent of race or culture. BUT… the notions that define being American did arise from an English context, and probably would not have from any other.

    So THIS special relationship is indeed special in a way that no other can be.

  19. Kathryn "Blue" Fenner

    Brad, before you start singing “Jerusalem,” some of the values Britain has stood for over the years are class hierarchy and imperialism based on inherent superiority.

  20. Brad

    Uh-huh. And your point would be…?

    So I suppose when I propose a toast to Her Majesty, you’re not going to stand?

    You can pick at Britain’s flaws all you like. It could have been evil incarnate for 98 percent of its history. It still doesn’t change the fact that our Framers were striving for what they perceived as their lost rights as Englishmen. Their CONTEXT was English. If they had been French, it just wouldn’t have happened (we saw, at about that same time, what highflown notions of the rights of man led to in a French context).

    And that’s a context, a link, a shared past of ideas, that is essential to this nation. Nations to the south of us, in the early part of the next century, tried to emulate what happened here in the latter part of the 18th… but the context was all wrong.

  21. Mark Stewart

    So we should have a much closer affinity with India, no?

    Sometimes the home-grown brew matters even more than the initial ingrediants.

    India went the anti-colonial, pro-socialist monolithic state route at first; which was not to their benefit. It will be interesting to see what the country will become going forward. I think Obama was right to make a state visit there now.

  22. Brad

    … speaking of which… I just saw the new “Robin Hood” this week on DVD. It was pretty good, even though it seemed a bit of a stretch to pretend that Robin Hood came up with the idea for the Magna Carta…

  23. Phillip

    I actually meant being comfortable with our own leaders (US Presidents, or other very high-ranking officials) having connections to other parts of the world. This is not just about Obama and Indonesia, although having a close connection to the most populous Muslim country in the world is pretty significant at this time in history, you gotta admit.

    But, soon, we’ll have a President of one party or another who’s forebears will have come from Mexico, or Cuba, or Chile, or India, or China. And the point is to embrace this, to understand how in a 21st-century world that’s a useful thing that says something profound about America, not to be afraid of it nor to say that it’s “getting into dangerous territory.”

  24. Brad

    And I was referring to our penchant for forming alliances with foreign leaders that we later regret. Saddam. Batista. Diem. The Shah. And maybe, before it’s over, Hamid Karzai.

    And comparing that to our relationship with Britain.

    As to your point, maybe we need a president who spent a huge chunk of his childhood in South America, who is also founder of the UnParty. Ahem…

  25. Mark Stewart

    Karzai is just the latest in a long line of stingers.

    I would have thought we would have learned long ago that supporting/enabling despotic and corrupt “leaders” is never going to serve our interests in the end. Has it ever?

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