Sunday, March 2

Obama, Blackness, and Postethnic America

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 light-skinned Colin Powell declared matter-of-factly: "When you look like me, you are black."

In addition, Obama has demonstrated a formidable appeal to white voters. His strong showing in Virginia on February 12 advanced a trend already visible in caucus states. His greatest margin of victory so far was not in predominantly black Washington, D.C., but in Idaho, a social and cultural "red" state with almost no black voters. Obama's percentages have also increased among black voters, who polls had indicated were pragmatically ready to stick with Clinton until Obama showed that he, like she, could draw enough white voters to make victory a possibility. His victories — at the time of this writing, in 22 states with diverse demographics — reflect a capacity to reach across the color line that no American of his color has ever before remotely approached.

Obama's presentation of himself as a politician who transcends race is also pertinent. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, whose presidential candidacies were more focused on color, Obama has never offered himself as the candidate of a particular ethnoracial group. His transracial appeal, coupled with the willingness of millions of white voters to respond to it, is almost always the focus of media depictions of Obama as a "postracial" or "postethnic" candidate. But there is much more to it. The Obama candidacy has already developed into a far-reaching challenge to identity politics. At the center of that challenge is a gradually spreading uncertainty about the significance of blackness itself.

Blackness is the pivotal concept in the intellectual and administrative apparatus used in the United States for dealing with ethnoracial distinctions. Doubts about its basic meaning, boundaries, and social role make it easier to contemplate a possible future in which the ethnoracial categories central to identity politics would be more matters of choice than ascription; in which mobilization by ethnoracial groups would be more a strategic option than a presumed destiny attendant upon mere membership in a group; and in which economic inequalities would be confronted head-on, instead of through the medium of "ethnorace." To denote that possible future, I prefer the term "postethnic" to "post-racial." The former recognizes that at issue is all identity by natal community, including as experienced by, or ascribed to, population groups to whom the problematic term "race" is rarely applied. A postethnic social order would encourage individuals to devote as much — or as little — of their energies as they wished to their community of descent. Hence to be postethnic is not to be anti-ethnic, but to reject the idea that descent is destiny. The reconceptualization affects the status of Latinos and other immigrant-based populations not generally counted as "races."

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.

The pro-Clinton black leadership is putting aside the civil-rights coalition's traditional priority on electing more and more black politicians to higher and higher office, exactly at the moment of rare opportunity to act on that priority at the highest level. In the context of the gerrymandering of countless Congressional districts in order to encourage black voters to elect black representatives, and to enable white voters to elect white representatives, pro-Clinton black leaders, whatever their private motivations (they want a president who owes them something, skeptics often allege), are publicly enacting the principle that a perceived sensitivity to the problems of black people, and an apparent capacity to act effectively on their problems, is more important than blackness. That is a step away from the traditional politics of identity. In this case, blackness is represented not by a politically idiosyncratic figure like the right-wing Alan Keyes, but by a U.S. senator with policy views close to those of the white candidate.

Yet I do not want to make that development sound more coherently postethnic than it is. There have been some mixed signals. Bill Clinton has "probably gone with more black women than Barack," Young has been widely quoted as saying. Just who is the former mayor of Atlanta trying to persuade of what? One should vote for Hillary Clinton because her white husband is alleged to have led a promiscuous life across the color line? Black people committed to black competitiveness should reject a black man who is married to a strong black woman on the ground that he has not slept around enough among his ethnoracial sisters?

Now I turn to the distinction between the immigrant and nonimmigrant origins of the African-American population. The knowledge that Obama's black father came to the United States from Kenya may have done more than anything else to make Americans in general aware of that distinction. But here the Obama phenomenon needs to be assessed in relation to other happenings.

That well more than one-third of African-Americans doubt that the black population of the United States is any longer a single people was revealed in November in a report by the Pew Research Center. Although the gap in values between middle-class and poorer African-Americans was the focus of the study, black immigrants and their children are especially likely to be identified as middle class. A study by the Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey and his collaborators shows that black immigrants and their children are overrepresented by several hundred percent among the black freshmen at Ivy League colleges. Such statistics are common at many other institutions, including Queens College of the City University of New York, a public university whose campus is located near a large population of African-Americans. Many studies tell us that black immigrants and their children do better educationally and economically than do the descendants of American slavery and Jim Crow.

They demonstrate that educational and employment opportunities can be available to black people, even in the context of continued white racism. That calls into question the credibility of blackness as our default standard for identifying the worst cases of inequality, and for serving as the focal point of remedies. Slavery ended in the British Caribbean three decades before it ended in the United States, and black Caribbeans experienced a better postemancipation educational system than did most black people in the United States. Perhaps the force keeping so many black Americans down is operative not so much in the eye of the empowered white beholder as in that legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, in the form of diminished socioeconomic capacity to take advantage of educational and employment opportunities.

To go down that road is not to question the power of white racism, but to locate more precisely its harmful effects. Our colleges and universities and our remedies for employment discrimination have generally assumed that white prejudice — a legacy, indeed, of slavery and Jim Crow — is the problem. That black people face prejudice today is beyond doubt, and numerous studies show that darker-skinned black people are more likely to be mistreated than those with lighter skin. But skin color does not tell the whole story.

The African-American descendants of slavery and Jim Crow are the only population group in the United States with a multicentury legacy of group-specific enslavement and institutionalized debasement, including hypo-descent racialization ("one drop of blood" makes a person black) and antimiscegenation laws (black-white marriages were against the law in most states with large black populations until 1967), carried out under constitutional authority. When people declare that Obama is "not really black," some of them appear to be trying to make that distinction. In fact, neither Obama nor any other African-American of immigrant background is a member of this population group.

To be sure, many immigrants from the Caribbean have slave ancestors, too, and slavery also has a history in Africa itself. Other groups have been mistreated in other ways, in this country and in the countries of origin of many immigrants. But the segment of the African diaspora enslaved under American constitutional authority has a unique history, awareness of which was vital in creating the political will in the 1960s and early 1970s to deploy federal power against racism, in general, and to produce the concept of affirmative action, in particular.

The differences in history and circumstances among various descent groups were largely ignored during the era when our conceptual and administrative apparatus for dealing with inequality was put in place. As John D. Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, has shown — in his important 2002 book, The Minority Rights Revolution — conflating Asian-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians with African-Americans was a largely unconscious step driven by the unexamined assumption that those groups were "like blacks"; that is, they were functionally indistinguishable from the Americans who experienced slavery and Jim Crow. Such conflation was officially perpetuated as late as 1998, when President Clinton's Initiative on Race, One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future, systematically and willfully obscured those differences. That was done by burying statistics that disproved the all-minorities-are-alike myth, and by fashioning more than 50 recommendations to combat racism, not a single one of which spoke to the unique claims of black people.

If we are now going to recognize that even some black people — people like Obama — are not "like blacks," how can Mexican-Americans and Cambodian-Americans be "like blacks"? Can the latter be eligible for entitlements that were assigned largely on the basis of a "black model" that suddenly seems not to apply even to all black people? If black people with immigrant backgrounds are less appropriate targets of affirmative-action and "diversity" programs than other black people, a huge issue can no longer be avoided: What claims for special treatment can be made for nonblack populations with an immigrant base? Can the genie of the immigrant/nonimmigrant distinction be put back in the bottle, or are we to generate new, group-specific theoretical justifications for each group? That prospect is an intimidating one, trapping us by our habit of defining disadvantaged groups ethnoracially.

Employers and educators are asked to treat the Latino population as an ethnoracial group, yet the strongest claim that many of its members have for special protections and benefits is specific to economic conditions. The history of mistreatment of Latinos by Anglos is well documented, but the instances most comparable to antiblack racism predate the migration of the bulk of today's Latino population. One need not deny the reality of prejudicial treatment of Latinos to recognize another reality as more salient: Immigration policies and practices that actively encourage the formation of a low-skilled, poorly educated population of immigrant labor from Mexico and other Latin American nations. As the recent debates over immigration confirm, the United States positively demands an underclass of workers and finds it convenient to obtain most of them from nearby Mexico.

But the service institutions obliged to deal with the needs of that population are held accountable on the basis of ethnoracial rather than economic classifications. Colleges and universities are routinely asked to recruit more Latino students and faculty members, and are accused of prejudice if they do not. People who are encouraged to immigrate to this country, legally or illegally, because they are poorly educated, will work for low wages, and are likely to avoid trade unions do have a powerful claim on our resources, but it is an economic, not an ethno-racial claim.

The Asian-American section of our color-conscious system is even more anachronistic. There are historical reasons for the relatively weak class position of immigrants from Cambodia and the Philippines, but our category of Asian-American conceals the differences between those groups and those who trace their ancestry to Korea, whose adult immigrants to the United States are overwhelmingly college graduates. Institutions eager to assist the poorest immigrants sometimes do so through the hyper-ethnic step of breaking down the Asian category, enabling them to establish programs for Cambodians but not for Japanese. For example, the undergraduate-admissions forms for the University of California system will soon ask Asian and Pacific-Islander applicants to classify themselves in 23 ethnic categories.

Does the analysis sketched here mean that blackness is no longer relevant to the dynamics of mistreatment in the United States, and is no longer an appropriate basis for solidarity? Of course not. Black people have plenty of reasons to look to each other for mutual support, and to form enclaves strategically, while refusing to have their lives confined by color. The central postethnic principle, after all, is affiliation by revocable consent. But attention to skin color alone will not carry the United States very far toward diminishing the inequalities for which the extraordinary overrepresentation of black men in American prisons is a commanding emblem. A new, more realistic way to distribute resources and energies, calculated to diminish even those inequalities that owe much to a history of prejudice and violence, is needed. Whether it can be created remains to be seen.

The United States is still a long way from the cosmopolitan society that I sketched as an ideal 13 years ago in my book Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. But today we seem closer to engaging inequalities that are too often understood in ethnoracial rather than economic terms. The energies and ideas flourishing around the Obama candidacy may promote a long-overdue breakthrough. His victories in the primaries so far indicate that a substantial portion of the white electorate is eager to show that blackness itself is not a barrier to the presidency. Obama's illustration in his own person of the contrast between immigrant and nonimmigrant black people presents a compelling invitation to explore the limits of blackness. Even if Hillary Clinton is the next president, the Obama campaign's destabilization of blackness will be hard to forget. No matter what happens next, identity politics in the United States will never be the same again.

David A. Hollinger is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, published in a third, expanded edition in 2006 by Basic Books.