The Book Club

Will Obama’s Biracial Heritage Help Him?

Dear Alan,

It seems to me that we are witnessing one of those moments when the American sensibility is undergoing a metamorphosis. For one, Barack Obama appears before us when the traditional shortcoming of not being white has taken some serious lumps. Presently, it appears that what one believes and represents is more important than his or her color, which we cannot judge as a bad thing. So, heroes and loons of any pigment can appear at all points on the political spectrum. Left, right, middle, far left, or far right are no longer color-coded.

Many things have also changed in what the sociologists call “signifiers.” In that respect, part of Bill Clinton’s accomplishment was that he removed the bane of association with terrorist politics from a Southern accent. Conversely, a big black man like Clarence Thomas can be a champion of the right. Surface skin tone, the sound of an accent, and even the state in which one was born do not have hard and fast meanings any longer—if, in fact, they ever did to the degree that the liberals of the Eastern seaboard would have us believe.

Much of what has changed began to come into plain sight when Strom Thurmond—a senator with one of the reddest necks to ever appear in Washington—took Clarence Thomas’ side during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and kneeled in prayer with the judge and his blond wife, as though color and intermarriage had never been of any importance to him. Thurmond’s championing of Thomas symbolized, as well as anything could, that people were being judged by the content of their beliefs and affiliations more than by their color—and much faster than anyone could have predicted!

But the biggest possible change came about when Colin Powell, a Republican who believed in affirmative action, was very close to receiving the nomination for president—a bid that was supposedly scuttled, at least in part, by his paranoid West Indian family members who were afraid that the general would surely be assassinated if he were victorious over Clinton. That potential victory took on real possibility because media mogul Rupert Murdoch was a Powell booster, which meant the general would have had the Fox News Channel behind him and his war chest would have been overstuffed very soon.

If Powell had run, history would almost surely have changed dramatically, and it would have come about within the Republican Party, which had started to become the party of the Christian God when its leadership realized that all of those redneck Bible-thumpers were up for grabs. This came about after Lyndon Johnson pushed the civil-rights legislation through and the Democrats were redefined, among Southerners, as “too liberal.” Johnson knew that signing civil-rights legislation was akin to signing the death sentence of his party, but he scrawled away with stoic conviction.

Since Powell’s moment, Condoleezza Rice has risen to unexpected heights in the Bush administration and, were she willing, could be the candidate the elephants would come behind, especially if it looked as though Hillary Clinton was going to get the Democratic nomination. What a battle royal that would be!

But now, a new helmet has appeared on the battlefield and Barack Obama is beneath it. He may seem bland and superficial to some, but his rhetoric of unity across political divides has made him attractive and, I would say, his actually not being what he looks like to most of us may help push his popularity along. As he points out in The Audacity of Hope, Obama may look like a black American, but he is actually an African-American—getting to the true meaning of that trendy but woefully misapplied choice of name.

The senator from Illinois is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. He is what used to be known as a “half-caste” but is now dubbed “biracial.” Given what we think of immigrants and their offspring—that they are more motivated and willing to work harder than the darker skinned who are American-born—this can only help Obama. Especially if those black people are correct when they claim that white America will embrace almost any group from anywhere on the planet before it will embrace domestic black Americans, primarily because all of the negative stereotypes still obtain and the unsettled business following slavery has yet to be resolved.

Obama is quite aware of this and lays out his background in The Audacity of Hope with a detail that he tended to touch on only so lightly when he was running for senator against Allen Keyes, who attempted to make the most of Obama’s not being a black American. Keyes, a black American carpetbagger promoted by the Republicans, failed to connect with voters, but the man who is now junior senator from Illinois apparently recognized that he should approach the topic with the kind of specifics that would make it impossible to present him as an opportunist.

So, we are seeing identities redefined or given a greater complexity than the simplest meanings of black and white, which have oppressed us all in terms of understanding how the world actually works. It is perhaps grandly ironic that this kind of precise understanding is beginning to arrive in the United States at the same time that we find ourselves face to face with the nuances of the Muslim world. A recognition, for instance, that being a Muslim means no more than sharing a common book of worship with those whom one might savagely oppose. This is Barack Obama’s moment, and it will be highly instructive to see what he and his supporters make of it.