Race and Class: What Is “Black Enough”?

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Malik Miah

BARACK OBAMA’S BID to be the first African American president of The United States has brought on an unusual discussion among many Blacks: “Is he Black enough?”

The junior U.S. Senator from Illinois is making history by the broad support he’s receiving from a broad spectrum of social and racial groups in the country. Yet it’s reopened an old debate within the community about what defines Blackness.

The reason is simple: Discrimination is still alive and well in the country even as an elite layer in the Black population has integrated itself into the mainstream. Underlying this debate is recognition that all Americans are not fully equal because of the de facto formation of two distinct “nations” — one white, one Black — forged out of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. All the positive changes since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s have not yet led to the formation of a distinct American nationality.

Citizenship — a legal status, something that native born African Americans have fought for since the U.S. Constitution was written— represents something different from nationality. It’s the racial/national heritage that has always shaped Black politics, and impacted how African Americans have run for public office — city, state and national.
This has been especially true for every Black politician reaching out beyond the Black community.

Obama’s Early Broad Support

Initially Obama’s support from African Americans was modest — mainly because many did not know who he was or where he stood on issues of primary concern to the Black community. Obama was a new Black politician (not from the civil rights era) and not widely known across the country.

That changed quickly as the debate about his “Blackness” hit center stage. His family origins became public knowledge — white mother and African father. For most Blacks his origins are not a concern, since Obama is obviously Black. But for Black intellectuals and nationalists it is an issue. And it has everything to do with the two nations’ history, not a social discourse about Black Americans being unique from Black Africans.

Meanwhile, while a layer debates this issue of Blackness, Obama’s popularity among working-class and other Blacks continues to grow. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil right figure and presidential hopeful in the 1980s, has endorsed his campaign. Other leading Black politicians are moving in the same direction, while knowing they will support the eventual Democratic Party nominee the same way they’ve done in past elections.

Obama’s popularity among Democrats and self-described independents is also reflected in his financial supporters. Obama achieved twice the number of financial contributors to his campaign as front-runner Hillary Clinton —some 100,000 to Clinton’s 50,000 — by the end of March. It showed his appeal: Most of his donors were individuals from colleges, and working- and middle-class communities, who gave small donations of $100 or less, while Clinton got hers from large donations.

Not just a flash in the pan, Obama’s campaign is seen by many as a grassroots challenge to the establishment. Obama labels his effort as a “social movement,” organizing much of his support by large public meetings and through the Internet.

Nevertheless, this apparent Black “colorblind” candidacy continues to inspire a sidebar debate among many African Americans because of the historical roots discussion.

Senator Obama is an African American. He was born in Hawaii to a white mother from small town Kansas and an African father from Kenya. Obama has visited his father’s village and has a large extended family there. He grew up in Hawaii but learned his politics in the working-class communities of Chicago. He holds a law degree and was a community organizer on the South Side of the city.

Mixed “Racial Heritage”

For nationalists the issue is this: since Obama did not originate from the ancestral loins of former African slaves, how can he be considered a true African American?

While many in the mainly white-based media may find this a strange discussion — Obama is obviously Black — it is a long and important one in the Black community and African-American culture, going back to slave times when the color of one’s skin impacted your treatment by many whites.

The “house slave” versus the “field slave” and the light skin versus the dark skin advantages/disadvantages debates are well known. White skin privilege is obvious. You don’t need to say it, it is understood. During the segregation era, it was not uncommon for light skin Blacks to even “pass” to get out of the urban ghettoes to avoid the blow of racism.

A Social Construct

In the post-civil rights era the issue hasn’t been as prominent, but still exists. In truth “race” is a social construct. Genetic science shows that Blacks and whites are more similar in genetic makeup than not. Bigots, of course, only see skin color and nothing else.

A Black man or woman from the Caribbean or Africa, once living in the country, is seen and therefore treated the same as a native born Black man or woman. But within the Black community everyone is aware that a Caribbean Black has another country.

The same is true of Blacks from Africa. The food and cultures are also different. The unity that has been forged is because racism makes no distinction of the origins of one’s Black skin origin. A Black man is a Black man — period — to a racist and everyone else. (Ask any dark skinned person from Pakistan who ever tried to visit the Jim Crow South.)

In other words, when a Black man catches a cab, the driver only sees a Black man, not an American of African decent. The cabbie definitely doesn’t think, “Is he a mixture of white and Black parents?” When a Black person walks into a store, the owner doesn’t stop and think, “Is he educated? Did he attend Columbia University? Is he from Africa?”

The criticism by some Blacks of Obama is not really about his origins or lack thereof. It flows from one concern: Obama’s Ivy League education and his views of what to do regarding the problems of the African-American community.

In reality, Obama doesn’t seem to make them (Black issues) the central concern of his politics. Obama is articulate (in what some consider a white sort of way) and follows a community-based Saul Alinsky approach to solving America’s inner city problems. (Obama started off out of college working for Developing Communities Project, DCP, which focused on poor Black neighborhoods.)

According to David Moberg of The Nation, “Despite some meaningful victories, the work of Obama — and hundreds of other organizers — did not transform the South Side [of Chicago] or restore industries. But it did change the young man” of what Moberg called “community organizer turned politician.”

Politics Are Decisive

Obama’s views on the war in Iraq, racism, abortion rights, and other hot button issues that neoconservatives thrive on, are the source of his support from liberals and a new generation of Democratic Party activists. The issue of “Blackness” is only raised to avoid the real debate over program and resolution of issues greatly concerning African Americans and other Americans.

That’s why the real concern of those who say “Obama is not Black enough” is political. Does Obama’s origin of a mixed marriage between a white mother from the Midwest and a father from Africa give him the insight of Blacks from the urban communities of the South Side of Chicago or Harlem? Does the fact his father’s family did not suffer the unique racism of America or the slave trade that brought Blacks to America (although his father did live under the domination and colonialism of Europe) mean Obama cannot truly understand the racism that African Americans know from life, not from history?

As someone also of “mixed race” — my father came from British ruled India and mother from the Black Bottom area of Detroit — I’ve heard this claim too about myself. How could a mixed bred fully understand racism like us? Now of course my mother was African American so I’m a little better off than Obama. But I remember discussions about “Blackness and Black enough” when I was doing political organizing during the busing desegregation fight in the 1970s in the Roxbury community of Boston.

The issue then as now was not “Blackness,” but my political views. What I explained about the origins of the busing struggles, racism and what to do (as well as my socialist politics that were attacked with “red baiting”), was behind the attacks. I knew that my politics were at the root of the debate, and so did my critics.

The “moderate” Martin Luther King, Jr. and “revolutionary nationalist” Malcolm X — at times on differing sides of the civil rights debate regarding tactics — both understood this issue of Blackness (even though it wasn’t called that then) very well. Then it was about integrationism versus militant Black Nationalism, including Pan Africanism.

A Black man from the Caribbean, from Africa or even the Indian subcontinent faced the same racism in the Jim Crow South or in the urban centers of the North. Skin color determines if you are “Black enough” to be treated with dignity or with indignation and contempt by white Americans. No wonder today’s generation of Black youth tend to view the issue of Blackness as unreal, since the hope and desire is to see a Black man in the White House.

An interesting column along that line appeared in the “Black College Wire” by Kai Beasley, where he points out, “Not to vote for Obama because he’s ‘not Black enough’ is to say that Hillary Clinton or John Edwards is going to hold the interests of Black America closer to heart than a Black man, with Black kids, who’s married to a Black woman. How does that make sense?”

Judge by Program

Of course, to vote for anyone in the Democratic Party as a way to protect the interests of Black people is another discussion altogether. But the bottom line point is true: to accept that a white male or female Democrat is better able to protect Black interests than a Black Democrat because he is not considered “Black Enough” is absurd.

All candidates (and of course, parties) need to be judged by their proposals to resolve issues of concern to African Americans and to all Americans. Today the number one issue is the war in Iraq. Other issues of special concern to African Americans are jobs, equal and quality education and affordable health care.

I would add that whether or not someone was active in the civil rights movement — now four decades ago — is not a factor for effective leadership today. Many former civil leaders and activists have gone off the path to make their own personal wealth and glory.
No, what is decisive are stands on how to take on the real discrimination that is institutionalized across American society. In that context Barack Obama’s activism in the Black community on the South Side of Chicago is positive.

Barack Obama needs to be judged like any politicians in the two main parties. His program for change and to improve the lot of working people and to oppose U.S. aggression abroad — not his Blackness — is the acid test.

The fact that so many Americans are willing to support a Black man for president is a sign that racist ideology is weaker than ever before. At the same time, it would be foolish to think that institutional racism, which keeps a disproportionate number of young Black men imprisoned and at double the unemployment rate, is not the reality for the working class Black men and women.

Progress is a peculiar institution in America. Slavery is ancient history. Jim Crow is dead (even some southern states have passed legislation apologizing for their racist histories!). But racist ideas still persist. A Black man hailing a taxi in most cites still may not get picked up. Stereotypes and assumptions — as Don Imus reminds us!! — define overt and not-so-overt racist attitudes.

Fundamental shifts in economic and political powers, where racism is not only illegal but rooted out, will have been achieved when questions like “Is he Black enough?” will never be asked again.

ATC 128, May-June 2007