One Drop of Red Herring

Is President Obama black? How do we know?

An argument I often saw during the last election season went as follows: isn’t it odd/racist that we consider Barack Obama black, even though he has equal numbers of black and white parents (one each)? Many commentators, particularly on the right wing,  located the cause in an old legal doctrine of the Jim Crow era: the one-drop rule, which defined a person as black who had any black ancestors at all.  “Obama’s racial self-definition is derived from the famous, or infamous, one-drop rule which continues to hold sway in America but nowhere else,” wrote Dinesh D’Souza. “After more than 300 years and much difficult history, we hew to the old racist rule: Part-black is all black. Fifty percent equals a hundred. There’s no in-between,” wrote Marie Arana in a Washington Post article titled “He’s Not Black.”

I think this argument, in its clearest form, would go as follows:

1) We consider Barack Obama black because he has some African ancestry, even though he has just as much European ancestry. (Note that this argument, as I have seen it, always assumes that Obama’s white mother was 100% European-American.)

2) The reason we think this is because of the Jim Crow-era one-drop rule, which lives on in our society though not in the law.

3) This is bad.

I’m not really going to address points 2 or 3 here, because point 1 is so clearly wrong. Do we really think Obama is black because he has one drop of black blood? No. We think he’s black because he looks black. If he looked like this or this, we would consider him white, or perhaps mixed-race, even if he had the same parentage. Race in America is defined phenotypically, not genotypically. If it were otherwise, we would need to actually know someone’s parentage before determining their race.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

Advertisements

6 Responses to “One Drop of Red Herring”

  1. Childebert Says:

    I have a couple things to say:

    1) The commentator you criticized was specifically referring to Obama’s self-identification. While we generally classify ‘people on the street’ based on their appearance, I’m sure there are more factors that go into racial self-determination (and I’m sure the race of one’s parents is very important for this!)

    2) Usually, we identify people’s race based on their appearance, but it seems that this has an element of inference to it. Meaning that when we call someone ‘black’ we are either stating, assuming, or implying something about their parentage. If I called someone black, and learned that they had two Mexican parents, I would say “I guess I was mislead by his appearance” but I would NOT say “what an odd parentage this black person has!” So I mostly disagree with your idea that race is defined phenotypically, although it is clear that this is usually the basis for our judgment. Clearly the way we use language is terribly complex, but I think it’s safe to say that for someone to be black, it is a necessary condition for them to have at least some ‘black’ heritage. This does not mean that we might not call someone black who, for example, is Indian, but we would want to say that in this case we are mistaken, and would not have called him black if we had all the information. It seems to me more correct to say that we use someone’s appearance to *infer* something about their heritage when we call them Mexican, Black, Italian, ect, than it is to say that we are making claims *about* their appearance (as you implied when you said that race was defined phenotypically). I *can* call someone black without knowing their parents because I can infer from their appearance something about their parents. It makes sense to think of race in terms of heritage, because when I call someone black based on their appearance *I can be wrong,* but if I call them black based on their parents I, basically, can’t be wrong! Even if they are albino or some shit!

    I agree that saying race is defined by genotype may be a bit simplistic, but I think it’s far far more correct than defining race by appearance (even if that’s the *criteria* we commonly use for our inference) Even more so than ‘black,’ which is a bit loaded in certain ways, racial words like Chinese, Asian, and even ‘Jewish’ in many cases, are clearly statements about parentage rather than appearance (“I’m not Asian! My parents are Norwegian!”)

    When we get into cases of people with one black parent and one white parent, I think we get into the point in which there may not be a single clear way to use our terms, which is why there is all this confusion. I might be willing to accept that there is some argument to be made for the one-drop heritage deal for two reasons: 1) If a person has one parent who is from Africa, and thus very ‘black’, and one parent who is very ‘white’ this child ends up looking a certain way. The fact that we call this way ‘black’ rather than ‘white’ could be something passed down from the one-drop rule. Even if we don’t want to say that we’re making a statement about their parentage when we call them ‘black’ the fact that looking this way is a ‘black’ way to look could be passed down from the one-drop rule. 2) It seems to me that it is *more* of a mistake to call someone ‘white’ if they have one black parent, than it is to call someone ‘black’ if they have one black parent. This is a much weaker point, since we don’t normally call people ‘white’ anyway, so that might be a complication to any examples that could be brought up, but I think there may be a point to be made here anyway. If I call someone a ‘famous white rapper,’ and they had a black parent, I could see myself being corrected by pretty much anyone who knows their parentage. If I call someone a ‘famous black golfer,’ I don’t necessarily know that anyone with knowledge of that golfer’s parentage will correct me.

    At any rate, the way we use these terms is enormously complex. Forgive me if I’ve tried to oversimplify anything here!

  2. Childebert Says:

    Also, forgive me for the 1) length 2) repetition 3) and lack of consistency in expressed opinion, that the reader will find in this comment.

  3. Childebert,
    1) I suppose you’re right that the D’Souza quote is actually referring to his self-definition. In that case it’s pretty impossible to prove or disprove, since we’d have to actually get inside Obama’s head and figure out why he thinks he’s black. What this means is that I chose one of my example quotes poorly.

    2) What you’re referring to is called, in Peircean semiotics, second-order indexicality, which I think is a useful way to think about this. First-order indexicality would go as follows: that person looks black -> that person is black. Second-order indexicality would go: that person looks black -> that person has black parents (or at least one) -> that person is black. What I think you’re saying is that we are actually using second-order indexicality to determine race—not necessarily cognitively (i.e., that isn’t necessarily what’s running through our minds) but in some underlying logical sense, such that when appearance and parentage come into conflict, parentage would win out.

    I do admit that all this is a bit more complicated than I was making it out to be, but I still think I’m basically right that we define race phenotypically. However, spurred by what you said, I would add the important caveat that I’m only talking about black and white here. Not coincidentally, those labels are also phenotypic descriptions, as opposed to labels like “Asian-American” which are genotypic descriptions.

    Childebert, you and I have a mutual acquaintance who is to all appearances white but has a black father. If you had to guess who it is, you wouldn’t be able to. If I told you, you’d be surprised. If you wanted to pass this fact along to someone else, you wouldn’t say, “Did you know x is actually black?” If you said that, you would not be understood. You might instead say “Did you know x is mixed-race?” or “Did you know x has a black father?”

    You said, “If a person has one parent who is from Africa, and thus very ‘black’, and one parent who is very ‘white’ this child ends up looking a certain way. The fact that we call this way ‘black’ rather than ‘white’ could be something passed down from the one-drop rule.” I don’t think that’s true at all, the part about them looking “a certain way.” Obama has exactly that parentage and looks no different from many people with two black American parents. A child of the union you’re describing might look black, like Obama, or white, like Obama in those links above; such are the mysteries of genetics.

    Speaking of Obama, I think I recall some other commentators saying he wasn’t really black, despite his skin color, because he wasn’t descended from slaves and therefore didn’t share the black American historical experience. To this others replied that since his skin was black he’d been treated exactly like a descendant of slaves by most people, so he was in fact black. This criterion of blackness is effectively the same as my phenotypicalism.

    Two more points. First of all, in probably the large majority of real-world cases where you’re trying to figure out someone’s race, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it phenotypically or genotypically. For example, let’s say you’re a white person and you want to tell a racist joke against blacks. If there is a person there who is black by either definition (black skin or black parentage) you do not want to tell that joke. Second, none of what you said attempts to support the continued existence of the one-drop rule. What some of it attempts to support is the rule that, if someone has 50-50 parentage, they are black. I’ve already said why I don’t think that’s the case, but even if it were, that would be a long way from the one-drop rule, which in some cases counted ancestors as far back as your great-grandparents and in some cases counted back to perpetuity.
    -Vicente

  4. Childebert Says:

    Regarding:

    “What I think you’re saying is that we are actually using second-order indexicality to determine race—not necessarily cognitively (i.e., that isn’t necessarily what’s running through our minds) but in some underlying logical sense, such that when appearance and parentage come into conflict, parentage would win out”

    Doesn’t this also imply that race is not defined phenotypically? I don’t know how the word ‘definition’ is defined, but knowing someone’s appearance is neither necessary nor sufficient to call them black, which indicates to me that it is not the definition of blackness. Knowing someone’s appearance is never enough to know absolutely if they are black (maybe they are just a very strange looking Indian – in which case we would be wrong), nor does someone need to look a certain way to be black (maybe they are a black albino). Since appearance is neither necessary nor sufficient to know if someone is black, it makes more sense to think of us using appearance as a criteria for determining blackness, rather than the meaning of blackness itself. In contrast, in many cases (though not in many many liminal cases) knowing someone’s parentage is entirely sufficient to know if they are black or not, even if we do not know their appearance. I am not in any way opposed to thinking of this in terms of second order indexicality, and I agree that generally we determine blackness by appearance, but that does not indicate to me that appearance is the ‘definition’ of blackness, at least in the way I am used to using the word definition.

    Regarding our mutual acquaintance, I agree that having one black parent is a liminal case which *might* make you “mixed race” or something. I’m not saying that straight-up having one black parent is sufficient to make you black – there are many factors that go into determining these liminal cases, including appearance. What I’m saying is that there is some amount of hypocrisy involved in this determination, as evinced by the fact that it is *always wrong* to call someone “white” if you know they have one black parent, whereas it is only sometimes wrong to call someone black if they have one white parent, and as evinced by the fact that many white-ish looking people are called black.

    Nor does the instance of our mutual acquaintence indicate to me that blackness is defined phenotypically, since, again, appearance alone is not enough to know if they are black or not: if you told me they had two black parents I would be very likely to say, when I passed on the info: “did you know so-and-so is black?” Appearance is an important factor, in many cases, in what determines if someone is black, but it seems that since parentage ‘wins out’ in conflicting cases, doesn’t it make more sense to say that that is the ‘definition’ of black?

    Obviously there is a sense in which ‘if you’ve been treated black, you are black’, although this does not seem to be identical with our every day use of the word. When the word is used in this way, it seems to me to be more of a statement of social identity, in which case it is the *effect* of looking a certain way, rather than looking a certain way being the self-same. If being black is ‘having been treated like the descendants of slaves’ then being black is a usual consequence, though not a necessary consequence, of looking a certain way. Again, this is not our usual way of using this word, but this definition, again, allows us to use people’s appearance to infer that they’ve been treated a certain way, but, again, allows the possibility of us being wrong if, for example, this black person was raised in some closed environment (a government lab?) in which they were treated like royalty. Blackness, in this sense, is not defined by appearance or by parentage, but by personally identity and what kind of American experience one has had (both highly correlated with a certain appearance and parentage, of course).

    Regarding: “Obama has exactly that parentage and looks no different from many people with two black American parents. A child of the union you’re describing might look black, like Obama, or white, like Obama in those links above; such are the mysteries of genetics.”

    What you’re saying may very well be true, I could be wrong on this point. It just seems to me that people from Africa often look different from African-Americans, and I assume that a lot of this is due to the mixed genetic heritage of many African-Americans. The fact that we don’t distinguish between people who look African and people who look like Halle Berry (whereas we do distinguish between Halle Berry and English people) could be used as an argument for our heritage from the one-drop rule.

    Ultimately, I agree that the one-drop rule argument is probably rubbish – it just occurs to me that there are arguments for it that are not entirely fallacious. Obviously, we’ve come a long way from the one-drop rule, but I do think that we err towards calling people with 50-50 parentage black – since we call many white-ish looking people simply black, and also because its patently “wrong” to call someone with 50-50 parentage white. No one, not even the conservative commentators I’m sure, have argued for the “continued existence of the one-drop rule” – simply that our current hypocrisies can be traced back to this rule.

    As far as the fact that we do not tell black jokes around black-looking people, this fact is in no way inconsistent with the idea that blackness is not defined by appearance. If someone looks black, I use this to *infer* that they are black, and thus don’t tell the black joke. I’m not holding back because I’m afraid that Indian people who look black might be offended, I’m holding back because I’m afraid that their appearance might be some outward sign of the fact that they ARE BLACK.

    But again, I admit that in liminal cases, appearance is a factor that goes into determining, say, if someone is ‘black’ or ‘mixed race,’ ect. As is behavior, as is parentage, as is personal identity. I do not think it follows from this that race is defined phenotypically.

  5. Childebert Says:

    I should add this caveat: when I say that “its patently “wrong” to call someone with 50-50 parentage white” – I mean that it is wrong to say regardless of appearance. A person could look as white as snow, but if they have a black parent, I’m sure someone would correct me if I called them ‘white’ (or at least, that I am more likely to be corrected than if I call a very black-looking person ‘black’ who has one white parent).

  6. Vicente Says:

    Childebert,
    I disagree: I think knowing someone’s appearance is both necessary and sufficient to know if they are black. You said that we could be wrong about someone’s appearance, that they might turn out to be Indian. I think in that case we would have to conclude that you hadn’t looked closely enough and had mistaken their appearance, since it simply does not happen that a child of two very Indian-looking parents comes out looking very black. You also provide the example of an albino child of black parents, who would be black but would not look black. I would say, quite simply, that that is an exception, and just about the only one.

    I remember from my childhood a joke about Michael Jackson that went as follows: only in America can a little black boy grow up to be a white woman. I’m not saying this proves anything. It just came to mind.

    I also disagree that, as you say, “it is *always wrong* to call someone ‘white’ if you know they have one black parent, whereas it is only sometimes wrong to call someone black if they have one white parent.” Again there is the example of our mutual acquaintance; if you were to describe a room with our acquaintance and a bunch of (other) white people in it as being full of white people, it would seem very weird to correct you; on the contrary, if a black friend of ours were there, it wouldn’t seem weird at all to correct you.

    You said that if our mutual acquaintance had two black parents (instead of one) you would describe her as black, but this case is impossible and so proves nothing. Again, it just does not happen that children come out looking completely different from their parents, with the exception of albinoism. The only way I could imagine the scenario you’re talking about would be if one both of our acquaintance’s parents were mixed-race in such a way that they looked black but carried genes for white skin color within them (note: I am not a biologist), in which case I think it would only be correct to describe the acquaintance as white or mixed-race, and not black.

    We haven’t been talking much about the label “mixed-race,” but I think it can shed some light here. You said, “I do think that we err towards calling people with 50-50 parentage black – since we call many white-ish looking people simply black, and also because its patently ‘wrong’ to call someone with 50-50 parentage white.” I would say that we call a lot of people with 50-50 parentage (and who look like they do) mixed-race and would correct people who called them otherwise—but we’d correct them more strongly if they mistook them for white than for black. This could be because we think of mixed-race as a subset of black, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s just that we think of black and mixed-race, as well as Hispanic, Indian, etc., as subsets of a category (let’s call it “minority”) that doesn’t include white. That could also account for the situation you mention in your last comment there.

    A final thought: it’s also possible that race is defined phenotypically and/or genotypically. That is, the definition of black could be “looking black and/or having black parents.” If this were the case, the conservative pundits et al. would still be wrong.
    -Vicente

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: