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.