Steinberg Lost

In his latest column, Steinberg muses:

Why is Barack Obama an African American?

He presents himself that way, based on his father being a Kenyan immigrant. But his mother was a white woman from Kansas. Why couldn’t he just as easily decide he is a white man? Why does the black half trump the white half?

The answer has nothing to do with appearances, or affirmative action, or cultural pride, nothing to do with exotic Africa proving a more appealing back story than the bland wheat fields of Kansas. It doesn’t have anything to do with Obama specifically — anyone with a black parent and a white parent is thought of as black. Why is that?

The answer is: because of our unconscious reflection of 19th century racist attitudes, where one drop of “corrupting” blood — be it black or Jewish or whatever — is enough to put you into a certain racial camp. Obama’s great-grandfather could be black, and that would be enough to make him black. It is indeed the logic of plantation owners, accepted unthinkingly by a society that would otherwise reject it. A form of reasoning, I might add, all-too-gladly taken up by some activists, eager to pump their numbers and prestige. Thus Obama — and Halle Berry, and Tiger Woods and anyone else of mixed parentage — doesn’t get a say in how their heritage is viewed. The choice is already made for them.

Mind you, I’m not blaming Obama. He didn’t invent this. But I do think it is worth noting that we are using a very old scorecard when it comes to race, and as our society moves into the blended, multiethnic mix it is certain to become, we’re eventually going to have to come up with something new, and finally set aside the whole idea of “blood,” the biblical notion of viewing people through the prism of their parents and their parents’ parents, and instead see them for who they actually are. Finally judging them not, as Dr. King said, by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

He helpfully muddies African-American, which would denote origin, with black, which descibes skin color and is sometimes associated with origin, race, or ethnic heritage.

Blackness is more meaningless than any hyphenation which ends in -American because the second at least indicates that the noun modified by the adjective had the good taste to join those of us born here.

So, to recap: Is Barack Obama black? Look at him. Is he African-American? Second generation, so only by heritage. Is he a good man? Seems okay in character, but somewhat wrong on his philosophy.

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