Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Unspeakable Obama

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 17, 2004 --  

After dazzling the audience of the Democratic convention in July, the presumptive future senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, has become the de facto star of the Democratic Party. Nowhere has this been more controversial than in America's black communities, where the candidate's appeal to white voters has re-ignited the debate of what it means to be black.

One of the early salvos in this debate came from a white liberal columnist for the New York Times, Scott Malcomson, who wrote earlier this month that Barack "is not black in the usual way."1 Noting that Barack grew up in Hawaii with his white mother after she separated from his Kenyan father, Malcomson went on to quote New Republic writer Noam Scheiber who said the candidate is "not stereotypically African American."2 Uh oh, look out!

A number of writers, most prominently Washington Post Assistant City Editor Vanessa Williams, jumped on the columnist, all but calling his words racist. "I wonder, is there a ?usual way' to be white?" she wrote.3

While it's easy to take cheap shots at the politically incorrect phrasings of a white author, it would be a shame if voices like Williams succeeded in silencing the discussion of an important issue. And in the end, this issue comes down to one of failed semantics.

Nobody denies that Americans of African descent, whose ancestors were brought to North America aboard slave ships one or two centuries ago, developed a unique subculture. It would be impossible for people who share such a defining experience not to have done so. The subculture continued to evolve over a hundred plus years of forced segregation. But not all Americans with black African ancestors are part of this culture. More recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa itself, have little connection to this uniquely North American subculture aside from external observation.

But Americans have no word to describe these different groups of people. Both are lumped together as "blacks" or "African Americans," as if skin color or ancestral geography were of comparable importance to identity as a shared culture. This is utter nonsense. And as more immigrants of African-descent become Americans, the absurdity of this notion becomes ever clearer.

Even amongst black Americans whose families have been in the country for many generations, large numbers are losing their connection to the traditional black American subculture. Rising integration, even at the slow pace of the past 40 years, means that black Americans of all classes more often find themselves surrounded by Americans of different races and backgrounds. This is particularly true of black professionals. And if history has shown anything, it is that integration of peoples with different cultures -- for good or for bad -- leads to a breakdown of cultural differences.

It should come as no surprise, then, that non-black Americans are more likely to vote for Barack Obama, whose cultural background seems less alien to their own, than many other candidates who have black skin. What is surprising, however, is that non-black Americans must face ostracism for daring to discuss the obvious cultural differences between Americans whose only commonality is their shared African ancestry. If only there were an inoffensive word to mark the difference, we could all be spared a whole lot of trouble.


1. New York Times, An Appeal Beyond Race, August 1, 2004

2. The New Republic Online, &c., Noam Scheiber's Daily Journal of Politics, August 6, 2004

3. The Washington Post, Black Like Whom? August 5, 2004.