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Chelsea Green Blog

Obama: The Race against Race

The following is an article by Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute and the Public Institute, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi. Barack Obama’s jubilant supporters, both black and white, have begun chanting, “Race Doesn’t Matter! Race Doesn’t Matter!” But does it even exist? Obama tends to avoid the word, “race.” And for good reason. Not only does he not want to be marginalized as the “black” candidate, but he knows the word conjures up a cacophony of images and emotions. For some it describes a distinct and separate culture; for others an ethnicity—like Jews or Hispanics. But for many, whether consciously or not, it also signifies biology—the notion that, by birth, there is something fundamentally different that distinguishes African-Americans from “white” people. This thread of biology also runs through Webster’s definitions of race—words  like “breeding”, “stock”, “interbreeding”, “species”, and “physical traits” – all suggesting a separate category of humans. More than a few Americans still believe that because of biology we are not meant to mate and mix. For some they claim it to be a biblical truth. (Only about 5 percent of marriages in America are mixed and that number has remained stable for decades.) Every effort to define African-American/Black/Negro (or Asian or Hispanic or Native American), as distinct biological entities has failed miserably. And there have been many efforts to measure and classify and investigate all the nooks and crannies of our physiology and psychology. The dominant Anglo culture for generations wanted to prove that those with darker pigmentation or Asiatic features were inferior and therefore should be ruled and subjugated by Western Europeans. The eugenics movement in the early 20th century constructed an elaborate hierarchy that not only classified African-Americans as a distinct race, but also “proved” that Native Americans, Jews, southern Italians, Poles, Asians, and other poorer immigrant groups comprised inferior “races.” Elaborate ladders were created that lined up these races one by one leading right up to their natural rulers—Anglo-Saxons. The Nazi’s built upon this “science” in their effort to justify that the “Aryan” race —another concoction—was the ultimate master race, with the right to rule, and even eliminate inferior races, especially the Jewish “race”. But even the Nazis had a tough time clearly defining a Jew as a separate biological species. In the infamous 1935 Nuremberg decrees they created confusion with a set of charts that mixed family and religious practice: a “full” Jew had to have three or four Jewish grandparents or be part of a Jewish religious community. But you also were a Jew if you married a “full” Jew or were a child of one. After the Holocaust thoroughly discredited eugenics, the notion that Jews were a distinct race passed from mainstream culture. Today, no serious journalist would dare refer to the “Jewish race.”  Then why is it used so freely in reference to African-Americans? Obama may be avoiding the word also because he knows how it inevitably leads to question of blood. In the Jim Crow South the “one drop rule” defined who was black. Courts have referred to the “traceable amount rule” —one proven African American ancestor would do the trick.  Today, this indeed is a trick given that the most recent scientific consensus based on DNA evidence demonstrates that “all modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa 2,000 generations ago…” (Science Daily, May 5, 2007.) Biologically speaking we’re all black. It is enough to say that Obama is African-American or black. He is black, not because of a drop of blood or the number of black ancestors or because his skin color is slighter darker that many (but not all) “whites.” He is African-American because American society has defined him as such. Even when we say, and sincerely believe, that “all races are equal” we reinforce, for too many, the idea of biological difference, when in fact, there is none except how our culture has decided to view superficial physical characteristics. Nature doesn’t create a black race, we do. Being more sensitive to our haphazard use of the word “race” will not end racism: the very real discrimination against a group that the dominant society has defined as “other.” But by being more thoughtful about the word, we can help undermine the idea that that “race” as a biological category really exists. Obama has given us a good working definition of black: He says he knows he’s black when he tries to hail a cab that out of fear passes him by. But he is many other things— husband, father, intellectual, community activist, ambitious politician, and charismatic leader.  Hopefully, by the end of his campaign, no matter the result, his multi-dimensional humanity will help us see there is only one biological race—the human race.


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