Is Obama Black Enough?

Steve Kroft isn't the first journalist to ask that question, implicitly or not. But does it even matter?

Since announcing his presidential bid on Saturday, Barack Obama has faced a barrage of questions, some more relevant than others. Important queries about his lack of political experience have been accompanied by mentions of his nicotine habit and middle name. But perhaps the most absurd question Obama has been asked so far has had more to do with identity politics than presidential politics: Senator Obama, when did you decide you were black?

That was the question 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft posed to Obama in an interview that aired on Sunday. Kroft asked the biracial senator why he considered himself black even though he was raised in a white household. Obama responded by telling Kroft that he never decided to be black: “I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American.”

Kroft isn’t the first journalist to ask, implicitly or not, whether Obama is black enough. A Los Angeles Times editorial on Tuesday asked “is Obama really black?”, while New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch asserted in November that “other than color, Obama did not — does not — share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves … So when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about.”

Those inside and outside of the black community have questioned Obama’s racial identity. As the son of an African immigrant, Obama is not directly linked to the history of black enslavement in America, a fact that makes some blacks view him as more of an outsider. On the other hand, people like Senator Joseph Biden, who called Obama the first “articulate” and “clean” black presidential candidate, may unintentionally view Obama’s diverse upbringing and educational background as factors that nullify his black heritage.

But while the mainstream media and political elite are busy measuring Obama’s “blackness,” some bloggers are asking whether Obama’s racial identity is even pertinent to his presidential campaign — and whether journalists are ignoring the essential political questions they should be asking presidential candidates.

Falze of Albany Media Bias is puzzled by the Obama race question. “Seriously. They asked him if he was ‘black enough’ or why people say he isn’t ‘black enough’ (they never actually got around to telling us what he had to be ‘black enough’ for — like Are you black enough to be President? as if that’s some sort of qualification or something, If only he were black enough France would love us again!) and he said he played basketball!” wrote Falze. “Well, hey, he plays basketball, fellas, I guess he’s ‘black enough’ for whatever it is he has to be ‘black enough’ for! That’ll keep jihadists from destroying the one fully functional democracy in the Middle East!”

Aled of EklectykMedia also argues that Obama’s race should not be the subject of debate and that his experience working with Chicago’s black community shows that he isn’t considered an outsider. “[H]e got a chance to live and interact on a consistent basis with the black community. And, since he appears to be a black man, just like anyone else, I’m guessing he was able to truly live within that community, without feeling or appearing to be a temporary visitor,” said Aled. “This degree of immersion in a community can have a deep and lasting effect. And it would seem that he has maintained a strong relationship with the black community since then. I just hope that discussions of his cultural and racial identity can further analyze and weigh in on these important issues — rather than simply making judgment calls about him being definitively ‘Black enough’ or ‘not Black enough’ based on his early years.”

Finally, Andrew Coyne of Canada’s National Post suggests that debates about Obama’s racial authenticity, though somewhat futile, could benefit our country’s political discourse.

“It’s a pointless debate, by and large: black voters, for whose benefit the arguments for and against Mr. Obama’s blackness are supposedly being advanced, will decide for themselves whether and on what terms they will support him,” Coyne wrote. “Still, it’s fascinating that the issue should have arisen, and if it is pointless, it’s useful to know why it’s pointless. One of the things Mr. Obama’s candidacy may achieve is to confirm, not the irrelevance of race as a political issue, but the incoherence of it — the maddening, irresolvable undefinability of it.”

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Satta Sarmah is a CJR intern.