Leonard Pitts Jr

Sen. Obama's color plain as black and white

Apparently, it comes as quite a surprise to some people that Barack Obama is black.

I'm driven to this realization by the response to a recent column in which I referred to the senator as African American. Many people wrote to correct me on that. Among the most memorable was a guy who said: "I heard his dad was a radical Muslim from Africa and his mom was a white atheist from Kansas City. If that be the case wouldn't he be half a black man and half a white man? If he's a half breed, shouldn't you do a correction?"

Then there's the gentleman who wrote following Obama's mild criticism of a comment by Sen. Joseph Biden to the effect that Obama was the first mainstream African-American presidential candidate "who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." The e-mail writer saw Obama's response -- he called the comment "historically inaccurate" -- as a fatal misstep, sign of a philosophical alliance with the dreaded Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and it changed, he said, his view of Obama. "Up to now, " he wrote, "I did not see him as an Afro American."


Most folks were less . . . strident than these two, but the core concern was the same: Obama should not be identified as African American.

To which there is an easy answer: I call him African American because that's what he calls himself.

There is, however, another answer that is not so easy.

If Obama asked to be identified as biracial, I would accommodate him because I believe that, within broad limits, people should be allowed to define themselves as they please. But with that said, I must confess I've always found that term rather meaningless insofar as the African-American experience goes.

That's not to criticize anybody who feels compelled to honor a multiplicity of heritages. For the record, many -- maybe most -- African Americans are multiracial. One of my ancestors was Irish. My wife has Japanese and Native American forebears. But my point is less about how one sees oneself than about how one is seen by the world. And I'm sorry: you can be as "biracial" as you want; so long as your features show any hint of Africa, that world is going to give you the treatment it reserves for "black."

Assume for a minute Obama didn't have a famous face. Assume he was just another brother tooling down Main Street. Do you really think the cop who pulls him over for no good reason is going to change his tune if he is told Obama's mama is white?

"Oh. Sorry, Mr. Obama. I didn't realize you were BIRACIAL. Have a good day."

No way. You may be many things, but if one of them is black, that trumps the rest in terms of how the world sees you. Black is definitive.


Granted, this is, at some level, a silly conversation: as a scientific construct, race is meaningless. But as a social construct, it's anything but. So Obama becomes, inevitably, a Rorschach inkblot of our racial maturity. Meaning that what people see when they look at him so far seems to say more about them than him.

Which brings us back to Biden's remarks. I'm not qualified to judge the "nice-looking" part. But articulate? Even their critics would concede that Shirley Chisholm and the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton -- all black, all former contenders for the presidency -- talk real good. Bright? They seems intelligent enuf.

Clean? I stood near Jackson in an airport once. He didn't smell.

What Biden surely meant to say is that Obama is the first black presidential candidate who is potentially electable. But what he wound up saying is revealing and what it reveals is not pretty. Biden was not the first. He won't be the last.

Meantime, I've got two words of advice for folks surprised to learn Barack Obama is black: Eye. Doctor.