The First Black President?
In the days following Barack Obama’s election, Americans were feeling pretty darned progressive, if they did say so themselves. And they did say so, smugly and often, congratulating themselves on their fundamental human decency for having the grace to elect a black man. Something that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago had become reality, and Americans basked in self-justified pride.
It’s one of the most common American clichés: anyone, no matter their race, color, class, or creed, can become president. Barack Obama is seen as fulfilling that ideal.
But let’s be realistic. Barack Obama’s blackness is, literally, only skin deep. Culturally, he is very, very white.
Obama’s father was his sole connection with any sort of African heritage. He left Obama’s mother when Barack was two. Four years later, Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, moved to Indonesia with her new husband, where Obama spent the next four years. After age ten, he was raised primarily (and at times exclusively) by his maternal grandparents. From the fifth grade through high school, he attended the Punahou School, an elite prep school.
From there, he went on to the exclusive Occidental College, then transferred to Columbia University. He picked up his law degree at Harvard, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Those are very strong credentials for president—in fact, looking at them, they are much stronger than those of either John McCain or Sarah Palin. (And yes, there are other considerations than education in the selection of a president, but education is a consideration).
Yet Obama’s experiences are not those of a “typical” black person. He grew up in a white family, and was educated at mostly white universities, and mingled with mostly white people during his formative years. Obama’s connection to Africa lies only in his genes, not his life experiences.
This is not a problem, unless you care about identity politics. Much of Barack Obama’s support arose from the fact that many wanted to be a part of the election of the first black president. But while it is hard to measure “blackness,” a half-Caucasian whose formation arose almost entirely from white culture is scarcely connected with the more general African-American experience.