Why Isn’t Barack Obama White?
Definitions of race and the way those definitions are incorporated into people’s individual identities are particularly difficult for people whose biological parents are of different races. President Obama, as you well know, is biracial. Although he sometimes jokingly refers to himself as a “mutt,” he, like so many biracial individuals before him, is typically identified as black. He will forever be known as the first black or African American president, not the first biracial president or the first half-white president. Why?
Since the era of slavery, the United States has adhered to the “one-drop rule” regarding racial identity (F. J. Davis, 1991). The term dates back to a common law in the South that a “single drop of black blood” makes a person black. Sociologists call this a hypodescent rule, meaning that racially mixed people are always assigned the status of the subordinate group (F. J. Davis, 1991). Conversely, mixed-race people in other groups must meet a hereditary threshold in order to claim a particular ethnoracial identity. For instance, some Native Americans carry a document, known as the CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood), that indicates whether they have enough Indian blood to be considered Indian (Hitt, 2005).
Most people in the United States still tend to see race in mutually exclusive pigmentation categories: black, white, red, yellow, brown. Even when faced with ambiguities, people still try to put others into single-color racial groups (Holmes, 2015). But the dramatic growth in multiracial children—the proportion of multiracial babies grew from 1% in 1970 to 10% in 2013—has upset traditional views of racial identity and has led more and more people of mixed racial heritage to fight against the traditional “one drop” thinking and embrace their identity. A recent survey found that 60% of multiracial adults are proud of their mixed race background and feel it makes them more tolerant of other cultures. Only 4% felt it has been a disadvantage (Pew Research Center, 2015c). Interestingly, however, when asked how they identify themselves, only 40% of people with a mixed race background used the term “multiracial.” The rest identified with one race either because they look like one race or were raised as one race. And one in five said they felt pressure from others to identify as a single race.
In the mid to late 1990s, these individuals lobbied Congress and the Bureau of the Census to add a multiracial category to the 2000 census. They argued that such a change would add visibility and legitimacy to a racial identity that had heretofore been ignored. Even before this debate emerged, some scholars had been arguing that a multiracial category might soften the racial lines that divide the country (Stephan & Stephan, 1989). When people blend two or more races and ethnicities within their own bodies, race becomes a less potent social divider, thereby presenting a biological solution to the problem of racial injustice (J. E. White, 1997). Such a sentiment is echoed by this columnist (a black woman married to a white man):
[My son] is the exact shade you’d get if you mixed his father and me up in a paint can—a color I call golden. . . . Perhaps as the number of multiracial Americans continues to grow, there will be a plurality of golden people who are impossible to positively identify as one race or the other. And the rest of us who can be easily categorized will be forced to accept that color does not contribute to the content of one’s character because we won’t know which set of stereotypes to apply to whom. (Kelley, 2009, p. 41)
Not everyone thought such a change to the census form would be a good idea. Many civil rights organizations objected to the inclusion of a multiracial category (R. Farley, 2002). They worried that it would reduce the number of U.S. citizens claiming to belong to long-recognized ethnoracial minority groups, dilute the culture and political power of those groups, and make it more difficult to enforce civil rights laws (Mathews, 1996). Job discrimination lawsuits, affirmative action policies, and federal programs that assist minority businesses or that protect minority communities from environmental hazards all depend on official racial population data from the census. Even today there is concern with those who self-identify as multiracial. As one author recently put it, “mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black—and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look (T. C. Williams, 2012, p. 5).
In the end, the civil rights organizations won. For the 2000 census, the government decided not to add a multiracial category to official forms. Instead, it adopted a policy allowing people, for the first time, to identify themselves on the census form as members of more than one race. According to the 2010 census, 9 million people—or about 3% of the population—identify themselves as belonging to more than one race (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2010).
Some sociologists caution, however, that the Census Bureau’s method of measuring multiracial identity—checking two or more race categories—does not adequately reflect the way people personally experience race. As one journalist recently put it:
As the daughter of an African American father and a white mother, born with olive skin, light eyes and thick, curly hair, I have been aware of a tension between the way the outside world sees me, the way the government sees me…, and the way I see myself (Holmes, 2015, p. 14).
Sociologists David Harris and Jeremiah Sim (2002) examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey containing information on the racial identity of a nationwide sample of more than 11,000 adolescents. They found that the way people racially classify themselves can change from context to context. Almost twice as many adolescents identify themselves as multiracial when they’re interviewed at school as when they’re interviewed at home. Furthermore, only 87.6% expressed the same racial identities across different settings. This research is important because it shows that census data on multiracial identity don’t necessarily account for people who self-identify as multiracial in everyday situations. Sizable numbers of multiracial adolescents change their racial identity—to that of a single race—as they enter adulthood (J. M. Doyle & Kao, 2007). About three in ten adults with a multiracial background say that they have changed the way they describe their race over the years. Some say they once thought of themselves as only one race and now think of themselves as more than one race; others say just the opposite (Pew Research Center, 2015c).
So whether Barack Obama is white, black, or a mutt ultimately depends on how he defines himself. When he filled out his 2010 census form, Obama checked the category “Black, African American or Negro” only, even though others may define him differently. In one poll, 55% of black respondents said President Obama is black and only 34% said he was mixed. Among white respondents, 53% said he was mixed, while 24% identified him as black (Taylor, 2014b).
Racial Superiority and the Dominant Black Athlete
The flip side of the belief in innate racial inferiority is the notion that some racial groups have a biologically rooted superiority in some areas of life. Take, for instance, the widely held belief that some racial groups are biologically predisposed to be more athletically successful than others. All but one male Boston Marathon winner since 1990 has been either a black Kenyan or Ethiopian, and every male world record holder at every standard track distance is an athlete of African descent (Muscat, 2013). Today, black athletes dominate the highest levels of sports such as football, basketball, and track. In the United States, African Americans make up about 13% of the population but constitute over 67% of players in the NFL (National Football League), 77% of players in the NBA (National Basketball Association), and 69% of players in the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association; Lapchick, 2015). Not surprisingly, many people see numbers like these and assume that Blacks must be “naturally” stronger, swifter, and more coordinated than athletes from other races.
In the late 19th century, African Americans were allowed to play professional baseball alongside Whites; boxing, too, was racially integrated. But by the turn of the century, white athletes threatened to quit rather than share the field or the ring with black athletes. Early white heavyweight boxing champions such as John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey refused to fight black opponents. In 1888, baseball team owners tacitly agreed not to sign any more African American players. Their formal exclusion lasted until 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th century to play baseball in the major leagues (Sage, 2001).
The rationale behind excluding African Americans was not based on their inability to compete. On the contrary, it was based on the common belief that Blacks were athletically superior to Whites. Many 18th- and 19th-century scholars believed black slaves were bred by their owners to be physically strong. In recent decades, such ideas have taken on a scientific cast (Entine, 2000). For instance, some biologists argue that black athletes’ muscles are better adapted to hot climates and, therefore, are better at providing energy quickly. Others have cited better power-to-weight ratios and longer Achilles tendons.
Black athletic superiority has become an almost taken-for-granted truth in the sports world. Many athletes have publicly expressed their belief that black success in sports is a consequence of Blacks’ physical superiority to Whites. Hall of Fame basketball star Larry Bird (who is white) once voiced his support for the contention that white players don’t stack up to black players: “[Basketball] is a black man’s game and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American” (“Bird: NBA,” 2004, p. 1). Roger Bannister, a British distance runner who was the first to break the 4:00 mile, once said, “I am prepared to risk political correctness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under-stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages” (“Sports Quiz,” 2007, p. 6).
The problem with the belief in black athletic superiority is that physical strength (a seemingly positive characteristic) is all too often associated with alleged social, moral, or intellectual deficiency. A nationally known sportscaster once commonly referred to powerful black athletes (but never white athletes) as “thoroughbreds,” a term that simultaneously acknowledged their physical prowess and likened them to horses. A while back I heard an ESPN commentator say that Vince Young, a black quarterback who at the time played for the Philadelphia Eagles, was not smart enough to be a starter in the NFL. He said that Young was a gifted and truly phenomenal athlete, but teams need an intelligent leader to be their quarterback. Such comments strengthen the notion that black athletes are athletically superior but deficient in most other ways.
Extending this logic, physically outclassed white athletes must rely on self-discipline, mental acuity, “a tireless work ethic,” “fiery determination,” and an unwavering attention to discipline and “fundamentals” in order to compete. In this way, successful white athletes become especially praiseworthy because they’re able to overcome their “natural” limitations. Such an attitude is reflected in these assessments, the first from a white college basketball player, the second from the former coach of a white player who was being inducted into the Hall of Fame:
I know I’m not going to beat them with my quickness so I need to see exactly how they’re playing me. . . . You have to study the game and watch every little thing to look for some kind of advantage. (quoted in Hutchens, 2002, p. D8)
He was one of the most creative players that I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t the most athletic, but he made up for it by being creative with his footwork and always finding a way to get his shot off. (quoted in Wells, 2011, p. C8)
Notice how lack of quickness and athleticism becomes a virtue as it opens the way to a superior intellect and work ethic.
Conversely, Blacks’ athletic success is often considered a natural by-product of their physical “gifts,”, not the result of hard work or intellect (Brooks, 2009). Occasionally, the famous tennis player Serena Williams expresses dismay over press coverage of her victories, which commonly emphasize her strength in overpowering her opponents rather than the mental preparation and strategizing required to be the best in the world.
Because of these pervasive stereotypes, the white public often tempers its admiration of black athletic superiority with contempt for what some consider an arrogant, undisciplined style. A few years ago, the NFL decided to penalize players who wore uniforms that didn’t conform to tight league regulations, who “trash talked” (taunted opponents), and who choreographed post-touchdown celebrations. These players were almost exclusively black.
Still, the undeniable fact is that Blacks do dominate certain professional sports in the United States. One sociological explanation is that such domination results not from innate physical superiority alone but from a complex set of social conditions that channels a disproportionate number of physically talented Blacks into athletic careers (H. Edwards, 1971). Sport has long been perceived as one of the few avenues of social mobility open to members of certain ethnoracial minorities: baseball for Latinos, football and basketball for African Americans. A national survey found that by a margin of three to one over Whites, Blacks cited financial gain as one of the most important reasons to play sports: “If I am successful at sports, I can make a lot of money” (cited in Price, 1997). Where children from other racial groups are being taught that a good education will pay off, many black children are being taught that a good education may not be enough to overcome the prejudice and discrimination that exist in society. Hence, they are more likely to be encouraged to hone their physical skills and to spend more time perfecting this resource. A high school basketball coach put it this way: “Suburban [white] kids tend to play for the fun of it. Inner-city [black] kids look at basketball as a matter of life or death” (quoted in Price, 1997, p. 35).
Sport has always served as a source of tremendous pride in black and Latino/a communities. Victory is especially sweet because it represents something larger than the athlete herself or himself; it symbolizes the values and aspirations of an entire people (Rhoden, 2006). But highlighting the rags-to-riches stories of a tiny number of successful athletes is a double-edged sword. These high-profile athletes disguise the reality of how little social mobility actually results from sports participation. Only three in one thousand high school basketball players are ever drafted by an NBA team, let alone become a high-paid star (NCAA, 2013). As one sociologist once remarked, “You have a better chance of getting hit with a meteorite in the next 10 years than getting work as a professional athlete” (quoted in Sage, 2001, p. 283).
An overemphasis on athletic accomplishments can also discourage academic and occupational achievement in favor of physical self-expression, thereby harming ethnoracial minority communities in the long run. Only about half of black male Division I athletes graduate from college within six years, compared to 73% of undergraduate students overall (Harper, Williams, & Blackman, 2013). It might be more useful in the long run to focus on the fact that there are 12 times more black lawyers and 15 times more black physicians than there are black professional athletes (Sage, 2001).
Whether or not the emphasis on sports is a good thing and whether or not black athletes do have some anatomical advantage, we must always remember that so-called black athletic superiority is as much a social product as a biological one. Innate talent is never sufficient in itself to explain athletic excellence (D. F. Chambliss, 1989). If we rely simply on innate superiority to explain black success in sports, we overlook the broader social structural context in which everyday life is embedded.
A House Divided—Residential Discrimination
Nearly fifty years ago, the Fair Housing Act was enacted, prohibiting housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. There is some evidence that residential segregation based on race has dropped in recent years (Glaeser & Vigdor, 2012). However, segregation—especially when it comes to Whites—still exists (Crowder, Pais, & South, 2012). For instance, 41% of Blacks live in majority-black neighborhoods and 43% of Latino/as live in majority-Latino/a neighborhoods. However, 90% of Whites live in areas where the majority or residents are also white (Pew Research Center, 2012a). Indeed, the average white person lives in a neighborhood that is 77% white. (National Fair Housing Alliance, 2015).
Residential segregation is not just about people living near others of the same race. Research indicates that for members of ethnoracial minorities it can be associated with a variety of problems, such as lower income, wealth, homeownership, school performance, and educational attainment; less access to healthy food; greater exposure to environmental hazards; and shorter life expectancy (National Fair Housing Alliance, 2015). In fact, among white and black families with similar incomes, white families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with better schools, more day-care options, nicer parks and playgrounds, and more transportation options (Reardon, Fox, & Townsend, 2015). Racially segregated neighborhoods are also the ones where daily humiliations are a way of life: trash is collected less frequently, streets remain unpaved, and water, power, and sewage services are less reliable (Rothstein, 2014).
The National Fair Housing Alliance (2015) conservatively estimates that there are approximately 4 million fair-housing violations every year in the rental market alone. Apart from incidents of landlords discriminating against people with disabilities, most of these cases involve ethnoracial minorities. On occasion, such housing discrimination is personal, the result of individuals’ blatant “we don’t want you people here” attitudes. More commonly, though, it’s institutional, politely and subtly driven by company policies (D. Pearce, 1979). Discriminatory policies include making fewer houses or rental units available to minorities, limiting their access to financial assistance, and steering them toward particular neighborhoods. Because these policies restrict opportunities for people of color, they are much more likely than white families to live in neighborhoods that have a shortage of important commercial, educational, and financial resources (National Fair Housing Alliance, 2015).
One study found that African Americans were twice as likely as Whites, and Latino/as one and a half times as likely as Whites, to be denied a conventional 30-year home loan (cited in Kilborn, 1999). And things seem to be getting worse. In 2001, African Americans, who represent about 13% of the population, received 5% of conventional home loans. By 2012, the figure had dropped to 2%. Latino/a borrowers, roughly 17% of the population, accounted for 8% of conventional loans in 2001, but only 4.5% in 2012 (National Fair Housing Alliance, 2015).
When they do receive home loans, African Americans and Latino/as are significantly more likely than Whites to have to pay substantially higher “subprime” interest rates (cited in Bajaj & Fessenden, 2007; Mui, 2012). Some argue that the discrepancy in rates is justified because borrowers who have poor credit histories are higher risks or because Blacks and Latino/as have fewer assets and therefore have less money for down payments than white borrowers (Blanton, 2007). But the discrepancy is even found between minority and white borrowers with similar credit scores (Bocian, Ernst, & Li, 2006). In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with SunTrust and Bank of America over allegations that these institutions imposed loan fees—what some called a “racial surtax”—on black borrowers; white borrowers with similar credit histories and qualifications were not charged these fees (Mui, 2012).
Racial Guinea Pigs and Medical Mistrust
Racist ideologies and institutional discrimination in the field of medicine understandably lead to mistrust of the system among some groups. For instance, African Americans were once routinely used as subjects, frequently without their consent, for new medical treatments, experimental procedures, and medical demonstrations (H. A. Washington, 2006). During World War II, the U.S. government used black soldiers as experimental subjects to examine the effects of mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. They wanted to see if the effects were different on black skin. They also used Japanese-Americans, who served as proxies for the enemy. White soldiers were used too, but they served as scientific control groups. Experimenters used their reactions to establish what was “normal,” and then compared them to the minority soldiers. All of the experiments were done in secret and weren't recorded on the subjects’ official military records so there is no proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care at all. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests and were threatened with dishonorable discharge and military prison time if they told anyone. So they were not able to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn't tell doctors what had been done to them (Dickerson, 2015).
The most infamous case was the Tuskegee syphilis study. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service initiated a study in Tuskegee, Alabama, to determine the natural course of untreated syphilis in black men. In exchange for their participation, the 400 men—all poor and most illiterate—received free meals, free medical exams, and burial insurance. The men were never told they had syphilis. Instead, they were told that they had “bad blood” and would receive treatment. In reality, they received no treatment. When penicillin became available in the early 1950s—the most effective treatment for syphilis—the men were not treated.
In fact, the Public Health Service actively sought to prevent treatment. Even as the men began to die or to go blind or insane, penicillin was withheld. As soon as the experiment was publicized in 1972, it was stopped. Since then, the federal government has paid out more than $9 million in damages to victims and their families and heirs.
The Tuskegee study was driven not by the outright prejudice of individual medical researchers but by scientific rationale and the dominant, taken-for-granted medical “facts” of the time. Prevailing medical opinion in the 1930s was that Blacks were born with strong sexual appetites and a lack of morality, which made them particularly susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases. This belief, coupled with the equally dominant belief that Blacks wouldn’t seek treatment even if it were available, led the researchers to conclude that this segment of the population would provide the best subjects for their study.
Such cases of medical maltreatment in the name of research are not merely vestiges of the past. For instance, between 1988 and 2001, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York tested potentially dangerous AIDS drugs on HIV-positive African American foster children living in an orphanage affiliated with the university. Because these children had no parents or had parents who were deemed unfit by the courts, these experiments took place without the consent of their biological parents or legal guardians (H. A. Washington, 2006). A few years ago, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore was accused of intentionally exposing black children—some as young as a year old—to high levels of dangerous lead dust in their homes as part of a study exploring the hazards of lead paint. The Institute, which provided no medical treatment for lead poisoning, had assured families that the homes were “lead safe” (T. C. Williams, 2011).
Incidents like these create a pervasive distrust of the health care system among many people of color today, which puts them at even greater disadvantage. Many African Americans—as well as Latino/as and Native Americans—avoid participating in medical research (cited in Alvidrez & Areán, 2002). Furthermore, members of ethnoracial minorities are often skeptical that their participation in clinical studies would be a benefit either to them personally or to their communities. Overall mistrust of the medical field has been cited as one of the reasons African Americans have been slow to come for HIV testing and medical care (Dervarics, 2004), are less likely than Whites to donate organs (Srikameswaran, 2002), and are less likely than Whites to agree to surgery for early stages of lung cancer (Bach, Cramer, Warren, & Begg, 1999)