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Barack Obama and the Mixed-Race Question Ralina L. Joseph Assistant Professor Department of Communication University of Washington Roadmap Overview of Obama and the mixed-race question Important dates in African American history

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Barack Obama and the Mixed-Race Question

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Barack obama and the mixed race question l.jpg

Barack Obama and the Mixed-Race Question

Ralina L. Joseph

Assistant Professor

Department of Communication

University of Washington

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  • Overview of Obama and the mixed-race question

  • Important dates in African American history

  • Background on how the “mulatto” represented in US scholarship and culture

  • Predictions and discussion

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Why look at black/white mixing?

  • Barometer of race relations in US

  • Fears of and desire for the product of race mixing

  • Historically used as justification for slavery, immigration legislation

  • Our first viable presidential candidate of color is mixed black and white

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Obama as a symbol

  • What does it mean that Obama is important in what he represents?

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  • “At heart the presidential election is a contest over whom we want to represent not just our nation but our idea of nationhood and who we are as a people. As a result, campaigns are in part a conversation about identity and whom the majority of voters will identify with. Of course, our conception of the ideal American to represent us is influenced by our own particular sense of identity”

  • Gregory Rodriguez, LA Times 12-24-07

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How has Obama been described?

  • Black

  • African American

  • Kenyan father, white mother

  • Biracial

  • Mixed-race

  • Post-racial

  • Colorblind

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How does he describe himself?

  • 2004 DNC speech (start 1 min)

  • 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech (start 2:45)

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Note on the term “mulatto”

  • OED (Spanish and Portuguese etymology)

  • animalism: “mulatto young mule, hence one of mixed race”

  • sickness like “mulatto jack” meaning “a term for yellow fever”

  • “mulatto complexion”: unfortunately “tawny” in color

  • Antiquated term still in limited circulation

  • Is NOT considered a neutral descriptor

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Anti-Miscegenation Laws

  • Jamestown: “mulattoes” – “spurious issue” and “abominable mixture”

  • First anti-miscegenation laws in VA and MD in 1660s

  • First the laws criminalized marriages b/t whites and black indentured servants and slaves

  • then in 1690s b/t all whites and blacks, slave, free, or indentured. Based on RACE not servitude.

  • Justifications: religion, eugenics, economics

  • All states except CT, NH, NY, NJ, VT, DC, WI, MN, HI, AL

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Loving V. Virginia, 1967

  • Ruled down centuries of anti-miscegenation laws

  • Cited civil rights advances to argue that “antimiscegenation laws unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race in violation of equal protection and that they interfered with the fundamental right to marry under the due process clause”

  • Sixteen states had on books at time

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One drop rule/hypodescent

  • Anyone with any amount of black blood is considered black

  • Aided chattel slavery (reproduction of more slaves), Jim Crow (clarification of segregation), and consolidation of white power and privilege

  • Can be seen as a positive thing because helped draw strength in numbers for Black Americans

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1896, Plessy v. Ferguson

  • Homer Plessy (an “octoroon” could not ride in white railway car)

  • Separate but equal

  • One drop rule of hypodescent

  • Ratification of spatial segregation  legal enforcement of Jim Crow laws

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1954, Brown v. Board of Education

  • "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal"

  • Actual desegregation occurred through Civil Rights Act of 1964 (title II)

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Representation of the Tragic Mulatto

  • Hypersexual

  • Desirable

  • Overly emotional

  • Largely female (or feminized)

  • Irrational

  • Cunning

  • Prone to insanity

  • Seen throughout popular culture: some date to Lydia Marie Child’s novels The Quadroons (1842) and Slavery’s Pleasant Homes (1843)

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He’s just too pretty…

  • “Obama is the Fred Astaire of politics – graceful and elegant, with a surface so pleasing to the eye that it seems mistaken, even greedy, to demand depth. No one, however, would have given Astaire control of nuclear weapons, so attention must be paid to Obama’s political as well as aesthetic qualities”

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Eugenics, scientific racism, and the mulatto

  • Mulattoes used to discern biological distance or proximity between blacks and whites

  • Civil war anthropometric studies (of virtually every body part): result that blacks inferior to whites and mulattoes inferior to both “parent” groups

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Hybrid degeneracy theory

  • “mulattoes – like mules – tend to be barren…[as]…no species of animals in the natural world was known to have developed from the union of two separate species”

  • Part of biological determinism – different races are different species

  • Greatest popularity from late 1800s until around 1910

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Edward Reuter, The Mulatto in the United States (1918)

  • “Psychologically the mulatto is an unstable type [because] between these two groups, one admiring and the other despising, stand the mixed bloods…They are uncertain of their own worth; conscious of their superiority to the native they are nowhere sure of their equality with the superior group.”

  • “narrative of tragedy”: “[mulattos] envy the white, aspire to equality with them, and are embittered when the realization of such ambition is denied them. They are a dissatisfied and an unhappy group.”

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Everett Stonequist, The Marginal Man (1937)

  • “mixed blood’s” liminal position, being “torn between two courses of action,” results in a psychological dysfunction with a “nervous strain,” self-absorption, and hypersensitivity because of “racial disharmony,” “clash of blood” and an “unstable genetic constitution.”

  • Note the biological, and hence unchangeable, nature of this description.

  • Park celebrated marginal man as “modern” creation whose cosmopolitan nature allowed him to move between identity categories

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Barack Obama, “The Marginal Man”

  • “Barak Obama, who, as he made sure to tell us in the opening words of his famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, is half-Kenyan and half-white, has cornered the market on Ethnic Electricity”

  • “Many have bought “Dreams,” but, despite Mr. Obama’s graceful prose style, few have finished it because the Preppie from Paradise’s lifelong fixation with proving himself ‘black enough’ makes his tale tediously self-obsessed”

  • Steve Sailer, The Washington Times, 12-25-07:

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Theories of Multiracial Exceptionalism

  • Proximity to whiteness gives value

  • Race mixture = progress

  • Novelist Charles Chestnutt (“The Future American,” House Behind the Cedars, 1900)

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Obama and Multiracial Exceptionalism

  • “Unlike Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama openly suggests that his background – both as the son of parents of different races and as a person who spent part of his childhood in Muslim-dominated Indonesia – would enable him to appeal to other nations on different terms…He has said he would cite his years in Indonesia as a way to gain credibility with leaders of Muslim countries, and would point to his African grandmother to create a bridge to the Third World.”

  • Peter Canellos, Boston Globe, 12-25-07

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U.S. Census

  • First U.S. Census taken in 1790

  • Taken every 10 yrs; 22 taken

  • Enumerate population for congressional seats, government programs

  • Highly political, always contested

  • Census categories on race and ethnicity shift virtually every census

  • Census 2000:

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EX: Changing Census Categories for “Black” individuals

  • 1790: Slave (3/5 of a person)

  • 1850: Black, Mulatto

  • 1890: Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon

  • 1900: Negro

  • 1910: Black, Mulatto

  • 1930: Negro

  • 2000: Check All That Apply

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In the 1980s, civil rights gains spurred a conservative backlash

  • mixed-race bodies began to be celebrated and politically recognized

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Multiracial Category (to Check all that apply): Census 2000

  • “What does race mean when so many Americans cannot fill out their census forms because they’re an amalgam of races?”

  • Newt Gingrich, May 21, 1997

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  • “The multiracial category would serve civic health by undermining the obsession with race and ethnicity that fuels identity politics.”

  • George Will, October 12, 1997

  • George Will December 30, 2007:

  • “Obama’s candidacy fascinates because he represents racial autonomy: He has chosen his racial identity but chosen not to make it matter much.”

  • “Obama…is a product of America’s mainstream in which he enjoys unlimited opportunities. He is a model of blacks’ possibilities when they are emancipated from ideologies of blackness”

  • “Obama seems to understand America’s race fatigue”

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2.4% of U.S. Pop “Check All”

  • Twice as many children under 18

  • Hawaii (21%), OK (5%), CA (5%)

  • 63 combinations

  • White and some other race (32%)

  • White and American Indian (16%)

  • White and Asian (13%)

  • White and Black (12%)

  • Black and some other race (6%)

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So what about Obama?

  • “Obama Phenomenon”

  • “no candidate in either party can move an audience like he can” (Bob Herbert, NYT 1-5-08)

  • Obama lacks the “baggage” of the Clinton old guard – but there’s a particular type of racialization at play there.

  • Obama doesn’t have the race baggage of African American candidates of the past

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Low angle shots

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Working against: Bradley Effect

  • Douglas Wilder's gubernatorial campaign, in 1989, where he was +9 but only won by one

  • Harold Washington's 1983 mayoral contest in Chicago: +14, won by 4

  • David Dinkins's 1989 New York campaign: +18, won by 2

  • Harvey Gantt's 1990 senatorial campaign: +6, lost by 6

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Working against: history

  • Less than 4 percent of nation’s elected officials are black (90 percent of them represent predominantly black or predominantly black-and-Hispanic constituencies)

  • Three black U.S. senators and two black governors have been elected since Reconstruction

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