Forget Policy—Americans Can't Even Agree on Whether Obama Is Black

A Pew Research Center study finds that whites and Latinos identify the commander-in-chief as 'mixed race.'

President Barack Obama. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Apr 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If you thought the United States had achieved the significant historic milestone of electing its first African American president, think again. According to Next America, a just-released Pew Research Center report, only a little over one-fourth of Americans believe Obama is black.

Obama self-identifies as black—he checked the “black, negro, African American” box on the 2010 U.S. Census—and has jokingly identified himself as a mutt too. But when asked if Obama is black or mixed race, 27 percent of Americans say that he’s black, and 52 percent say he’s mixed race.

When the data is broken out according to racial groups, whites and Hispanics respond similarly. Of whites, 24 percent say Obama is black, and 53 percent say he is mixed race. As for Hispanics, 23 percent say he’s black, and 61 percent say he’s mixed race. Asians weren’t asked what they thought. (What’s up with that, Pew?)

The question—Is Obama black or mixed race?—is phrased oddly. A person can be both. And where is Pew's “Is Obama black or mixed race or white” option? But this study is simply the latest example of America’s mass confusion over Obama’s identity.

Throughout the 2008 and 2012 election seasons, every time the media asked the proverbial "Is America ready for a black president?" (or a two-term black president) question, someone would point out that Obama was not black because his mother was white. That was news to mixed race folks, who, like me—and Obama—grew up under the “one drop rule.”

Once Africans came to the New World and started having babies with Europeans, America developed the rule that one drop of black blood makes you black. You could be an octoroon—someone with one great-grandparent with African ancestry—and look white, but you were identified as black.

Interestingly enough, the majority of black folks (55 percent) identify Obama as black. Only 34 percent say Obama is mixed race. That identification is almost certainly due to the way racial identification has historically worked in America. And there is nothing wrong with identifying as black—it's something to be proud of and claim, just as you'd claim Irish or Italian heritage.

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, writer and star of One Drop of Love (Ben Affleck, Chay Carter, and Matt Damon are coproducers), a multimedia show that explores how a father and a daughter develop their racial identities, says she finds it “problematic to allow anyone other than self to identify people as a 'race.' ”

Now we get boxes on the U.S. Census survey, but, says Cox DiGiovanni, “until 1970 the race question on the Census was answered through observation by the Census taker.” That means if you looked “black,” you were identified by the Census taker as black—or “negro,” as African Americans were called then.

The Pew question also seems to miss that although Americans continue to try to classify the president, neither he nor any other individual with parents from two racial or ethnic backgrounds is required to prove or explain how he or she self-identifies. Dr. Maria P.P. Root's "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” asserts that a mixed-race person has the right "to identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify."

The Pew report wonders whether, given that greater numbers of Americans are crossing racial and ethnic lines and intermarriage is more common, our racial categories will make sense in 2050. Well, the perception of Obama being mixed race instead of “just” black hasn’t stopped people from creating racist cartoons depicting him as ape-like or eating watermelon and fried chicken—stereotypes typically reserved for blacks.

However people perceive Obama, what matters most is whether they’re changing the race-based attitudes and actions they have toward him and other Americans who are recognizably of African descent. Although some Americans may say that Obama's election, reelection, and identification as mixed race are all signs of racial progress, racism obviously hasn’t disappeared. We need only look to stop-and-frisk policing and the stand-your-ground murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis for proof.