Obama's Census Identity

The president has officially declared himself to be black--having checked the "black" box on his census form. Barack Obama rejected the option of identifying himself as biracial, which of course he is. His declaration is hardly a surprise. His search for a black identity was the focus of his autobiography, "Dreams of My Father," and surely that search partly explains his long membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Trinity Church, which described itself as "Afrocentric"--an "instrument of Black self-determination."

Appearing on "Late Show with David Letterman" in September 2009, the president said, "First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election." And when the laughter subsided, Mr. Letterman asked, "How long have you been a black man?" The late-night host clearly thought it was hilarious that anyone should have doubted the president was born black, but in fact that assumption rests on the great American racist notion that one drop of black blood makes you black.

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the then-Sen. Obama spoke of "one American family." He said: "There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America." And yet in filling out the census form as he did, the president unequivocally declared himself part of "black America." In effect, he disowned his white mother and, by extension, his maternal grandparents who acted as surrogate parents for much of his boyhood. Mr. Obama had hardly ever laid eyes on his father, but that absent parent shaped his own sense of identity.

Our "change" president has chosen to stick with older and cruder single-race classifications, a holdover from racially ugly times.

Before 2000, Mr. Obama would have had to choose: black or white? But the census form was changed. Black, Asian, American Indian and white are no longer treated as mutually exclusive racial categories. Americans can check multiple boxes. (They can also identify themselves as Hispanic, but that is a separate question, since Hispanics are not considered a racial group.)

Prior to the 2000 revision, the NAACP and other civil-rights groups vigorously lobbied to prevent this change. They worried that the total number of blacks would be diluted if only those who identified themselves as single race were counted. A drop in the official black population would have numerous public-policy ramifications. Drawing the race-conscious legislative districts mandated by the Voting Rights Act, for instance, demands a precise identification of members of minority groups. As it turned out, however, there was no cause for alarm. In a victory for race-think, all individuals who identify themselves as partially black are included in the black total.

On the revised form in 2000, roughly 35 million people identified themselves as "Black or African American alone," or 12.3% of the total U.S. population. But an additional 1.8 million Americans described themselves as partly black and partly of some other race. The number--0.6% of the population--is not large, but undoubtedly will grow. Our "change" president has chosen to stick with older and cruder single-race classifications, a holdover from racially ugly times.

The obvious contrast is between the president and Tiger Woods, who calls himself "Cablinasian--Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian. But Mr. Woods plays the game of golf, not that of race. He has never encouraged his fans to celebrate him as the first great black golfer. Yet "first black president" was always part of candidate Obama's sales pitch. Thus, in at least this one important respect, Mr. Woods--unlike President Obama--is the free man blacks through the centuries of bondage yearned to be.

Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: White House/Pete Souza

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