Barack Obama And The One Drop Rule

Barack Obama has been on my mind.

Two days ago, someone called to ask me if I'd like to donate to his campaign. They were really friendly and understanding when I told them that I don't contribute to political campaigns. "Oh that's alright," the canvasser replied. "The most important thing is that you go out there and vote on election day." That nice comment, made without harassing me further about donating, put a smile on my face. Aww, Barack hired nice people to call and ask for money.

Next, I came across the most recent Newsweek. Guess who's on the cover? Yes, it's Barack. I'm not a fan of that picture, but I suppose that's totally irrelevant to the topic at hand.

In any case, when I see the words "Black & White" in huge type next to his face, I'm immediately thinking that Newsweek is going to go where most news publications refuse to. Where might that be? Well, into a discussion on how it is that we as a country have historically decided that someone who's half black AND also half white is black.

Barack's daddy was black and his mom's white and from Kansas. We all know that fact about him (or you should by now) but we don't ever get into just why it is that despite being half white, Barack and tons of other folks "come to terms" with our racial system and check the black box. I figured this article was finally going to be a beginning of the discussion about America's one drop rule and the fascinating math that takes place because of it. If you aren't familiar with this math, it works this way:

"black" parent + "white" parent = black child
1/2 black and 1/2 white parent + white parent = black child
1/4 black and 3/4 white parent + white parent = black child

And on and on and on.

This journalistic bravery seemed much more likely once I viewed the article's inside title and subtitle: "Across the Divide - How Barack Obama is shaking up old assumptions about what it means to be black and white in America."

You see how I set myself up for disappointment, right? I guess I took all the words on the cover and in the titles much too literally. Or else I did some selective interpretation. Instead of discussing the one drop rule, this article was about...well, I'll sum it up for you:

1) Black people aren't feelin' Barack. Despite his deciding that he's black, other black people aren't convinced Barack is black enough. And you know, if his own don't like him, there's trouble in paradise, right?

What's the problem with his blackness? Well, some black folks think Barack acts like a sellout Uncle Tom, even if they understand that he has to do it so that the Massa and the Missus don't get scared off. After all, black folks nationally are just gonna lay low till he gets elected and then the revolution is on and poppin'!

Oh yeah, he's uppity because he went to some Ivy League schools. And he refused to wear a "Stop Snitchin'" t-shirt and some grillz.

Ok, just kidding about the shirt and grillz, but come on, that's such a boring line of questioning.

What else did Newsweek tell us about Barack?

2) He's black but some white people like him. Isn't that just magnanimous of them?

Why do they like him?

Well, 'cause he did stuff for them, like get them jobs. And we're talking white people in mostly racist towns in southern Illinois. And if those former racists are ready to elect a black man, then by golly, what's holding the rest of the country back?

Could these white folks that Newsweek interviewed possibly be more comfortable with Barack since he is half white, and thus, lighter skinned? I mean, if Barack looked like Chamillionaire, would 59% of Americans say they're ready to elect a black president?

We'll never know the answer to that question. At least not if we stick to reading this article. Oh, and by the way, in case the reader didn't get it with the first few examples, before the article ended, the authors decided to share yet another example of how black folks aren't so sure Barack is black enough.

I'm infinitely disappointed in this Newsweek article.

How about someone ask Barack how much his racial identity's been influenced by the one drop rule? Maybe someone can ask Barack where he thinks the one drop rule intersects with that national conversation on race we're supposed to be having with each other. Maybe that would open the door to the discussion on why it was that a one drop rule got instituted in the first place and what role it plays in keeping our racial sicknesses going.

At least make the story more interesting and ask black people if it makes a difference to them that he's married to a black woman, and not to a white woman. In my informal polling, that does make a difference, and it's an interesting discussion as to why it makes a difference.

But, Newsweek didn't want to talk about that either.

What a missed opportunity.


Anonymous said…
I guess I feel like your being too hard on Newsweek. Quite honestly, we as blacks have hang ups that whites are really oblivious about or they are aware but don't understand. There is a growing divide in this country between the educated blacks and the ghetto blacks...the ones whose parents who took the time to provide their children with book and home training and the parents who were kids when they had their kids and whose own parents raised their children.
I'm not going to expect Newsweek to give a damn about blacks hang ups about race...I mean really why do blacks rally around Jesse Jackson more than they rally around Barack Obama? Could it be that the "old black establishment" like Urban League, NAACP, Rainbow Push Coalition and others are so corrupt and out of touch with current America, and having a black man like Barack come out and stand out in the forefront intimidating? Lets look at that as a question, who gives a damn about the one drop rule??!!
Miz JJ said…
I have always followed the "You are as black as you look" rule. If you look like a black person then you will be considered black. You can be part chinese, white, asian, latino whatever, but society is going to treat you like a black person. Barack (although light skinned) looks like a black man. He is half-white, but I am sure that being half-white did not get him any breaks in life. I do not deny the fact that he is an attractive fair skinned man probably helps him be accepted.
velvet said…
My kids are half-Chinese and they have the "convenient" label of Eurasian. It's a shame that they have to have a label at all.

Which box are they going to have to check when they get to the "Race: check one" box on an application?

I wish Barack luck on election day.
none said…
When delving into the subject of culture, "race" and ethnicity, the bigotry on both sides of the fence is pretty ugly.

There isn't much to be said about Newsweek's article, it was a little gutsy to address the subject, but overall what was addressed is totally meaningless in it's impact.

Colin Powell could have been president if he had run several years back probably still could.

Barack? Probably not, he doesn't have the street cred or the blessing of the white bread.
Liz Dwyer said…
I don't know if I'm being too hard on Newsweek. After all, they're a national news publication, so they should have somebody on staff who can inform them of what's what in communities of color across the country. And if they don't have someone, they can hire me! Seriously, I can't give them a pass because their "information" shapes the way millions of people think about issues. They should care about black people's hang ups about race...and they should explore how and why black people aren't the only ones with these hang ups.

The words "educated" and "ghetto" carry all sorts of connotations that can be broadly brushstroked over people. Educated = good and ghetto = bad. (ahem, Scooter Libby = Educated) I don't believe that black folks who live in poverty are only there because they had teenage parents and didn't give them proper home training. That just too easily absolves our American way of life from any kind of historical or situational responsibility.

I think the one drop rule is one of the basic roots of our racial ideology so it's important to take a look at it. That said, I do wish Newsweek would look at the issue of black leadership, but I don't know many folks who are busy rallying around Jesse Jackson. Maybe because it's California. You know we're "different" out here!

Miz JJ,
I think that's absolutely true and why I completely get that he identifies as black. It's part of why I identify as black as well even though I'm just as proud of the Irish side of me. I just wish there was more discussion nationally about why, if we visually perceive someone as being black do we then treat them in certain ways. Big wish, right?

I always wonder who thinks up terms like "Eurasian". Interestingly enough, My husband was listening to NPR this morning and said were talking about how here in California, if you are 1/2 black and white, you have the option of checking "biracial" but if you are 1/2 Latino and 1/2 white, you have to check Latino. So states even approach this in different ways. I really dislike those boxes. I wish people could just check all that apply if they wanted to. And yeah, I wish Barack luck too. I think he's got a good heart.

I agree, there are prejudices on both sides, things to work on and change on both sides. Neither side is absolved from the responsibility of solving our racial issues.

I do wonder if the Newsweek article is truly meaningless in it's impact. It's already had an impact on this why my stomach hurts so much today?

I loved Colin Powell and just felt like he always looked frustrated, like he wasn't allowed to be true to himself. Who knows about Barack. I feel like I need a magic 8 ball or something to help me out.
I have never understood the one-drop rule either, and as we are increasingly a nation of mixed-blood human beings, I believe we are long overdue to drop the whole racial identity as it is usually inaccurate AND shouldn't matter.

By that, I don't suggest that family traditions that are culturally based should disappear, as that would make for much less rich lifestyles. But having to be sorted like socks in the laundry is absurd; then, to be treated better or worse because of which bin we end up in is obscene and always has been.

I have always refused to check any box that states my race. I read all the options and then turn the page. It doesn't matter to me that this question is asked for "statistical purposes." I find it irrelevant, and I refuse to pander to a mentality that considers it important for any reason.

We should be asking ourselves why it has taken so many centuries for a black man to be able to run for President, as that is the most disgraceful part of all.
P.S. Newsweek could have found a better picture of Obama - he's a good-looking guy and that may be the only photo in existence in which he doesn't look it.

I wonder what their real agenda is.
Anonymous said…
HISF- are you thinking about OJ? Hearing reverbs?

Barack Obama. Just like saying it.

As to the skewed reception between Barack and -what is his name...Chamelonnaire? Did I get that right?- Liz, do you really think White folk see that much difference in skin tone between the two?

I used to think the nuances in the shading of our skin was something clearly evident and notable to to others as it is to us, but found out through conversation that they don't really look at us enough to discern shading distinctions. Black is Black is Black, I learned through these conversations.

Was I pissed at hearing this? Hell yes. Why? Because it means they do not look at us. Their radar goes up, the alarm sounds, and it is fade to red...panic mode or something. (Okay, even when a White's reaction is not so dire, this revelation came as an electric shock to my system. I like some White folk, and don't specifically dislike millions of others.)

Homeys could truly be brothers. And not 'bruhs, either. Brothers.
Mamita Umita said…
My daughter is a quarter black, besides being Filipino, Persian, and Caucasian. When you look at my daughter you do not SEE black. When I HAD to label her in the Chicago Public School system (they do not have an other or more then one race box),after much deliberation I checked African American. My reasoning being that I wanted my daughter and her school to know she is black - and this is something she needs to be proud of and needs to be honored even though she might not look it.
Anonymous said…

"I mean, if Barack looked like Chamillionaire, would 59% of Americans say they're ready to elect a black president?"

I don't know about that, but if he made music like Chamillionaire I defeinately WOULDN'T vote for him

Jameil said…
well... they may not have had a whole lot (or any) black input in that article. i def. don't think you were being too hard on newsweek. that's what you're supposed to expect from your media outlets. you should let them know. closed mouths don't get fed. if you don't tell your media outlets why you do not appreciate their coverage, they won't know. people call for all kinds of foolishness (there was a woman who was PISSED b/c she didn't think we told her enough about when the barbaro special was on. she threatened my job... over a dead horse...). newsweek wants your dollar just like ebony does. television stations want your viewership because it eventually leads to dollars. but off of that tangent, most white people don't know how to discuss a black issue like the one drop rule.

I'm not sure I understand your question, but I don't see any resemblance between OJ and Barack Obama. It's true that OJ was also a handsome man once, but that's hard to see now.

Ugly is as ugly does. (And yes, I do believe he did it, and it makes me sad. He was a hero to my son's entire generation of little boys once.)
Anonymous said…
One of my buddies from law school is half black and half asian. One day he was all bummed out. "What's wrong dude?" I asked. It turned out he'd been to the admissions office and found out that the law school had used him to fill two minority quota points, because he'd checked both the "black" box and "asian" box on his application. It's so perverse it makes my skin crawl.
epikles said…
You might be expecting too much from NewsWeak. Their policy seems to be to make the news fit their pre-determined narratives. I wouldn't be surprised if you researched their history of African-American stories and found they all revolve around some poll differences where blacks think A and whites think B. Seems to be their whole story (see? we ARE different after all!)

It's not just on this matter. They do it everywhere. In this week's "war on terror" event (, the waco-like siege in Islamabad, Pakistan, you would not know any of the reality of the situation if you relied on Newsweek alone. They talk about "women and children being used as human shields" and only mention in passing that many of the "militants" in this cult ARE women, that far from being passive hostages, most of the women in that school (which is a woman's school) were there to be trained in jihad. They love their narrative of women as victims and don't even bother exploring the reality of these particular women, this actual event, the reality of what occurred. Nope, they're perfectly happy with their own little version of events.

If you look for Newsweek on the web, you find it under MSNBC. We have only a few mass media outlets in this country, and they all tell the same narratives over and over: Cut and run, Stay the Course, Axis of evil, Appeasement, Clash of Civilizations, etc... For them, history doesn't even happen. Only cliches do, which, getting back to the beginning, is all they have to say about Obama. It kind of makes you wish he'd been adopted and that nobody knew who his birth father or mother was. What would they be saying then?
Liz Dwyer said…
I'm glad it's not just me that thinks that picture doesn't do him justice. I couldn't figure out if they were trying to make him look unattractive on purpose.

Kim! I don't know if people see a difference between him and Barack. Maybe it is a matter of you just see one group of folks and think they all look alike unless you make a conscious decision to recognize them as human beings. I definitely learned that in China when I lived there. After awhile, I could tell who was Han Chinese and who wasn't. My dad has a friend from Ireland that says he could walk down a street and tell who was Protestant and who was Catholic. But of course, we couldn't. Hmm.

I think that's really cool that you have her checking the black box. Most parents would prefer to check anything but black if they had the opportunity to do so. Of course, that's why you are you. You are such a good example in this confused world.

You mean you haven't heard Obama's rap album? HAH! That would be hilarious. I heard it's a take on "Ridin' Dirty!" Oh, I'm laughing too hard here. I bet Obama can "Pop, Lock and Drop It" too! Ok, I'll stop before I choke myself.

Over Barbaro? See, that's when you KNOW folks have waay too much time on their hands. That's crazy! It's true, most white folks probably don't know but they should. I think it's their issue too. They never know, that great grandma could have been passing!

I think OJ did it too. Such a tragedy. I'm grateful I missed the whole trial because I was in China.

Oh that's sick. I know of several places that do that kind of thing. It's much more common than we think it is.

How true, how true. It's sad how limited our access to media can be...which is one of the reasons I'm so grateful that there are other bloggers to give voice to many of the stories (Jena Six, for example).
Sundry said…
How about we nominate Djimon Hounsou instead of Chillionaire? I mean, nobody's gonna vote for Kid Rock either. ;)

I may have been just as shocked as Kim was when she had her revelation when I first read about the "brown paper bag" distinction the in my African American Lit class in college. Huh?

One might argue that the variations of skin tone shouldn't matter to anyone of any skin tone; not because people aren't being seen as individual humans, but for the exact opposite reason. One's humanity is certainly not determined by one's skin tone. Is that _supposed_ to matter?

I mean, I might be able to see features or skin tones that suggest an European-American's heritage is Irish, or German or Italian or Jewish or Slavic. Should that make a difference in how I approach the person? These different heritages mean a lot to some people and not much to others, though we are aware of them on some level. It doesn't sound like variations white skin tones make much difference to Kim.

My very mixed, but predominantly German heritage doesn't make me a Nazi. My French surname doesn't make me an enemy of the state just because of the current administration's pouting fury about France's lack of support of the war. (Well, there are other reasons I'm extremely anti-Bush, but my surname doesn't determine that any more than my skin tone.)

I feel that have more in common with people who grew up in rural communities, no matter where in the country they were or what their skin tone is, than I do with people who grew up in suburbs or cities.

This is a big, scary discussion, Liz. I'm seriously frightened about posting this. I am trying to learn how things look from a variety of perspectives (even my own) and this is one of the places I come to do that.
Anonymous said…
I like the fact that Newsweek pointed out that Cornell West started out "dissin" Barack but after talking with him ended up volunteering his time on the campaign trail. Maybe if one of the most dynamic black professor's out there steps up and says Barack is black enough, every one else will too.
Anonymous said…
Cyndee...I want to crack on the Cornell West comment, adding something in there to jibe with a comment on Rap, but I just can't today. (I didn't read the article, but I can fully appreciate what felt like a genuine change in tone to you.)

HISF- (didn't see this 'til just now): My comment was intended to inquire about any reverb you were getting from the God-awful cover of OJ on one of the major weeklies years ago. (This cover, in case you are unfamiliar, made people wildly upset for its implications at a heinous nature - as suggested by the light and shadow in the photo - that played on the history of depictions of Black men as murderous animals.)

(I'm feelin' like Kiz right about now. )
Liz Dwyer said…
I'm so glad you posted your comment. I don't want anyone to feel afraid to post their comments, ever. But can I tell you that I sometimes feel that way when I post the things I do? I imagine so many people are thinking, "Who cares about the stupid one drop rule? Liz must be smoking something!" But it's important to me and I think it spotlights what's so very wrong in our nation when we talk about this social construct called race. I am surely wrong about many of the things I think about race in America, but I know I have to have the courage to put it out there, warts and all.

I 100% agree that our skin tone does not decree our humanity and having one white parent and one black, being married all these years, they clearly have more in common than skin color. My husband and I are two very different colors, he was one of the few black men I ever dated...his blackness wasn't what interested me in him though.

I've been listening to old Police records all day...remember the one that goes "We are spirits in a material world"? I always loved that song because how true, how true. We are spiritual beings, even though we tend to forget it and focus overly so on the physical.

You also make me think about how it is that so many of the groups that are now considered "white", the Irish, Italian, folks from Eastern Europe, were not considered white when they first came to the States. Folks love them some Notre Dame football now and get drunk on St. Patrick's day, but folks called the Irish all sorts of racist names. But that's another topic for another day.

Kid Rock for President though...he does clean up sort of nice and we clearly, can't get much worse...or can we?? :)

I'm so proud of you big sis...figuring out the comments thing. Next thing, you'll have your own blog! Ok, I'll give it to them that they pointed out that West is now an Obama fan...but I watched the State of Black America and West went on and on, saying, "I am not impressed." Then there was Julia Hare's, "All skin is not kin" and all that. Is Cornell publically speaking out for Barack now like he did on that stage? Some folks might say that having the story told in Newsweek makes up for the initial diss. I hope it does. It just annoys me that they questioned his blackness, his "downness" in the first place. And you and I both know why they did it because that kind of stuff has happened to both of us our whole lives.

I totally missed that OJ cover because I was out of the country, but who in the world is Kiz?
Anonymous said…
[In most deranged, and elongated enunciation of the word]: Giiiirrrrrllllll.....

Kiz was my sloppy attempt to make a name from Liz+Kim (as I'd begun responding to responses after I'd responded to a comment on your blog/again!)

Now that those words are out of my mouth...I'll say goodnight.
Sundry said…
Liz, Liz... I was thinking about this conversation and trying to describe it to my husband last night as we took a hike. He is about 17 years older than me and when he came back from Vietnam, he joined the anti-war movement by becoming part of a street theater troupe that did anti-war, feminist and civil rights shows at demonstrations, etc. It's a big part of the reason I was drawn to him.

I SOOO want to see your byline on articles in national publications, talking about this stuff. You are very thoughtful and thought provoking, and I want you to have a bigger audience. If there's anything I can do to support you taking your work to print, please give me a shout (or a whisper).
Liz Dwyer said…
You are too funny! Yesterday I was going to write that "Kiz" sounded like it should be the name of my cousin or something. :) Anyway, please feel free to respond to comments left here. I'd love for more dialogue to continue amongst the folks that read this blog, even when I'm not around to respond to comments as quickly as I'd like. I think we can all use more dialogue.

Wow, your husband must have some stories to tell and must have such an insight into the human condition, and all the agony and joy that's possible in this earthly existence. I am sure he sees that in you as well. You know, you are really kind to say that my musings need to be in a national publication. I would love get more people thinking and talking and solving the issues that we all seem to want to solve. Thanks for offering to help take what I do to print. A friend of mine thinks I should write a non-fiction book or go to journalism school, thinks I'm too hung up on the fiction thing and that I should put my novel on the backburner and pursue writing full time for publications. I don't know about that but it does intrigue me!
Kim (and LIZ,)

I don't remember the OJ cover, but I wonder why Newsweek is featuring this unflattering photograph of Obama that resembles my first husband. (Not good.)

That kind of insidious editorializing disgusts me. It's not that he looks less handsome than usual, but that he looks about as trustworthy as Nixon, and we all know that's not true.

I wonder if the Clintons have some influence there.
Anonymous said…
"...he looks about as trustworthy as Nixon..."

That is so. not. good.

Really. Which is why I wonder what they're up to at Newsweek.

He normally looks so angelic that the only question that comes to mind is if he's really old enough to run for President.

I don't usually get political in public, but he's got my vote because he is intelligent and moral, qualities that have been treacherously lacking from that office for a very long time.

It doesn't hurt that he's also charming and handsome and has a beautiful family, but he seems to embody the kind of idealism, dignity and courage that our country desperately needs to move forward from the state it's in now.
Liz Dwyer said…
HISF & Kim
You're making me think that my instincts about that being the worst picture of him that I've ever seen are not far off. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a little editorializing. Or maybe someone on his staff suggested that he try to make himself look less attractive.

He does look less trustworthy and it's not a good look for him. Wouldn't be surprised if there was a little editorializing going on.

I agree, he seems like such a good man, a good heart. Sometimes I worry that he'll get eaten alive by the evil folks in DC.
Anonymous said…
I think it's a shame that in this day and age, people still operate by this illogical and racist rule.

Personally, I do not look upon Biracial people as being Black.

It's even crazier that people who are no more than '1/4' Black are expected to define themselves as AA.

Only in America!

I could care less what society dictates. That rule isn't flying with me.

Barack's Black ancestry is of no more importance than his White ancestry.

I respect people's right to define themselves as they please. But it doesn't mean that I will agree with it.

Interesting post might I add. :)
Liz Dwyer said…
The Princess,
You make me think about how I remember a cover of Ebony back in the day with Prince and a few other folks. It posed the question, "Who's Black?" to readers.

Now, African-Americans aren't Africans so some would say that being African-American/black American is to in fact have heritage that is both black plus "other", whatever that "other" may be. Our questions of identity are not as simple as we'd like them to be because we have all these social/racial/psychological issues as a society.

I think Barack's blackness and his whiteness both matter in some ways, but it's more the content of his character that we should all be concerned about, n'est-ce pas? (Love the name btw!)
Anonymous said…
Hi Liz,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. ;)

1. 70% of AA's are of 9-17% non Black ancestry (I've read this in a few studies. Sorry I can't recall them!)They are primarily of West African ancestry.

So yes they are mostly African genetically, but not culturally.

I know this bothers alot of Blacks, especially the type who are on the 'I'm mixed' bandwagon due to having a great grandfather who was 2.5% Chinese. lol! :)

2. I understand that forming an identity in the society we live in isn't always plain-sailing.

But observing a rule that was founded on the premise that 'one drop of Black blood taints Whiteness' further reinforces the supremacist attitude that we proclaim to hate.

Basically, we're agreeing that Black is dirty and White is pure.

I don't see the need for the rule. And I support the efforts and ideology of those who want to be recognised for ALL that they are, rather than half.

I think people are really fooling themselves if they think that most whites look at Biracials and Blacks the same.

Many times I have heard remarks from non-Blacks that Biracial people (particularly the women) are better looking than Blacks with nicer features.

Or they're placed on a pedestal for having the 'best of both worlds'.

They are not one and the same, and I choose not to live in denial.

I'm secure in my Blackness and I do not need a half-Asian/White/Indian person passing herself of as 'Black' to validate me like so many other Blacks do.

Black is Black. Biracial is Biracial. The sooner people realise this and get over their ignorance, the better.

(Thank u. I thought my username was quite fitting.)
Anonymous said…
Sorry for the bad grammar. I'm sort of in a rush!

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