Dr. Boyce: Sorry Morgan, Obama Can Be Black If That’s What He Wants to Be
by Dr. Boyce Watkins, KultureKritic.com
This week, Morgan Freeman made an interesting comment about President Barack Obama. Freeman seems to believe that Obama is NOT the first black president. Citing his white mother and his being raised by white grandparents, Freeman claims that Obama is the first mixed-race president, not the first black one.
Freeman’s remarks are peculiar, given that I’ve always known him to be a strong supporter of President Obama. His statement seems almost critical of the president, which is a no-no in an era where any black voices of dissent are instantly squashed by the likes of Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry. Non-believers in King Obama are quickly labeled outcasts and sellouts for even asking hard questions or calling for a closer analysis of Obama Administration policies – any attempts to assault the right to think freely among African American people have no place in a free Democratic society.
Freeman also may have inadvertently re-opened the “Is he black enough?” debate that once wasted much of our time during the 2008 presidential campaign. If President Obama chooses to call himself black, he has as much a right to do so as any of us. The truth is that most of us don’t have pure African blood after having our Great Great Great grandmothers victimized by “massa” in the middle of the night, creating a lineage in our ancestry that only Henry Louis Gates seems to care about. Sorry my friends, but I have no interest in claiming a connection to the descendants of the man who raped one of my ancestors.
When it comes to President Obama’s racial identity, one is typically defined by at least two things: What you are, and what you do. President Obama, Halle Berry and other “mixed race” Americans choose to call themselves black. So, by saying, “No, you’re not black, you’re of mixed race,” we are only further adding to the identity problems that lead some young people to hate being black altogether. This notion should be rejected altogether.
Another dimension to President Obama’s blackness relates to his actions. Obama was called “The first gay president” because he made a very bold, pervasive, risky, and historically powerful statement in support of gay marriage. By the same definition, Obama might also be considered “The first Latino President” after granting amnesty to 800,000 illegal immigrants, many of whom will be competing with African Americans for working class jobs.
But when one considers President Obama’s policy record as it relates to African Americans, the best examples I’ve heard to support his “love” for black America are the black farmer’s settlement two years ago, and the reduction of the crack/powder sentencing disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. The problem is that over 99% of all African Americans are not farmers, so this policy is not nearly as pervasive as the statement on gay marriage (it’s difficult to find a black farmer in a random black crowd, but very easy to find a gay citizen who would like to one day be married). Secondly, we must remember that 18-to-1 is not much different from 100-to-1 if you’re scaling a three year prison sentence to 54 years (it also does nothing to help those who are rotting away under 70 year prison sentences granted during the failed War on Drugs).
So, as it pertains to his identity, Obama can rightfully call himself the first black president, no matter what Morgan Freeman has to say. But when it comes to policy, he is at best a mixed-race president with a touch of black in his blood. Even Hillary Clinton would have done more for the African American community, in large part because she would not tip toe through Capitol Hill afraid that someone might call her out for being too black.
The most important point in the entire “blackness of Obama” debate is that who he is cosmetically means almost nothing to millions of black people who are suffering the effects of mass incarceration, high unemployment, unequal educational systems and racism in the workplace. The pride of seeing a black man in the oval office can’t be discounted, but there is a point where symbolism must be supplemented with substance. African Americans are unique in that we somehow need validation from white America in order to feel that we’ve actually accomplished something, translating to a populous who could care less about King Obama’s policies and are only happy to see a black face in the White House.
In many ways, you are defined by what you do, not just who you are. I can say that I am a proud member of the Watkins family, but that means nothing if I fail to help find food for my starving mother. So, when it comes to having the courage necessary to walk in the tradition of Dr. King and other black men who’ve sacrificed for the African American community, we are hard pressed to find any evidence that Obama fits the description.
Obama earned the title “First Gay President” because he took a chance and stood up for the gay community. He is respected by members of the Hispanic population because he showed more courage than most by changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of families with one executive order. So, by the same definition, I’d love for Obama to become the first black president too, but that title is earned by doing more than singing Al Green songs at the Apollo.
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