When Father Michael Pflegler, a white Catholic priest serving a Chicago South Side back congregation, railed on Hillary Clinton nine days ago people were rightly appalled. (By the way, Father Michael Pflegler has been around quite awhile and has had a very effective ministry that looks and feels like a charismatic black congregation, not a typical Roman Catholic parish in the city!) His silly tirade of May 25 created a whole new media buzz about Obama and Trinity Church. It then led to Obama’s withdrawal from his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. What Pflegler said, as he adopted a mock voice to represent Clinton, was (in effect): “I am white. I’m entitled. And a black man is stealing my show.” When this clip made it to You Tube it became instant news. (How much has You Tube changed the way we get the news and how fast we respond to it? This is another case of how techne squeezes out thought and true wisdom, as I wrote in my ACT 3 Weekly E-zine column yesterday. You can read it on the home page, see the top bar of the page, and subscribe there for future issues weekly.)
Well, has it dawned on anyone that Father Pflegler was not quite right about this matter of race no matter how you hear his words? What if he had been more precise and said, “A half-black man is trying to steal my nomination!” Many would have been horrified. It would have seemed even more racist than much of what we now call racism. But genetically Senator Obama is half-white and half-black, as we all well know. His father was Kenyan and his mother was from Kansas. This makes Obama, in the best sense, a true “African-American.”
But this is not my point. My point is far more interesting than what seems so obvious about all of this. At some point in his life Barack Obama made a choice about how he would understand his race. When he ran for the senate in Illinois he even joked about the fact that if he had taken his mother’s name, the person who raised him along with her parents, he would have been Barry Dunham. Instead he chose his African name and thus became Barack Hussein Obama, in honor of the father that he dreamed about and yet hardly knew. (See his book, Dreams of My Father.)
So will Barack Obama, if he is elected, become our first black president? Well, yes and no. Scientifically the correct answer is no. His race, using the term as it has normally been used, should correctly be identified as mixed. The 2000 census would support this distinction. But sociologically and legally we have long applied a different rule throughout America’s tortured history in dealing with race. The oddity is that this is a rule that comes directly from our overtly racist past. It should give Obama, and countless others, real pause. This old rule was simple, and I heard it growing up all the time: “If he has one drop of black blood in him, then he’s black.”
In my time this was why many churches discouraged blacks from joining us. It would lead to interracial dating. In the South this was feared so deeply that we even had Bible verses to support our racist views and often used these to oppose integration. But this “One Drop Rule” clearly comes from the days of slavery. It was created to enforce a strict economic basis for broadening slavery. White men could have sex with black slaves but the children would always be slaves, even though many would eventually look more white than black.
This crude and horrid justification for adding slaves morphed into an even broader legal concept called the “one black ancestor rule.” Even court decisions referred to this as “the traceable amount rule.” According to anthropologists the really unique thing about all this history is that no other racial group in America has had to deal with such a rule, socially or legally.
In our first one hundred years as a nation the only category Barack Obama could have chosen, in any context at all, was either black or white. Chuck Goudie, a local Chicago investigative reporter noted recently that it wasn’t until the census of 2000 that people were instructed to mark one or more races that applied to them. And the number of choices on the census was 63! We are increasingly a mixed-race country if there ever was one and I welcome it. It is not the categories of race that should unite us but rather a deep and abiding consensus about our core values and a broad commitment to liberty and freedom. This is what we are always in danger of losing.
Ironically, when Barack Obama ran in Illinois there were doubts about whether he was “black enough” for the black electorate of Chicago. He faced these same issues with some of the black electorate in late 2007 and early 2008 until he gained momentum in Iowa and beyond.
At that time Obama said, “We have had a lot of issues about our identity and whether we’re authentic enough. What’s really important is for us to embrace the cultural implications that we possess and the struggles we’ve overcome.” Amen!
The point here is that the race struggle continues (in unique ways) even though the forms of it have changed rather obviously since Jim Crow. Honestly, I wish we were at the place where we could discuss this simple fact—Barack Obama is a mixed race man, period. But then we should say, “So what?” This has nothing to do with his qualifications, or lack thereof, to be the next president. But both Barack Obama, and the people around him (especially the media), have all made absolutely certain that we think of him as the “black candidate.” By this choice, and others like it, our collective national race problem will not go away anytime soon regardless of what happens to Barack Obama. Many will vote against him based upon his race, often being private about it. Many will vote for him based upon race, often openly admitting this and even suggesting that “It is time we elect a black man.” (The idea here is that we will expel our collective demons if we just elect a black man as president!) And few of either of these two responses will come from people who have not bought into the massive stereotypes that define our current social realities.
Since I argued that “mixed race” children were a non-issue, even in my teen years in Southern church youth groups, I am frankly amazed at how so many of a liberal political and social persuasion want to keep these stereotypes alive. I do wonder about their reasons. And I seriously wonder how this stereotyping helps bring about reconciliation. My goal, as a Christian, will always be the latter.