NPR logo The New President is Black

The New President is Black

Why do your programs consistently refer to Obama as "black," when he is the son of a black man and a white woman? He could just as easily be referred to as white. Why refer to his skin color at all? If you are referring to more than skin color, what is it? Is this a formal policy?

The All Things Considered series on race never defined what the editors meant by the term. I sent emails asking for some, but never got a reply. As a result, I think the most important question was left unanswered. The science of genetics offers no basis for the notion of race, so why persist with this term without giving a definition? Please give me a real answer.
—Forrest Furman

Dear Mr. Furman:
NPR identifies Sen. Barack Obama as black because that is how the president-elect identifies himself. There probably isn't a man or woman in America who does not know that Obama had a white mother and a black father. NPR respects how anyone wants to identify themselves in a case like this. As an example on a more simple identification, Gov. Sarah Palin prefers to be called Ms. Palin in second reference of the New York Times which uses honorifics— not Mrs. Palin. That is her choice.

I listened closely to the series on the role of race in the presidential campaign and All Things Considered defined race in this case as looking at how black and whites get along, interact and view one another. One way to think about racism is that it's the result of not knowing people different from you. You can see an evolution in how people's thinking evolved about race in NPR's York (Pa.) project that explored race during the presidential election.

As for why NPR refers to Obama's skin color, it is unavoidable in the society we live in.

WHY did you put on the piece with David Duke? A better use of our time would have been for him to answer one question and then for you to tell us we could listen to the rest of the interview on your website. Yes, the piece was, as you warned us, offensive. WHAT do we learn from listening to him interrupting and disrespecting you, disrespecting us listeners, spouting his vitriol? Sheila O'Flaherty

David Duke is a former Louisiana state lawmaker, grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and onetime presidential aspirant. I think it's critical for an informed electorate to hear all kinds of voices— even voices that you don't agree with, and many don't agree with David Duke. I found the interview fascinating and noticed how tough Michel Martin was on him. Whether we like it or not, there are individuals and groups that will not like Sen. Obama as president. We need to hear from them rather than ignore them.

When I posed listener concerns to Michel, she replied: "I wrote about it on my blog and in the comment thread. If you have additional questions after that I am happy to answer them. But it seems obvious enough. Two separate groups of white supremacists have been arrested for trying to kill Obama and we consider one of our mandates to talk TO people rather than about them. Duke is the most famous (white) racist in the country, so it seemed appropriate to call him the week after the second assassination plot was made public. We had a conversation about the psychology of racism earlier in the week as well."

Here are some comments from listeners:

I do think we should listen to people who disagree with us ... Thanks for bringing us both sides of issues we may be uncomfortable with...

—LaShanta Harris (LRH)

I vehemently disagree with your decision to give this type of person any outlet to share his racist and hateful views.

—Chris Valentine (cval)