Obama's Expected Run Raises Issues of Racial Identity

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Barack Obama's expected presidential bid leads another bi-racial American to consider her heritage.


Our Roundtable just discussed the latest news about Senator Barack Obama. He will formally explore a presidential bid. Commentator Robin Washington takes on this chance, too.

Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON: Have you heard all the buzz about Barack Obama's appeal as a presidential candidate because he's not really black? I'm reminded of that with the premiere of the "Race: Are We So Different?" exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Five years in the making, the exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association and it will travel to museums across the country through 2011.

One display shows how definitions of race by the United States Census Bureau have changed over the years. Take a look back to the 1800s. If you think Senator Obama really isn't black today, 150 years ago, he would have been someone's property.

I thought about that my entire life. Like Obama, I'm biracial. My father was black and my mother Jewish. One definition for being Jewish is the child of a Jewish mother. And to be black in this country, all you need is one drop of black blood. That makes me a 100 percent of both, or 200 percent. Yet, you wouldn't necessarily know by looking at me. Some people say I'm obviously black. To a few, I'm clearly Jewish. But others can't tell what I am, like the young black man in hip-hop clothes at the African-American men's group meeting who said he didn't know I was black until I identified myself as such. I swear he was at least a shade lighter than me. And you can get a whole lot lighter and still be black.

That means race is - well, it isn't anything, biologically speaking, the anthropologists say. Human beings have all sorts of physical differences. Are all people with thin noses and straight hair white? What about people from India or Pakistan?

In the exhibit, the anthropologists dispel other biological myths about race such as sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that only strikes black people, right? No. And if you're not black and you believe that, it could be deadly. So if the anthropologists are saying there's no such thing as race, why are they holding an exhibit about it?

Well, because race both is and isn't real. Biologically speaking, human beings are impossible to classify. But political divides by race are real and continue to be reinforced by social attitudes, even if racial laws have been overturned for decades.

In a graphic illustration, the exhibit shows four stacks of cash indicating how much money a black person, a white person, a Latino and an Asian-American of similar educational backgrounds can expect to earn in a lifetime. The white person's pile of cash towers several feet into the air. The Asian-American almost does as well. But the black and Latino stacks are barely a few inches tall.

Social disparities can be so strong that they begin to look like biological differences. Take the number of black players in the National Basketball Association versus a handful in the National Hockey League. Basketball, which requires only a basketball and a hoop, is far more available to urban youths than hockey, which requires an ice rink, skating lessons and a lot of expensive gear.

So will these attitudes ever change? A lot of people say of course they will, if we would only stop fixating on race. But I don't think so. The only way we can begin to change our views on race is to talk about it. And that's a political discussion, just like wondering who's going to run for president in 2008. It might be Barack Obama as a black candidate or whatever he is.

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CHIDEYA: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota.

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