Obama, the Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future
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Obama, the Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future*

The focus of media depictions of Barack Obama as a “post-racial,” “post-black” or “postethnic” candidate is usually limited to two aspects of his presidential campaign. First is his self-presentation with minimal references to his color. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, whose presidential candidacies were more directed at the significance of the color line, Obama has never offered himself as the candidate of a particular ethnoracial group. Second, the press calls attention to the willingness of millions of white voters to respond to Obama. Some of his greatest margins in primary elections and caucuses were in heavily white states like Idaho and Montana. He even won huge numbers of white voters in some states of the old Confederacy, and in the November election carried Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

But there is much more to it.

The Obama candidacy was a far-reaching challenge to identity politics, and that challenge will only deepen now that Obama will be President. At the center of that challenge is a gradually spreading uncertainty about the significance of color lines, especially the significance of blackness itself. Blackness is the pivotal concept in the intellectual and administrative apparatus used in the United States for dealing with ethnoracial distinctions. Doubts about its basic meaning, boundaries, and social role affected ideas about whiteness, and all other color-coded identities. These uncertainties make it easier to contemplate a possible future in which the ethnoracial categories central to identity politics would be more matters of choice than ascription; in which mobilization by ethnoracial groups would be more a strategic option than a presumed destiny attendant upon mere membership in a group; and in which economic inequalities would be confronted head-on, instead of through the medium of ethnorace.

To denote that possible future, I prefer the term “postethnic” to “post-racial.” The former recognizes that at issue is all identity by natal community, including as experienced by, or ascribed to, population groups to whom the problematic term “race” is rarely applied. The reconceptualization affects the status of Latinos and other immigrant-based populations not generally counted as “races.” A postethnic social order would encourage individuals to devote as much—or as little—of their energies as they wished to their community of descent, and would discourage public and private agencies from implicitly [End Page 1033] telling citizens that the most important thing about them was their descent community. Hence to be postethnic is not to be anti-ethnic, or even colorblind, but to reject the idea that descent is destiny.

Obama’s mixed ancestry generates some of the new uncertainty about blackness. The white part of his genetic inheritance is not socially hidden, as it often is for “light-skinned blacks” who descend from black women sexually exploited by white slaveholders and other white males. Rather, Obama’s white ancestry is right there in the open, visible in the form of the white woman who, as a single mother, raised Obama after his black father left the family to return to his native Kenya. Press accounts of Obama’s life, as well as Obama’s own autobiographical writings, render Obama’s whiteness hard to miss. No public figure, not even Tiger Woods, has done as much as Obama to make Americans of every education level and social surrounding aware of color-mixing in general and that most of the “black” population of the United States, in particular, are partially white. The “one-drop rule” which denies that color is a two-way street is far from dead, but not since the era of its legal and social consolidation in the early 1920s has the ordinance of this rule been so subject to challenge.

But even more important to the new instability in the meaning of blackness in American life is the fact that Obama’s black ancestry is immigrant rather than U.S.-born. The knowledge that Obama’s black father came to the United States from Kenya may have done more than anything else to make Americans in general aware of the distinction within the black population of...