by Akim Reinhardt
During the 1990s, the impossibility of a black president was so ingrained in American culture that some people, including many African Americans, jokingly referred to President Bill Clinton as the first “black president.” The threshold Clinton had passed to achieve this honorary moniker? He seemed comfortable around black people. That’s all it took.
Because an actual black president was so inconceivable that a white president finally treating African Americans as regular people seemed as close as America would get any time soon.
In 1998, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison brought Clinton’s unofficial title to national attention with a New Yorker essay aimed at discrediting the impeachment proceedings against him. One of Morrison’s rhetorical devices was to check off all the boxes in which Clinton displayed “almost every trope of blackness,” including being raised in a working class, single-parent household, and loving fast food.
By 2003, the idea of a black president was still outlandish enough that it served as common comedic fodder. Chris Rock starred in the film Head of State, a fantasy comedy in which Chicago Alderman Mays Gilliam becomes a fluke president. And Dave Chappelle portrayed an unabashedly African American version of President George Bush in a Chapelle Show sketch. The skit’s running joke was how outrageous and “unpresidential” it would be to have a black chief executive.
This was a recurring theme for Chapelle. Years earlier in his stand up routine he had joked about how the first black president would probably be murdered in office. But Chapelle was willing to be that first black president because he had a plan to minimize the threat. He would have a Mexican vice president for “insurance.”
“You could shoot me if you want, but you’re just gonna open the border up.”
But then came Barack Obama in 2008. And 2012. And very likely again in 2016 if not for the constitutional two-term limit. And just last week it was announced that California Senator Kamala Harris will be Joe Biden’s running mate. Biden is currently favored to defeat Donald Trump, so Harris is likely to become the first black vice president, and eventually a Democratic presidential front runner in either 2024 or 2028.
2020 feels very far removed from the days when the idea of a black president seemed ludicrously funny, and when one could see shades of blackness in a white president because he was a saxophone-playing Southerner, and was enduring public attacks for supposed sexual indiscretions (the real point of Morrison’s essay).
Yet are we really so far away from those turn-of-the-twenty-first century ideas about race in America? Or are white Americans now recognizing that Obama’s election signaled no fundamental change in race relations aside from their own self-congratulatory refusal to still consider race important? Certainly all the earlier hubbub about his election ushering in a new “post-racial America” now sounds like a lifelong alcoholic declaring his commitment to sobriety after spending a weekend drinking only half as much as usual.
While Morrison’s essay has not aged well in some respects, it was never as naive or complimentary of Clinton as some people mistook it to be. She was not really saying Clinton was black in any meaningful way, but rather that he was “blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” Her presidential time line might have been wrong, but she spoke truth about about white racial perceptions beyond skin color. She was talking about cultural, economic, and social blackness, and how they translated into what white people could get away with versus what black people could. America, she pointed out, would accept only so much “blackness” from their president, and that they’d accept more of it from a white president than an actual black president, something Barack Obama’s presidency bore out.
Obama faced a balancing act. America defined him as black, even though he is only half-black. Yet he could only be so black if he were going to be president. Harris now faces this same contradictory calculus: any black equals black, but making it to the White House demands a high quotient of whiteness.
It’s a complex(ion) equation.
Even though Obama and Harris are mixed people, American culture defines them as just one thing: black. This is because unlike many other societies, American culture generally does not accept mixed people as their own category. The United States has no understanding of the French concept of métis, of the Spanish mestizo, or the Laķota (Siouan) iyeška, all of them specific categories of mixed people who are understood to be, and understand themselves as being not just one or the other, but their own group. As belonging to society with their own distinct heritage instead of having to choose between an ancestral binary.
Without mixed categories, Obama must be black or white, Harris black or Indian. But why are they both black? The answer is buried in American ideas about whiteness.
The American ethnic binary is defined by whiteness: are you or aren’t you?
The answer is not always so simple because in America, “whiteness” isn’t just about skin color. It’s also about social standing. You no longer have to have pale skin to be socially accepted and to gain many of the social advantages that come with whiteness. This is not to say that people with darker skin can escape all forms of racism in America. If only. However, some groups can escape certain (but not all) elements of structural racism after a generations-long process of social “whitening.”
What is social whitening and how is it not always about skin color? Consider this: When the Irish first arrived in large numbers during the 1840s and 50s, they were not seen as socially white despite being some of the lightest-skinned people on the planet. That process of being accepted into the dominant club of whiteness only began after the Civil War. For Italians and Jews, who first arrived in large number during the early 20th century, the process of social whitening began after World War II. More recently, Americans descended from various parts of Asia have also attained whiteness: East Asian since the 1970s, and south Asians negommomg about the 1990s.
Thus, a group of people with very light skin can be denied social whiteness, while a group with brown skin can achieve it.
White society can expand (or contract) its categories of social whiteness because by definition social categories are mutable. They are based not on rigid science or clear empirics, but on the evolving values and norms a society produces. Thus, social categories of race aren’t just about physical skin color. They’re mostly about power, prestige, and acceptance. Over time, a society can gradually update its definitions about which groups gain power and acceptance, and which don’t. And in America, that’s measured in social whiteness
How do we measure the adoption of social whiteness? Through basic social practices. For example, are most white Americans opposed to living next door to Jews or Italians, or going to school with their children? A hundred years ago, absolutely. Today, hardly at all. And white opposition to Asian Americans in these ways has faded substantially over the last few decades.
White America has slowly opened up paths to social whiteness for most willing immigrant groups, even if those paths have been long, winding, and occasionally very rocky. Of course for many decades, millions of Americans opposed opening up such paths. But in a sense, the idea that you are here because your ancestors worked hard to get here has tended to win out.
But what about groups who are not descended from willing immigrants: Indigenous Americans whose ancestors have always been here (12 – 15 millennia), and African Americans whose ancestors were brought here in chains.
Europeans’ and Americans’ historical genocide of Indigenous nations contributed to a settler colonial myth of the Vanishing Red Man. The goal was elimination, but societies rarely wish to define themselves as genocidal, so Americans claimed Indigenous peoples were inevitably disappearing. Nineteenth century conservatives favored, or at least favored the supposed inevitability of physical extinction, while 19th century liberals advocated a mere cultural genocide in which Native peoples fully adopted white culture. Of course neither happened and Indigenous cultures remain strong.
At the other end of the spectrum are African Americans, historically defined not by presumed extinction, but by a sense of grudging necessity, and permanent inferiority and servitude. Blacks were needed and even highly valuable, while also being deeply reviled.
By the 20th century then, America’s evolving score card of social whiteness tabulated as follows.
European-descended protestants: Always White
European Jewish/Catholic/Eastern Orthodox willing immigrants: Eventually White
American Indians: Not White, Supposedly Disappearing or Possibly Eventually White
African Americans: Never White
This was reflected in attitudes about intermarriage, acceptance of which is an important measure of social whiteness: Is it okay for you to marry a white woman?
For European immigrants, intermarriage was never as fraught and accepted much sooner. Old divisions might now be reflected in someone saying they’re half-Italian/half-German, but in the modern context this merely identifies two shades of whiteness. But for groups still not accepted as white, intermarriage has different consequences.
Because American culture shoe horns mixed people into one category or the other, it views white/non-white intermarriage as diluting one parental line or the other. White Americans tend to understand Native peoples as losing their “Indianess” when they have some white parentage. This is a legacy of their presumed extinction. Many Americans still have a hard time accepting that modern Indigenous people can have white skin or light hair or blue eyes and still be “real Indians.” Or, for that matter, that they can behave in ways that defy stereotypes (eg. do well financially, live in cities or suburbs, practice Christianity) and still be “Indian.” The default definition is that if you do not sufficiently look and behave in ways that conform to stereotypes, then you are not a “real Indian.”
But in America’s racial alchemy, African Americans represent a different compound. White dilutes the Indigenous, but black dilutes white. Red disappears, and black stains.
Because of this, black/white intermarriage long faced repression until very recently. Fear and hatred of black men having sex with white women was the most common excuse for lynchings. Most states had anti-miscegenation laws, which weren’t ruled unconstitutional until 1967.
Mixing still occurred of course, particularly white men with black women, a violent legacy of slavery. However, mixed African/European Americans still lacked opportunities to obtain much social whiteness due to another legacy of hereditary slavery: black Americans could only ever be black no matter how light their skin or how “white” their cultural and social practices. To this day, all African Americans are defined as black if they are recognizably black in any way.
Thus, when gazed through America’s perverse racial lenses, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris cannot be mixed people because such categories do not exist (particularly for African Americans), and they must be black because that parentage overrides Obama’s white parentage and Harris’ Indian parentage.
It matters not that Barack Obama barely knew his African father, was raised by his white mother’s family, and grew up in, among other places, Kansas, one of the whitest states in America. Likewise, it matters not that Harris’ mother was from India, or that she was raised in that Mecca of white liberalism, Berkeley, California. Both of them are still defined as black Americans.
And not too long ago that would have been the be-all and end-all of it. For most of the nation’s history, white acceptance of blackness was very rare and extremely limited.
However, since Civil Rights and Black Power, the ways in which white America will admit blackness into its ranks have expanded, though not nearly as much as it has for other groups. The process that allowed the Irish, Italians, Jews, and more recently Asians to eventually achieve substantial social whiteness is finally making modest room for some black people to also achieve a limited level of social whiteness. But that path is not available to most African Americans, who are rooted in African American culture. White America will accept only certain kind of blackness.
It’s about genetics. It’s about language. It’s about money. It’s about culture. It’s about history. It’s about being a “person of color,” but not being “black.”
So it should come as no surprise, and is certainly no coincidence, that neither Obama nor Harris had an African American father, but rather a black immigrant father. It is also no coincidence that both Obama and Harris have fairly light skin. That both of are native speakers of white American dialects, not African American English, although Obama can code-switch. That both of them have advanced degrees. That both of them are financially successful. That neither one of them grew up with any familial connections to the historic black experience in the United States
And neither one of them is anything at all like Dave Chapelle’s comedic incarations of a black president, or even Chris Rock’s Mays Gilliam character. Nor do they check most of the boxes of American blackness laid out by Morrison. And if Morrison’s boxes were problematic, that’s at least half the point: Obama and Harris do not look or behave the way most white Americans understand African Americans to look and behave.
They are both part Sub-Saharan African descent (Harris almost certainly less than half), so America automatically categorizes them as black. Yet both were entirely or largely raised by their non-black parent, grew up in places with small black populations, and are well integrated into many white norms. And in the 21st century that means they can gain limited social whiteness.
How much? Enough to become president, but not enough to avoid day-to-day racism, much less the tidal waves of racism that swell as they approach and eventually inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
You know the place. The White House. Now offering four-year leases to anyone who has enough social whiteness, including African Americans, so long as they’re not too black.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com