How he has accepted the categorisation imposed upon him by a racial system that subjugated black people
US President Barak Obama calls himself a black man. Indeed, America and the rest of the world refer to him as a black man. Yet we all know he is actually a person of mixed ancestry. His father was a black man from Kenya, his mother a white woman from Kansas. If Obama had been born in Uganda, he would be called a “mucotera”, in apartheid South Africa, a “colored”, in Brazil, a “mulatto” and in mainstream English, a “half caste”. This teaches us that racial categories are not biological but social constructions.
Some would think Obama sees himself as a black person because of our patrilineal cultures where a child takes after their father’s identity. That is not the case in America. Even if Obama’s mother had been black and his father white, he would have been seen and treated by American society as a black man. This would also lead him to see himself as a black man. The categorisation of anyone with black blood, whatever the percentage, as a black person is a very American thing rooted in that nation’s slave history and the politics around it.
Slavery in America was based on race. To justify keeping a certain group of people in perpetual bondage, white supremacists developed ideologies that dehumanised black people. Blacks were referred to as sub human, or as animals in the category of monkeys and chimpanzees. This justified white people owning black people as private property – just the way one owns a horse, a cow or goat. Interracial sexual liaisons threatened to upset this social order because they showed that black people were as human as white people and therefore capable of loving and siring children with whites.
To stop such threats to the social order, interracial marriage was proscribed by custom and criminalised by law. White supremacists used the law and mob justice to make it costly for blacks to have sexual liaisons with whites. For instance white mobs would lynch black males who had sexual liaisons with white women and courts would hang them. (By the time Obama was born in 1961, 33 out of 50 states in the US criminalised interracial sex and marriage).
White supremacists also made it highly costly for whites to sire children with blacks. Any person with the remotest drop of black blood in his or her veins was categorised as black. Being black meant you could become a slave, could not hold public office or sit on a jury or vote in an election. In essence being black meant you could not have citizen rights. For many white people, even if they wished to, having children with a black person came with a steep price tag. It meant your child would not only be excluded from citizenship rights but also that he/she would be discarded from the category of being human.
This system of social control survived the abolition of slavery. It was reconstructed in form of Jim Crow, America’s equivalent of apartheid. Anyone considered black under Jim Crow was denied most citizenship rights like voting, sitting on a jury, and holding high public office. They were also discriminated against in housing, in employment and access to credit. There was segregation whereby black people could not live in the same neighborhood as white people, could not use same toilets or restaurants and were forced to sit at the back of the bus or stand if there was a white person without a seat.
This system of racialised social control survived all the way to the 1960s while America congratulated itself as being a democracy. Indeed, the civil rights movement to disband it began in 1950. It took 15 years of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, protests by black people and excessive police violence, white extremist terrorism (by the Ku Klux Klan – KKK) and white indifference for America to pass a major civil rights legislation ending discrimination and segregation based on race. The same America that lasted 190 years from the declaration of independence that said “All me are born equal…” It now expects other nations to realise that goal in one night.
To return to the subject, it is this system of racialised social control that Obama has indirectly accepted when he refers to himself as a black man. It is not just Obama. Many Americans – even the one whose connection to the black race is their great-great-grandmother – see themselves and are seen by the rest of America as being black. But why have the victims of slavery and American apartheid accepted this categorisation 50 years after the system was abolished?
This brings us to the fruits of the civil rights movement in America. The civil rights movement sought and succeeded in ending the exclusion of blacks from enjoying full citizenship rights imposed upon them by Jim Crow. However, to redress historically created racial imbalances, the civil rights movement also led to the introduction of affirmative action laws. These gave blacks and other racial minorities some limited preferential access to education scholarships, jobs, etc. largely on the basis of their race.
All of a sudden, categorising one as black gave them easy access to scholarships reserved for racial minorities, allowed them admission to Ivy League universities with a lower pass mark and also allowed them to access some jobs on a preferential basis. I do not have the facts, but I suspect that Obama went to Columbia and Harvard universities either on admission or on a scholarship (or both) on this race card. What had been a badge of exclusion under Jim Crow America now became a ticket to some benefits.
But has America really changed? Of course these affirmative action programs benefit a very tiny minority of blacks and other racial minorities. The people who manage against all odds to break the chains of exclusion imposed on them by their racial categorisation (like Obama, Susan Rice, Condolesa Rice, Colin Powell etc.) get assimilated into the power structure of the white financial, industrial and military aristocracy that rules that land. These are also used by the system to claim that it is now post racial. Yet in truths, most black people in America continue to live in poverty, exclusion and subjugation. Jim Crow has been replaced by mass incarceration where scores of black people are sent to live in jail for most of their lives. Once in jail, all the old forms of discrimination under slavery and Jim Crow are imposed.