The simplification of race

What the news reports:

On the topic of race and ethnicity, McGruder said that to him, Obama is not black because he is not a descendant of a slave.

“The person who is one of us in the White House is Michelle Obama and her momma,” McGruder said.

That’s cartoonist Aaron McGruder, quoted by the Richmond Palladium-Item.  Because everybody knows how important it is to have black people weigh in on whether or not President Obama is really black.

That’s the reporter’s take.   In any event, I think that if a reporter writes that an African American stated that “Obama is not black” I need to see the direct quote.  Because the interpretation differs widely.  Here’s a comment from somebody who attended the event:

As a person who actually attended the event, I can tell you without a doubt that the reporter misquoted McGruder. He did NOT say Obama is not black. He DID say that Obama is not African-American in the traditional use of the word. Because his father was African and his mother was an American citizen, as well as being born in America, he is African American; just not as we consider African Americans.

Obama, I’m sure, had similar experiences as all African Americans do here in America, but he also has an extended experience of exploring his direct African heritage. The point is that he did NOT say he wasn’t black, which is something all together different. Anyone with brown skin and African features is socially considered black – and that doesn’t matter WHERE you are from.

Here’s a segment of McGruder’s statement about the issue:

“I have seen an endless stream of Black pundits on TV pontificating about the significance of President Obama’s election – many of them making reference to the 3/5th’s clause in the constitution regarding slaves. The point I was making is that this is not an accurate comparison.

“Barack is the son of an immigrant, not the descendant of slaves. It’s like comparing a half-Japanese man to the oppressed Chinese who built the American railroads. Yes, they are both Asian, but it is not an honest or accurate comparison. We all share the common experiences of being Black in America today – we do not all share a common history. A history that in part makes us who we are – and in some cases (as with the psychological damage that still lingers from slavery) holds us back. These are not, I believe, insignificant distinctions.

McGruder elaborated a bit more on a comics blog:

“It was a simple conversation about the differences between race, ethnicity, nationality, and trying to draw distinctions that most of the media and public seemed to be casually ignoring,” McGruder tells Comic Riffs. “That somehow became me calling someone who is obviously black not black — and there’s very little I can do about it.”

I’d disagree with McGruder about it being only “black pundits” who are responsible. But I think his point is clear. “African American” is used widely as a synonym for “black”–but the words “African American” often convey a broader history that includes slavery. Not quite a “simple conversation” for many people.

2 thoughts on “The simplification of race

  1. I agree with Mcgruder’s main points. It’s the fault of the reporter who misquoted him for the sake of controversy. Anything to sell his article I guess.

  2. Debra Dickerson also got a lot of flak for saying that Obama was not really “black”, but many or most people assumed that it was because he was educated, without even reading the original article:

    […] I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn’t black.

    “Black,” in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

    It’s easy to hear a soundbite and then put it into the stereotype-frame that black people are anti-intellectuals, even if Ms. Dickerson herself has a Master’s degree.

    People, usually white people, keep simplifying race. If you tell them that it’s not that simple and they don’t understand what they’re reading, they assume that you’re accusing them of being a stupid person, since the assumption is that race is something simple that any reasonably intelligent person can understand.

    For example, in the comments of stuff white people do: get used to blackness, Macon D (white) wrote in response to Nquest (black) (Nquest’s quote is in italics):

    Again, MLK said that it’s not the abstract rights or symbolism we have ever strived for but real, material improvement in our “way of life.”

    It’s disappointing that the Black intellectuals you’ve been exposed to haven’t penetrated your consciousness on that very basic point.

    Right, I must be an idiot who wasn’t able to finish high school, so hard is it for “basic points” to penetrate my thick skull.

    Interestingly, the implicit assumption or hidden premise is that a high school education is sufficient for understanding black intellectuals.

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