Another Sad Chapter in Racism

Today marks another sad yet ironic chapter in the history of American racism. Firstly because I believe Barack Obama was our first presidential ‘affirmative action hire’ and, secondly, and most importantly, because of the black/white dichotomy present in the minds of all Americans of every race. Granted, the United States has come a long way in defeating institutionalized racism (minus affirmative action) although blacks really only achieved equality in the last forty years. Nevertheless, the mindset in the US and indeed most former European colonies is still affected by their twisted, outdated and outright racist ideas. Allow me to elaborate.

“White” and “Black”

The United States, like other settler colonies, is a mix of people from many countries. However, for much of its history, it was not the melting pot people like to call it. It was a destination mostly for Europeans. Thus, initial immigrants came from places like England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France and so forth. As the last sentence shows you, these people have little in common in terms of religion, culture, language and so forth. Yet, what they do have in common is “white” skin and all coming from the same continent. Yet, to be clear, they were not ‘white.’ The word and ethnic designation ‘white’ was invented and has no real meaning. After all, there are just as many differences between someone from Scotland and say Lithuania than Kenya and Angola. My point is that once these European immigrants became ‘American’ a new in-group was formed that anywhere else in the world is meaningless.

With the mass importation of African slaves, all from very different countries with different cultures, languages, religions and so forth, a new overarching term was created: ‘black.’ Yet, someone from Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Nigeria do not have much in common. They were just as different as neighbors like France and Germany. Yet, in the context of America, they were all ‘black’. In short, because the US was a settler colony with no indigenous people (for all intents and purposes), the primary way of differentiating people was skin color. In Africa or Europe, it would have no useful meaning whatsoever.

Lastly, on that point, I will never use the term African-American because it is misused. Only someone who is actually African (say from Nigeria, Malawi etc) and immigrated to the US could MAYBE be called so. But honestly, if you’ve immigrated, you are American now, and nothing else. Blacks are not African in any sense of the word. They’ve never visited Africa, speak no African language, know nothing of their “real” home or its culture and in fact are the product of many mixed African countries. Similarly, there is no such thing European-American for whites. Most everyone who claims to be Scottish, English, German or Italian couldn’t point out that country on a map or name its capital, much less argue they have anything at all in common with those countries culturally, linguistically and so forth.

Black Inferiority

Given the creation of these two new ‘racial’ groups, it is important to remember the sense of superiority Europeans possessed during the centuries of colonization. American Indians, Indians, Africans, Latin American Indians and so forth were all seen as lower, uncivilized cultures full of non-Christian heathens who needed to be converted and civilized. Let us not forget the British slogan “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.” Other non-European peoples were seen as inferior. In the United States, contact between the two was frowned upon and in fact forbidden by law. Blacks were treated as property, not even human. The Euro-centric idea of white superiority extended to mixed people as well. Even one-drop of so-called “black blood” made you black. Therefore, not only was interracial marriage illegal, the offspring were automatically seen as ‘black’ and therefore inferior. No room was left for mixed because such a concept had not yet come into existence. The mental framework of the time allowed for only A or B, black or white, superior for inferior.

Meaningless Definitions

Thus, we see “white” is short-hand for of general mixed European descent. Yet, it would be hard to argue a Russian and Swede are the same in any way. “Black” means of general mixed African descent, which also means nothing. And most importantly, BOTH terms mean mixed. This blogger could be called “white” although he like most of you, is merely a mish-mash of Europeans mixing for many generations. Yet, mentally, I would not be designated as being from an inferior race. Over time, as the legal and mental pillars of racism were brought down, interaction between the two has increased and we have realized they are equal. Moreover, as immigrants to the United States have come from an increasingly diverse set of countries, we have all possible combination of white, black, Asian, Latin and more.

So “what” is an American whose parents are say Latin and Asian or Asian and White? The answer is mixed. Yet, as a country, we have apparently not moved away from the dichotomy of the past yet. Thus, those who allege that Obama is the first black President classify him with the racist framework they claim to hate. In fact, it not only perpetuates a racist way of thinking, but also does so at the expense of many Americans who are also mixed. “Mixed Race” or “2 or more races” have slowly started appearing on questionnaires, which is a start.

And as long as there remain large cultural, economic and social differences between groups, they will be divided into such. Martin Luther King looked forward to the day when people were judged by their merits not skin color. It seems we aren’t there yet and Obama’s being called black merely proves it once again.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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33 Responses to Another Sad Chapter in Racism

  1. Bob Morris says:

    Well, in his acceptance speech, Obama referred to himself as a “mutt.” So he gets it. And he didn’t run based on racial identity. Another good step.

    Someone I knew who was half-Native American and half-Anglo said, we’re all half-breeds, it’s just more obvious with some of us.

  2. Chirol says:

    I do agree Obama himself has at times mentioned that he’s a mix, not A or B. However, I do think he intentionally downplayed that to take advantage of the many people voting solely based on race. The campaign definitely used that, which I guess can be expected. I just think it’s a shame.

  3. TS says:

    I’m sympathetic to your argument, America is a nation of mutts, regardless of skin color, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off we’ll be. But our history of accepting that fact has been sad and violent. Skin color is the most obvious signifier of group identity — “drops of blood” are meaningless in the real world, ask anyone who has “passed” as a different race/ethnicity (incl. Jews, Italians, etc.). Therefore, skin color still matters, unfortunately, regardless of anyone’s complex ethnic back-story.

    You can cry “affirmative action” all you want if you really think he’s unqualified for the job, but regardless, his presidency is still a huge deal in this country — a country that within living memory has encouraged despicable treatment of dark-skinned people of African ancestry.

  4. jim says:

    As to the actual genetics behind race and ideas of “white” or “black” – “white” people are more genetically similar to each other than “black” people.

    Humanity started in Africa and stayed there a long time, evolving into many different sub-population (all of which would be considered “black” today). It’s fairly recently that small bands of humans left Africa and colonized the rest of the world, evolving into more sub-populations as they did so.

    Broadly speaking, there are more sub-populations among “blacks” than “whites” or “asians”. There’s just been much more time for different sub-populations to evolve.

    Interestingly, the Pygmies are thought of as “black” even though a Nigerian is more closely related to a Swede than to a Pygmy. The Pygmies split off early from the rest of humanity.

    So, yes, terms like “white” and “black” mask many important difference. But they don’t do so equally. “Black” glosses over much greater variety than “white” does.

  5. mihnea says:

    if it helps any bit, most romanian news commentary today was about the first “black” president..

  6. Peter says:

    Well said, Chirol…

  7. Joe Jones says:

    I don’t really see how this is “sad.” Sure, it isn’t a perfect situation today, but it’s one hell of a development in race relations, and probably a big step in whittling down the psychological barriers between whites, upper/middle-class blacks and poor blacks. MANY people seriously didn’t think Obama could ever get this much support. There was a lot of talk of people supporting him verbally and then “not voting for a black man in the booth.” Paradigms have now shifted.

    I would also argue the notion that African-American is a bad label. It is certainly a vast culture as well as a social identity distinct from being simply “American,” and it arose over time from the mishmash of West African and Western European culture during the days of slavery in the South. But the point which many people miss is that Obama does not have this heritage and was not brought up in this culture–he is an African-American in the sense that you’ve described above, and of East African blood at that. He can perhaps be seen more simply as a carpetbagger who pushed his way into the traditional “African-American” community in the US to get political support.

    Still I liked his defense of this argument, which was something to the effect of “The cab drivers don’t care where my ancestors came from.” And it echoes an argument made by Samuel Huntington once that “one might be an Ibo in Lagos, a Nigerian in London and an African in New York.” Labels are made to be relevant in the community where they’re discussed. Probably 1% of Americans, if that, know where Malawi is or can say anything about it, and the number is probably only slightly better for Kenya. But everyone has a notion of what Africa is and who African people are.

  8. Curzon says:

    I basically concur with Ed Rollins on this one:
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/01/20/rollins.inauguration/index.html?eref=rss_latest

    No, I didn’t vote for him, but I’m pretty happy with him as president, and have pretty high expectations and hopes for his presidency.

  9. Eddie says:

    To argue that:
    “However, I do think he intentionally downplayed that to take advantage of the many people voting solely based on race.”
    is to ignore the rise of identity politics in America (evangelicals voting their faith with Bush, women voting for HRC) that has been nationalized after being honed and practiced for so long to near-perfection by past politicians.

    What do you think the Sarah Palin was about? That was a blatant attempt to grab HRC supporters and add novelty/change to the ticket.

    Most would argue that Obama’s race hurt him in every other way in the election campaign, aside from the increased black vote in key states. It took a top-notch organizational effort, an economic recession, a deeply unpopular president and party and a series of miscues on his opponent’s part for Obama to win.

    I see no evidence people in Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Iowa, etc. who had no reason to support a black candidate based on his race, did so.

    I do see substantial evidence both in the primaries and the general that a considerable number of whites voted against him for his skin color.

    Now that he has won, his story becomes America’s and can be used to soothe all types of personal needs and wounds.
    In a year of O.J., R. Kelly, Jesse Jackson, etc., not to mention more personal problems such as massive numbers of black families losing their homes and jobs, dozens of black children being gunned down at school and in front yards, did you not expect black Americans to vote en masse for one of their own to push back decades of being told they were not good enough for equality, let alone the Presidency?

    Or for Republicans like Rollins, Huckabee, McCain, Cheney, Bush, etc. to not express with believable joy in their voices what a historic moment this is and what it says about America?

    People tend to try to look on the bright side of things, especially right now.

  10. Chirol says:

    Joe Jones: I’ll agree ‘sad’ may be a bit much. I also fully agree and understand identity is situational. I’m from my home state while living here in DC. With a mixed group of Americans I’m southern, and abroad I’m just American. My hope, and what I also intended to get across in this post, isn’t my disapproval of Obama but rather to point out how much further we have to go and that the real racism is a much deeper mental framework, not a superifical dislike of white or black.

    Curzon: That article didn’t say much. Merely that because people like Obama so much, it must be a great thing. We’ll see how that pans out in 6 months, or when a major catastrophe hits.

    Eddie: I don’t accuse Obama of being the only one to practice identity politics, just that he did it at the expensive of fighting a real and deeper racism. As for Palin, swimsuit contest aside, she was a retard and a blatant and pathetic attempt to bring so-called joe sixpack on board. It’s one bad McCain decision.

  11. Eddie says:

    Chirol,
    He may yet. He needs to be watched closely on AA. There seems to be some open-mindedness there with him. Perhaps he will oversee a shift to class-based AA as is being seen increasingly in states?

  12. Chirol says:

    You’ll have to excuse me, AA?

    I’m definitely willing to give him a chance on many things. It’s hard to know what exactly to believe. At times I don’t trust him and loathe his ideas while at others he seems to demonstrate his awareness of the difficulties that lie ahead and realize Bush made many good moves with the information he had at the time.

    However, if he brings back the “assault weapons” ban, or any other anti-gun legislation, that’s it for me.

  13. Sorry Chirol, I don’t get your argument. Because Obama is half-black, but people call him black, that makes his presidency not a step forward for race relations? OK, so we shouldn’t judge folk on the colour of their skin. He won the presidency campaigning against the war, the neo-cons and latterly the economy. He didn’t raise race per se, everyone else did. But he won anyway. That proves our racism? I don’ get it…

  14. Rommel says:

    The media, epecially here but abroad as well, have proven themselves to be the true devisive and race-baiting cretins during this whole ordeal. Americans (with the exception of the old-fashioned racist whites and some of the black voters) have proven with their support that they can largely look past race. I don’t know any whites that voted for Obama because he was black. The media continues to harp on the racial tones of his nascent presidency and has done so since the very early days of the election. As a staunch conservative I am willing to give Obama a chance and will respect the office – unlike our liberal compatriots in the past. I am growing increasingly weary of the race-tinged news “reporting”, i.e. interviewing mostly black Americans on their feelings today, allusions to Dr. King…
    Now that he is elected it is time to stop calling him our first black president and call him our President with no qualifier.

  15. Oliver says:

    There are names considered black, black churches and a black dialect. In addition most europeans are culturally closer to each other than to non-europeans. Europeans share christianity, some relation to classical antiquity, a link to either Rome or Constantinople and a shared basic material culture.

    Even hispanic is considered a race. Which makes little sense. From a distance race seems to be a euphemism for what multiethnic countries call ethnicity.

  16. American Mutt says:

    Another 2 cents:
    A lot of Americans are of mixed race as well, including yours truly to a small degree (1/32nd Cherokee). I have read of studies suggesting that “black” americans have on average 1/4 European Ancestry. Henry Louis Gates has found that he may have as much European Ancestry as African. So this just goes further to demonstrate the way race is a man-made system for sorting people. I also think that you are going to see more and more Americans of mixed racial groups as immigration picks up and taboos on interracial marriage get tossed away. Speaking as someone in my 20s, I see this happening among my friends, a large proportion of whom are marrying across racial categories.

  17. Joe Jones says:

    “Race” is a really stupid word that ought to be banned. “Culture” makes sense. “Ethnicity” sort of makes sense since it at least has some malleability.

    The US is at least sensible enough to officially consider “Hispanic” or “Latino” a separate classification from race, since every country in Latin America has white, black and Native American Hispanic/Latinos in varying proportions. Heck, there are even a lot of Asians down there. Calling Hispanic a race is like calling American a race.

    My high school in Florida was statistically “90% black,” but still had incredible cultural diversity between its Americans, Jamaicans, Bahamians, Dominicans, Cubans, Haitians, a smattering of other Afro-Caribbean people and even a few “real” Africans. Many people who had never been there were surprised that a white kid like me could survive there. But skin color is ultimately little more than what people make it to be. (Not that I wouldn’t mind more melanin when I go to the beach…)

  18. Skippy-san says:

    Thanks for very well laying out my big beef with -American nomenclature.

    However there are two parallel cultures at work now. Those that want to move beyond skin color and those who want to use it to enhance preferred customer status.

  19. Eddie says:

    Chirol.

    AA= affirmative action.

    Obama will not try any gun control moves. Way too many Blue Dog democrats to kill that, especially Jim Webb.

  20. Chirol says:

    Eddie: Thanks for that, I guess I don’t discuss it enough to use the acronym =)

    Joe: I agree culture is better way to describe it. Perhaps that will be the trend in the future, away from skin color and towards different types of subcultures.

  21. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I’d like to know if my favorite campaign story is an Internet urban legend: a canvasser was going door-to-door sampling voter preferences; one door opened by a housewife who, when asked who she planned to vote for, hollered to her husband who was watching TV, “Who we gonna vote for, honey?” “The ni**er!” Turned back to the canvasser & said, “we’re voting for the ni**er.”

  22. Roy Berman says:

    Ralph: I may have seen the first report of that anecdote, which was from someone who claimed to have experienced it themselves. Of course, I can’t remember where that was so it could be totally fake…

  23. ron patterson says:

    Not really sure if you are making a point in the article. What is the sad part? Most all ready know that America is a multi cultural place and that there were and are serious racial problems. Including a civil war. Are there still problems of course as long as there are humans there will be some sort of tribalism. Most people are very happy that obama was elected. he was voted on by merit by most. Did you have any point ?

  24. Thomas Jackson says:

    You think America is unique? Go to the UK and ask are the Scots different from the Welsh, or are people from Edinburgh the same as people from Perth? Why not ask a Breton if he is different from a French Basque?

    People who focus on their diffferences do so because they can’t focus on talent or excellence.

    Witness the truly great figures in history. They do not play on gender, race or creed. Losers do. Obama and his Obamabots are racists.

  25. Sonagi says:

    You opened your post by bolding labeling Obama “our first presidential ‘affirmative action hire’” yet provided no support for this assertion, addressing only the second point about the black/white dichotomy. Could you please elaborate on the first claim?

  26. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Well I don’t look on him as an ‘affirmative action’ candidate – he ran the best campaign of the Democrats, and after the arguably worst president in US history, the only surprise to me is that anyone voted Republican….

  27. Jay says:

    I suspect the “affirmative action candidate” reference stems from the race based votes that Obama received. I find it very difficult that a hefty portion of his supporters don’t take into account his race as much as any of his policies in their reasoning for their support.

  28. ron patterson says:

    Your site offers excellent travel and geo-political observations. I do believe that Anthropology is not your strong suit. I am confused as to why voting for a black man is racist. Obama considers himself black. Why not an article on Canada’s ehnic cleansing of blacks and the banning of ‘colored” immigration until 1963?

  29. Sonagi says:

    Your post on Obama’s inauguration is provocatively titled “Another Sad Chapter in Racism” and derisively labels the new president an “affirmative action hire.” Such bold language deserves strong supporting details.

    @Jay:

    What is a “hefty portion”? Do you have poll data to support your gut feeling? My 68-year-old mother still recounts bitterly how she lost a great job opportunity with the state government owing to affirmative action, yet for the first time since 1964, she cast a vote for a democratic presidential candidate. Obama’s supporters are a diverse demographic. Obama’s race won him some votes but cost him others. A fellow employee whom I had never considered racist cracked a joke about an Obama White House replacing the Rose Garden with a watermelon patch. I don’t think anyone can accurately quantify whether Obama’s race was a net gain or loss, but it certainly was not the overriding factor in his win.

  30. Chirol says:

    My personal opinion is that his race was an important influencing factor for many people who voted for him, and for some, the main if not only reason. that is why I said I believe he’s an affirmative action hire. I don’t have concrete polling data to back it up because I’m not aware of any done on that specific issue. But many people wanted to help make history, and blacks wanted to vote for what they incorrectly believed to be the first black president. Add liberal guilt to that and you have decisions based not on merit but on skin color.

    Also, I find it personally impossible to believe that a white freshman senator with virtually no experience would have been even a candidate for the nomination, much less the nominee and actually president. There is no case to be made Obama had the requisite experience to run. He even used running as ‘experience.’

    Again, this is my personal impression and opinion and my point is that it was a factor when it shouldn’t have been one. Nevertheless, I can understand why it was one.

  31. Jay says:

    Sonagi

    My stance was based on conjecture. Hence the “I find it hard to believe…” Have you got some poll data to back your assertion that race wasn’t a decisive factor in his victory?
    Were his policy stances (oblique as they were) so different from those of John Kerry?
    I don’t begrudge Obama being elected but I do believe his race and the historical nature of a first black president acted in tandem with his rhetoric to get him elected. A promise of “Change” coming from, as Chirol states, a white freshman congressman wouldn’t resonate with the same force by my measure.

  32. Sonagi says:

    Barack Obama wasn’t the first presidential candidate of African heritage. Being identified as black didn’t seal the deal for Alan Keyes or Jesse Jackson. Hillary Clinton would have made history, too, and there were more women voters than black voters. Barack Obama’s short tenure in Washington was an asset; his message of change was more convincing than Clinton’s or McCain’s. In fact, my mom, who voted for Obama, said she decided against Clinton because she didn’t want Bill back in the White House.

    Race has always been a hidden factor. It’s that in the past, being a person of color was a net minus; that is, there were more people who would vote against than for owing to race. In short, race was one factor among many, and it is nothing but conjecture, as you say, to weigh race as the deciding factor.

  33. Roy Berman says:

    “Being identified as black didn’t seal the deal for Alan Keyes or Jesse Jackson.”
    Well, being kind of insane and not very bright certainly sealed the deal for Keyes. Look up his “debates” with Barack Obama to see how different their leagues are. Alan Keyes is simply a pathetic figure.

    I suppose that a tiny number of white people may have been more likely to vote for Obama due to his race but let’s be honest-being black has historically been a HUGE negative in getting elected in the US and your assertion that Obama was an “affirmative action” hire strikes me as extremely wrong, and based on some kind of caricature. Did you see the campaign that McCain ran against him? Did you see the campaign that Clinton ran? The only way I can see that race may have really worked in his favor is that some of his opponents added so much racist subtext that it made THEM look bad and ruin their OWN campaign. That makes race a factor in a roundabout way, but it’s certainly not affirmative action.