Tell It To Your Queen

by James Kirchick | November 7, 2008

Just when you thought Toby Young couldn't lose more friends and alienate more people, there he goes and writes this obnoxious blog post on the site of the London Spectator entitled "Obama isn't black." Barack Obama, Young argues, isn't really "black," he's "bi-racial" (or "caramel-colored"), and thus his election cannot ultimately "assuage the guilt white Americans feel about slavery." Well, as a white American who obviously wishes slavery never occurred (though I'm not capable of feeling "guilt" about the institution, as my family, like many Jewish families, came to this country in the latter part of the 19th century and owned no slaves), I have every reason to feel proud of my country for electing Barack Obama -- regardless of what I think about his stance on each and every issue -- as well as to recognize that it represents an important chapter in this country's history. His race is an unalloyed positive aspect of his upcoming presidency.

Young should tell Obama to his face that he "isnt' black." I'm sure Obama would be surprised. The simple fact is that if you have a parent who is black, you will be viewed as black by society. Certainly that's the case in Great Britain. Though Young seems to envince no understanding of the subtler causes and effects of racism when he flippantly writes that "My Jewish father-in-law spends a week in the sun, he goes darker than Obama. I married his daughter. Does that make me a non-racist?"  To be sure, light-skinned blacks have often faced less overt discrimination than darker-skinned blacks, but they have still faced discrimination in voting rights, employment, housing, you name it, and they still do. To say that Obama "isn't black" is to downplay not only his own individual achievements, but the amazing progress America has made thus far.

But don't take it from a white Jewish guy like me. Talk to black people! Read black journalists! Who is some pasty British guy to tell Americans, particularly black Americans (no matter how dark their skin), how they ought understand Barack Obama's election victory? Judging by the reactions of the many, many black Americans I've encountered over the past few days, I think it's safe to say that they feel a great deal of pride and joy for their country, and that they truly do believe that more things are possible for them and the next generation. And isn't their reaction (as well as the reactions of other ethnic minorities) what ultimately matters when discussing the impact of Barack Obama's historic election on race relations in this country, rather than the snide offerings of a British hack? (I use that term as British patois, with affection).

Surely, I don't need to recount all the little anecdotes I've accumulated over the past 48 hours attesting to the justly-felt pride and patriotism of black Americans. But I'll mention one. Sitting next to me on the bus home last night was a black woman, perhaps in her mid-50's. She was staring at the front page photograph of the commemorative edition Washington Post, featuring Obama and his family on the stage in Grant Park, she had picked up earlier that day. I swear, she must have stared at that photo for the whole bus ride, a good 10 minutes. She wasn't reading the articles. Just staring at the photo. Like me, still trying to process the entire idea of a black family (Toby, in case you didn't notice, his wife is fully "black" by your standards, though his children, I guess, are only 3/4) in the White House.

As to Young's last point:

If I was a caramel-coloured American, I’d certainly be pleased that Obama had been elected. It proves that white people are prepared to embrace light-skinned men of colour. But I would probably know that already. If I was a dark-skinned American, on the other hand, I’m not sure I’d take much comfort from this. It would simply confirm something I have long known, namely, that the extent to which African-Americans are the victims of racist discrimination in America depends, to a very large extent, on how dark-skinned they are. White Americans have finally come around to the idea of having a coffee-coloured President. Great. But when are they going to stop discriminating against people who are actually black?

 

The British House of Commons currently has 4 black members (according to this list, which names 15 individuals, though most of them are of south Asian descent but considered "black" in terms of the Parliamentary Black Caucus). Parliament is a representative body comprising over 640 members. In comparison, the 435-member United States House of Representatives has 41 black members, as well as 2 black non-voting delegates. To be sure, the black population in Great Britain is about 1/6 that of the United States, but even accouting for this demographic difference, the Brits lag behind in having a legislative body that accurately reflects the diversity of their black population. And it's not like blacks are the only ethnic group lacking in parliamentary representation. Perhaps when the British people elect a number of non-white MPs even remotely comparable to the figure in the United States  -- never mind a non-white prime minister! -- then Young can lecture us Americans about our "white guilt" and "discrimination."

 --James Kirchick 

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/tell-it-your-queen