According to new survey data from the Pew Research Center, only a 27 percent of Americans consider President Obama “Black,” while just over half (52%) view him as “mixed race.” The data prompted many declare the findings “fascinating” and wonder if this signals yet another (slow) shift toward Post-Racial America. But there’s just one problem.
Can’t a person be both?
As Jenée Desmond-Harris writes in The Root, biracial people with a Black parent have historically identified (or have been seen) as Black. It’s not an either/or proposition.
The only thing fascinating (read: frustrating) is why Pew would force people to choose between these two options. By setting up “black” and “mixed race” as mutually exclusive, as it appears to have done in the “Obama: Black or Mixed Race” (emphasis mine) portion of its poll, it offered Americans a misleading choice that doesn’t reflect their social reality, and certainly doesn’t tell us anything new about how they see their president.
If participants were, in fact, forced to choose between the two options, knowing that Obama self-identifies as black and knowing, too, that he has a white parent and a black parent, it makes sense to assume that many people simply picked the most specific option: “mixed race.”
That does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean they say “no” to his being black.
…So, although some people with President Obama’s same background might adamantly choose “biracial” or “mixed race” or “just human,” for many others (this writer included), being mixed race is simply the specific way in which they’re black.
In other words, asking Americans whether Obama is black or mixed-race is like making them decide whether he lives in the White House or in Washington, D.C., whether he’s the president or a lawyer, and whether his wife is the first lady or the founder of Let’s Move.
Asking respondents to answer whether President Obama is mixed race or Black seems like a curious question, especially considering Pew did not also have an option to classify him as White—but we already know why that option wasn’t available.
Despite half of respondents classifying the President as “mixed race,” being biracial has not protected him from the racist arrows slung by his most ardent critics looking to delegitimize his presidency because a Black family now occupies the White House.