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Why Do We Consider Obama to Be Black?

A historical look at the the persistence of the

New America Media, Commentary, Ronald Takaki Posted: Oct 25, 2008

Editor's Note: Historian and scholar Ronald Takaki uncovers the origins of the "one drop" rule that was key to defining race early in America's history, and ponders whether we will ever move past it - even with a mixed race presidential candidate. Takaki, emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (updated edition to be published by Little, Brown in December).

Barack Obama is the son of a white mother and a black father. In Latin America, he would be identified as mulatto or half white and half black, and in South Africa as colored or between white and black.

Why are all African Americans, regardless of their mixed racial heritage, identified as black? What are the origins of the uniquely American one drop rule?

The first 20 Africans were landed in Jamestown in 1619. Yet, the planter class did not rush to bring more laborers from Africa. The elite wanted to reproduce an English society in America. By 1670, only 5 percent of the Virginia population was African.

Six years later, the planters abandoned their vision of a homogeneous society. During Bacons Rebellion, armed white and black laborers marched to Jamestown and burned it to the ground. After reinforcements of British troops had put down the insurrection, the planters turned to Africa as their primary source of labor: they wanted workers who could be enslaved and disarmed by law based on the color of their skin. The African population inclined upward to 40 percent.

The planters also stigmatized the complexion of the African laborer. They had earlier passed a law which law provided that the child of a slave mother would inherit the status of the mother, regardless of the race of the father. Thus a child of a slave mother and a white father would be a slave.

After Bacons Rebellion, the elite passed another law which enslaved the child of a white mother and a black father.

These two laws gave birth to the one drop rule. To be black, even part black was to be a slave, and to be a slave was to be black.

This denial of racial mixture has ricocheted down the corridors of history to the very candidacy of Barack Obama.

What can we do to free ourselves from this insidious one drop rule?

All of us can acknowledge that 80 percent of African Americans, most Latinos, and a growing segment of the Asian American population are of mixed racial heritage.

Many of us can accept and assert our multiracial selves with our roots reaching around the world. We can check more than one box for race in the U.S. Census. We can be like Tiger Woods, who identifies himself as a Cablasian Caucasian, black and Asian.

As our society approaches the time when minorities will become a majority of the total U.S. population, we can redefine race in America.

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