Googling the words “Obama first black president” returns over 100 million Web pages (“Obama” with the words “first black president” in quotes returns about 776,000 Web pages). But no matter how many times we say it, it’s just not true. Barack Obama is not America’s first black president. We haven’t had a black president, yet.
Barack Obama is half-black and half-white. His father was a black man from Kenya. His mother was a white woman from Kansas. We all know this. So why do we call him our first black president? By this logic, he could just as easily be called “the 44th white president.”
Imagine a time in the future when America has its first actual, 100% black president. That person will be incorrectly – and unfairly – known as America’s second black president.
What it boils down to is racism on two fronts.
On one hand, it’s anti-black. For those who call Obama black, if you are one-half black and one-half white, then you’re not white – you’re black. So when they say that Obama is black, the implication is that if you have some “black” in you, you’re black. To be white, you need to be 100% white, “untainted” by the black genes. Calling Obama the first black president reinforces this racist viewpoint.
On the other hand, calling Obama a black president is anti-white. What about his white mother? Don’t her white genes count for anything? Imagine calling Obama a white president, completely discounting his black background. We’d have a race war on our hands. But calling Obama our first black president is the same as calling him our 44th white president.
Because of America’s racially-divided history, calling him our first black president is acceptable — and actually preferable. It has a conciliatory nature. But this practice further highlights the racial divide by looking backwards. We had a bunch of white presidents – now here’s a black one. Now it seems like the beginning of some kind of balance. Does that mean we’d need over 40 more consecutive “black” presidents after Obama to make things somehow right?
Of course not. But he should be called “America’s first mixed-race president.” That is not only correct, but it’s forward-looking. Sure, it’s a little more clunky to say, but it’s a real way to help heal the country’s racial wounds, to go beyond the bilateralism of white and black. As Obama’s remarkable presidential campaign has shown, words do matter. Obama can say, “Look at me, I am the best of both worlds. I am equal parts black and white. In me, at least, racism has been solved.” He is a symbol of the power of miscegenation. It could be a look into a color-blind future. But we have to start with words.
President Obama is a product of equal parts black and white. Shouldn’t both aspects be celebrated equally?
To the future and true “first black president of the United States,” whoever you may be: You will be called the second, but always remember, you are the first.