Archive for Thursday, September 25, 2008

What does ‘black’ mean?

September 25, 2008


black /'blak/ adjective
1: of the color black;
2: of or relating to the African-American people;
3: dirty, soiled;
4: thoroughly sinister or evil;
5: connected with the supernatural and especially the devil

- adapted from Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary

Last year, Sen. Joe Biden made a comment some people considered racially insensitive toward Sen. Barack Obama. Obama's response was a mild one - he called Biden's remark "historically inaccurate." This earned him a harsh rebuke from one of my readers. Obama, this gentleman told me via e-mail, had just lost his vote by acting like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, i.e., an angry black man. "Up to now," the reader wrote, "I did not see him as an Afro American."

Which brings us to our question for the day: What does black mean?

By now, I suspect Obama sees black as the horror movie monster who returns to life (string music shrieking) after the hero has seemingly killed it and turned to walk away. Can you blame him? In the last 20 months, we've had the "Is he black enough?" controversy and the crazy preacher controversy; we've had Bob Johnson going off his meds; we've had Geraldine Ferraro calling Obama an affirmative action candidate, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland calling him "uppity" and Rep. Geoff Davis calling him "boy." Lately, I've heard some African-Americans - including Obama supporters - griping at the notion that voting for him is their racial duty.

Now there's a new poll by The Associated Press, Yahoo News and Stanford University, which finds that a third of white Democrats have "deep-seated racial misgivings." Given a choice of negative adjectives - lazy, boastful, violent - and asked whether they applied to African-Americans, significant minorities of whites said one or another of them did.

Apparently, then, "deep-seated racial misgivings" is the AP's preferred euphemism for racism.

It's worth noting, however, that larger numbers of whites imputed positive descriptions (good neighbors, determined to succeed) to blacks. And God bless the very canny 5 percent who refused altogether to play the sucker's game of trying to describe 36 million people in one or two words, whether positive or negative.

Still, at day's end, there remain those "deep-seated racial misgivings." So when we ask what black means, well, pollsters say it may mean as many as six percentage points in lost votes for Obama.

This is the tightrope African-American politicians have walked since Tom Bradley ran for mayor of Los Angeles if not before, trying to be black without being BLACK, as in that angry bogeyman that haunts white America's dreams. At one level, it's only smart politics: Who'd want to vote for anyone who ran on a platform of grievance?

At another level, though, it is something else: recognition that there is a reflexive white fear of black claims upon conscience. As in my reader who insisted he had not previously seen Obama as black.

It's a silly statement, but it made sense to him because to him, black means only grievance and anger seeking to burden his conscience. And he fears that enough that he processes even Obama's mild chastisement as if the senator had become some fire-belching combination of Louis Farrakhan and Huey P. Newton.

Obama has walked this tightrope about as well as anyone could, has answered racial questions when they have been unavoidable, but has visibly striven not to be defined or confined by them, to make his candidacy about something other than his paint job and his culture. But race, the horror movie monster, is never quite slain and I suspect that by this point, Obama realizes this.

And realizes, too, that ultimately our question of the day is not his to answer.

What does black mean? We'll find out in November.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


LeslieJeanne 9 years, 8 months ago

I have listened to Obama closely since the first debates. My family has deviated from Republican three times, FDR, JFK, and now Obama. His responses are calm, rational, reasoned, and carefully thought out. He does not display anger but responds with courtesy to all questions. His experience in working with the diffficult situations in South Chiago, his experience in Congress make him the right person to be president.Palin dresses and talks like a fifteen year old using words such as yuh, for you, and huh.Do the right thing and vote Obama.Black is a good thing.

denak 9 years, 8 months ago

I really would love to know where this poll was taken. I have only been called once, by an automatic machine, for a political poll and the questions were so simplistic that they did not even begin to deal with the complexity of the issues it was polling.So, I wonder just how this poll was taken, by whom, and whether or not the people were given choices as to what they could and could not agree with.I don't pretend that we live in a color-blind society but I honestly believe that Obama's color has very little to nothing to do with why that majority of certain individuals do not like him or do not want to vote with him.I do believe our society is better than that. To think that in less than 55 years we went from segregation to having an African-American man running for president, is nothing short of miraculous.I saw a cartoon a few weeks ago where Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King were looking down from Heaven and Abe is saying to MLK, "No, its not a Dream."I think that cartoon pretty much sums it up and says really what our country stands for.Dena

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 8 months ago

But what I think we should all understand from this is the fact that racial types are very, very difficult to pin down. Thinking of human biological traits as more of a spectrum would probably be the most appropriate way to view 'race.' Race does have some medical validity, as certain populations around the world are more susceptible to afflictions like sickle cell anemia and favism. Some people of African descent don't respond as well to certain blood pressure medications. If medicine ever gets there, perhaps a genetic bar-code for each person can be determined, and from this, the best course of medical treatment can be applied. This, by the way, is called genomics. But we just have to be careful about applying any system of values based upon biological ancestry.

average 9 years, 8 months ago

Luo tribesmen are Arabs? Really?Just for your edification, the vast majority of the world Muslims are not Arabs, either.And yes, growing up a man of color, marrying a black woman, and working in the black community, Barack Obama has as much claim to be a representative of African-Americans as anyone.

verity 9 years, 8 months ago

"Given a choice of negative adjectives - lazy, boastful, violent - and asked whether they applied to African-Americans, significant minorities of whites said one or another of them did."Did they also ask whether the respondents felt that way about other groups of people? I'm very suspicious of all polls, as so often, whether purposely or not, they are "pushed" to get a certain response. The people who thought that applied to African-Americans might also have thought it applied to all people. Were they asked that? And if you look closely at any report of any poll, they usually don't say what the headline says that they do.If elected president, Barack Obama will represent all of us, not just blacks. That's why the title is President of the Unitied States of America. Personally, I don't give a ------------- what race, color, religion or combination of anything else he is or isn't. I care what HE IS and how well I think he will do the job.You might as well ask "what does white mean?"

Corey Keizer 9 years, 8 months ago

Kansas 778,You mean socialist like the current plan to socialize Debt right? A plan written by... uh...who was that guy, Bernanke and Paulson... who was nominated by which guy... um... Oh yea, Bush? Parkay, WND is Totally fair and balanced... Like Fox news!

jumpin_catfish 9 years, 8 months ago

What is blue or orange or magenta? So many answers but the questions evade me.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 8 months ago

parkay: "Obamanation isn't black, he's red...."parkay is wrong.( just managing my balance sheet )

oneflewover 9 years, 8 months ago

Obama is barely 7% black, he's 50% white and 43% Arabic

kansas778 9 years, 8 months ago

autie (Anonymous) says: He is black to white conservatives and that's all that matters.*****Wrong. His hard core socialist views matter far more.

temperance 9 years, 8 months ago

Let me be the 3rd or 5th person to commend MaryKate for the awesome response.Kansas778 "blah blah blah, Obama's a socialist, blah blah blah, I have an inability to experience cognitive dissonace, blah blah blah." Anyway. ckeizer77 beat me to it, but any conservative using the term "socialist" to describe Obama needs to be served a heaping cup of Shut the Hell Up. The biggest federal intervention in US economic history is happening under Republican leadership. Sorry guys. It's time to retire the "socialist" smear against Obama when your buddy Bush is turning out to be the biggest socialist of them all.

Terry Jacobsen 9 years, 8 months ago

Why is it when people want to argue experience they want to talk about Palin and Obama. If your going to argue experience, then McCain wins hands down over Obama. End of story.

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 8 months ago

Marion: actually, anthropologists who buy into racial taxonomy usually refer to Australians as 'australoid' or 'ancestral caucasoid.' That might not make sense to the person reading this on September 25, 2008, but when looking at skeletal traits of humans throughout the archaeological and fossil record, Australians tend to look a lot like prehistoric populations in SE Asia, which themselves look nothing like modern SE Asians. In fact, there are several 'remnant' populations of 'australoid' peoples in places like Cambodia and southern India. The Ainu of Japan are the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands, but they were overtaken by people from Korea about 4000 (and I might be off on that date) years ago. Today, 'ethnic' Ainu are basically 2nd class citizens in Japan and have been relegated to the island of Hokkaido. C. Loring Brace, a famous biological anthropologist, proposed that the Samurai in ancient Japan were actually Ainu individuals. Well, the modern Japanese didn't like that idea very much. If you look at photos of Ainu individuals, they do not look anything like the modern Japanese, nor anything like southeast Asians in general; they look more like a cross between Australian aborigines and Germans. Evolutionary theory is key to understanding all of this, so if you think of 'races' as from an essentialist point of view--being that they are discrete, immutable groups--none of this will make any sense.As for your ostensible conundrum, Marion, we know that people have been in Australia for at least 40,000 years, so I would say that they have just as much right to be called Australians as we have to be called Europeans; the first anatomically modern humans didn't show up in Europe until about 41,000 years ago.

David Omar 9 years, 8 months ago

What does white mean? Caucasian? Arab North African? Arab Middle Eastern? European? Upper Iraq? What is the difference between all of these? Does color really matter? The darkest person or the whitest really doesn't matter when it comes to leadership, does it? Aren't we electing the supreme leader of the USA?

acg 9 years, 8 months ago

MaryKate, that was an awesome response.

Mixolydian 9 years, 8 months ago

Pitts should have stopped writing after:adapted from Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary.

LeslieJeanne 9 years, 8 months ago

My daughter is half black and thought of as black. When she was small she asked me about this. I told her I was proud of her Aftrican heritage as I am her Irish and Dutch heritage. Black churches tend to tap more into an emotional and intimate connection with Jesus, seeing him as a friend and ally who understands us when times are hard and we are trying and not suceeding, who loves us no matter what. It is a radical melding of passion and thinking of simply being, of realizing that the individual is not the be all and end all because we are all together.

LeslieJeanne 9 years, 8 months ago

What we have here is a group of white people writing about black people. Do none of you have black friends, black co-workers, black neighbors? Some of these postings are so impersonal you sound like aliens observing another species. What about the Hispanics and Native Americans in Lawrence? We are a diverse population when it comes to culture and language and I think that should be reflected in the postings. I think people should speak from their own life and experiences and not resort to statistics.

Corey Keizer 9 years, 8 months ago

kansas778...socialist... full vs. half. If the half is the type of socialist that requires the people to pay for debt, costing the people money, but not the half that then "nationalizes" profit, is that really the "half" you want? My point is consistency. Bush and McCain have always pushed for "Free-market" which is the opposite of socialism, but now that the poo has hit the fan socialism doesn't look so bad!

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 8 months ago

Marion: "... you might get a boomerang up you wazoo!... I'm so confused."You might even get a kazoo up the wazoo!Wiki: "Such instruments have been used in Africa for hundreds of years, to disguise the sound of somebody's voice or to imitate animals, often for various ceremonial purposes."

Corey Keizer 9 years, 8 months ago

Kansas 778,You mean socialist like the current plan to socialize Debt right? A plan written by... uh...who was that guy, Bernanke and Paulson... who was nominated by which guy... um... Oh yea, Bush? Every one is a socialist when their pocket books are empty, whether their liberal or conservative. Parkay, WND is Totally fair and balanced... Like Fox news!

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 8 months ago

Marion: No problem. I was hoping that I was sensing ostensibility in your post. You were looking for an answer and I provided it, no?In any case, I think the 'race' problem in the world today, especially that resulting from the European colonial period, is extremely interesting. It is one of those things you like to learn about but don't want to have a hand in, as it will often either get chopped off or misused.

kansas778 9 years, 8 months ago

ckeizer77 and temperance, what exactly is your point? What republicans do doesn't change what Obama is. Bush or McCain aren't my ideal choices, but I'd rather have someone who is half socialist than a full-blown socialist. I'd love to hear exactly what you think the difference is between Obama and a socialist.

tunahelper 9 years, 8 months ago

omaba is gonna lose. White America will NOT vote for a black man with a Muslim name.

verity 9 years, 8 months ago

Redwood, thanks for that information. Fascinating.But, oh, dear, oh, dear, now I don't even know what to call myself, let alone our presidential candidate.Maybe just American?

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 8 months ago

To answer Mimi's question waaaay up there, 'race,' as we understand it as a society and how anthropologists who study human variation understand it are generally very different. I believe that the formal classification of 'major human populations' or 'races' began with Linnaeus and his original taxonomic system that biological field still uses today.In modern times, anthropologists generally to not give much credence to the concept as being very useful. Granted, forensic anthropologists must use racial taxonomy when examining human remains, the correct identification of which is somewhere in the 80% range. But anthropologists who use the race concept can't even come to a consensus on how to delineate the 'races.' Some break humans in to three major groups--caucasoid, negroid, and mongoloid. Others use up to six major groups--negroid, mongoloid, caucasoid, australoid, amerind, and Polynesians.For relevance on this thread, the 'Arabic' that was mentioned is usually grouped under the caucasoid race, just as many populations in Oceania. In our own society, we generally have an unstated cultural or ethnic component piggy-backing on biology. Mexicans, for example, are probably seen by most as having a particular set of physical traits combined with cultural or ethnic traits.Without a doubt, humans have, in fact, evolved (oh man, here they come) to become better adapted to their particular environments. Native Tibetans in China and Quechua and Aymara people in the Andes are perfect examples. All of these people show adaptations to high-altitude environments that are statistically significant--meaning that the population has genetically adapted to the environment over time. Cranial volume was once thought of as a proxy of human intelligence. But now we know that, if mapped on the globe, cranial volume generally becomes higher as latitude increases. Why? Probably because having a larger head with a lower surface area/volume ratio allows for decreased heat loss in cold environments. Skin pigmentation generally increases the closer to the equator you get. And there are several forms of skin pigmentation, some resulting from high melanin production, while others result more from increased keratin produced. All, however, decrease the damage that UV rays cause the skin. Most Europeans can develop hypervitaminosis from too much vitamin D if they spend prolonged periods with their skin exposed to the sun.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 8 months ago

Black was always one of my favorite colors in the crayon box.Sure, you could always outline an area with a heavier border of thecolor within, but black... it brought all those inner colors to life!

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