Is Being Biracial an Advantage for Obama?

Senator's mixed background may help him tackle race issues, some say.


March 21, 2008 — -- The son of a black man and a white woman, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says he's seen and heard it all.

From his grandmother's fear of black men on the street to his former pastor's perceived anti-American rants, Obama said Tuesday that after a lifetime straddling the line between black and white he remains hopeful that a "more perfect union" is, in fact, possible.

Several biracial individuals with similar backgrounds agreed that living both sides of the racial experience may offer an unique perspective on bridging the racial divide.

"All of us who have those experiences are given the gift of a life lesson in bridging artificial divisions to arrive at common hopes and values," said Lise Funderburg who is biracial and the author of "Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity."

"All of us who have that background have the opportunity to make this positive thing out of it, and Obama has seized that opportunity," Funderburg said.

But not everyone was certain Obama's views and motives were were so clear cut. Biracial writer Shelby Steele told that he thinks Obama's use of his background was "disingenuous." He believes the ruminations about mixed heritage show Obama to be not an expert but rather a man confused about his racial identity.

"Obama is a black man with a white mother. Being biracial is an impossibility," said Steele, who said that no matter what, when Obama walks down the street he is viewed as a black man. "How could you possibly live as both? If you didn't know his mother was white, you'd say he's black and you wouldn't have a second thought."

"He's confused," said Steele of Obama. "Are you really black or are you playing the biracial card?"

Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, is considered one of the country's leading black intellectuals and he believes politics was the major motivation at play in the Tuesday appeal.

Gates told that he thinks Obama's speech was aimed at white voters in an effort to distance himself from the divisive comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

"Nobody cares that he's biracial," said Gates. "It's not an issue anymore. The speech was to appease white people and to show that he does not embrace the frightening statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright."

While no one can deny the senator's heritage and life experience, a group of black and biracial writers and an academic canvassed by were conflicted over whether biracial experience could actually help Obama tackle race in America.

Obama, who described his vision of a perfect union Tuesday as a "more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America," urged Americans to realize their differences and also their commonalities — much as his own experience has forced him to do, he said.

"[W]e cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together … unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but all want to move in the same direction," Obama said at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Being biracial, said Funderburg, allows a person insight into two very different worlds … a useful tool when trying to mediate issues between them.

"When you're biracial you can't deny either group without denying your own identity," said Funderburg. "You're more inclined to be able to see a group in its full dimensions — the good, the bad, the wise and the unwise."

"[Obama's] view of how important the union is and how important it is to transcend the divisions between us is deeply informed by his biracial experience," said Funderburg. "I identify with that viewpoint 100 percent."

"A particular gift biracial people are given is to be able to see the legitimacy of the concerns of more than one group and then see past that to a collective set of concerns," added Funderburg.

Rebecca Walker, the author of "Black, White, and Jewish," told Obama's assertion that people of different races shouldn't forget their wounds, but work together to move on, embodies her own experience as a biracial person.

"We have to encourage people to at once remember the past but also be open to a different future, rather than live in a reactive stance to what's happened to them," said Walker, whose father is white and Jewish and whose mother is black.

"The trick is how to hold on and be in conversation about the wound and how to at once be open to a new language and a new configuration that we haven't seen yet," Walker said.

Steele, however, identifies himself as a black man, not as biracial. He says Obama's physical appearance prevents him from truly experiencing what it would be like to live as a white man.

"How would it be possible to live as a white person?" said Steele. "Nobody would see him that way."

He contends Tuesday's speech was meant only to appeal to race-based guilt felt by many white constituents -- a guilt that may be partly responsible for Obama's surge toward the Democratic presidential nomination, according to Steele.

"[Whites] feel like Obama will give them the benefit of the doubt and not automatically presume they're racists," said Steele. "White guilt is one of the most powerful forces of American life and explains the phenomenon of Obama. He's talented — but not that talented."

Before Tuesday Obama had mostly refused to address the issue of race in the campaign; the widespread broadcasting of Wright's inflammatory comments likely forced his hand.

"If Obama makes them feel like a part of him embraces Wright's comments, then he's going to lose," said Harvard's Gates.

Regardless of how the message was received, most observers agreed that Obama appeared ready to tell his story. But of course, in the midst of an epic nomination battle, the message was only part of the story.

"He was saying 'I'm not like this, and I don't hate you and I can be your president,'" said Gates.