We'll Tell You If You're Black or Not

From John Judis, noted scholar of black identity:


When asked about his race on the census form, Barack Obama, the child of a white Kansan and black African, did not take the option of checking both "white" and "black" or "some other race." Instead, he checked "black, African American or Negro." By doing that, Obama probably did what was expected of him, but he also confirmed an enduring legacy of American racism...

In its American incarnation, blackness emerged as a social category in the seventeenth century as part of Southern whites' attempt to justify the economic and social subordination of Africans who had been brought to the country in bondage. The legal interpretation of blackness was accompanied by laws barring miscegenation between whites and blacks. The one-drop rule endured after the Civil War and after emancipation as a justification of racial segregation and of the tiered economy of the sharecroppers....

By denying the existence of race, one denies the existence of racial inequality. Yet by using the constructed language of race, one perpetuates invidious racial distinctions. Obama faced this dilemma when he chose how to designate himself on the census. And he may have done the right thing--but only in the short run. If racism is finally to disappear, so must the peculiar logic of blackness.

The claim that biracial African-Americans who identify as such are confirming "an enduring legacy of American racism" is so broad as to be meaningless. Taken on face value, it can be applied to any American who checks any race on the census form, since our concept of race, itself--not just biraciality--is "an enduring legacy of American racism." 

But it's telling that Judis is only interested in one side of the ledger--he wags his finger at the "peculiar logic of blackness," but has nothing to say about the peculiar, and at times malicious, logic of whiteness. Shifting with the decades and the mores of the country, "whiteness" is as invented and dubious as the one-drop rule. But Judis does not think that referring to John F. Kennedy as "white" is somehow a problem. He is not asking what Joe Lieberman checked on his census form. 

Judis view of race originates in the sense that the best way to view black identity is through the lens of white racism. It's broadly true that the very existence of the descendants of Africans in this country is "an enduring legacy of American racism." But it's also an enduring legacy of a lot more--the human capacity for ingenuity, the enduring resonance of the American idea, and in cases like these, the remarkable ability to wave aside intellectuals who believe that black people are ill-equipped to define themselves, and must defer to the divine majesty of What White Folks Think. If "What What White Folks Think" holds that Barack Obama isn't black, what right does he, much less other black people, have to consider himself as such?

As an aside, this is an incredibly callous display of arrogance. In fascinating fashion, Barack Obama has written about creating identity, of finding some of himself in Malcolm X's acts of reinvention, in the stability of the Robinson family, in the spirituality and rhythms of  the black church, in the trash-talk of South Side basketball courts, in the courage of the Civil Rights pioneers, all the while holding on to the mother who raised him, and grandparents who helped rear him. But John Judis, evidently, knows better.

His response is a caricature of the worst stereotypes of white liberalism. Note the invocation of a "Marxist View Of Race." Note the sense that blackness is strictly the work of "Southern Whites." Note the arrogance of assuming that "blackness" is defined by 17th century racists, and that the people being defined have no agency. In one fell column, Judis anoints himself High Arbiter of Blackness, and then dismisses Obama's complicated and arduous process as the president simply doing "what was expected of him." 

The only appropriate response to this sentiment is to regrettably resort to the language of my folks and ask the following--Who the fuck is John Judis? 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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