A Short History of Whether Obama Is Black Enough, Featuring Rupert Murdoch

People have been asking that since 2006, but what they mean by it has changed over time.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Rupert Murdoch has a very thoughtful question: Is Obama black enough? OK, maybe it’s not so thoughtful. The media mogul posed the question on Twitter:

What does Rupert Murdoch mean by a “real black”? And how many of them does the 84-year-old Australian-born billionaire denizen of Manhattan’s fanciest districts know? The implication is offensive, sure, but it’s also remarkably banal. “Is Obama black enough?” is a question that’s been raised, debated, deplored, gnawed, and then shallowly buried, only to rise again, for as long as he’s been a national political figure.

What’s interesting—other than to see how many editors resorted to “black like me” jokes— is how the context for that question has changed over time. In the first phase, the question centered on whether Obama was “black enough” to both win over black voters and win a general election; as often as not, it was raised by black journalists. During the second phase, which lasted from Obama’s election until the end of his first term, Obama’s blackness was largely questioned and interrogated by white observers. (One might see this as a natural consequence of a society built on white supremacy: Having finally proved his blackness, Obama faced predictable pressure from whites.) In the third phase, the pendulum has swung back, as those questioning Obama’s blackness again seem to doubt his ability to connect with a demographic from which they believe he is alienated.

Here’s a short history of the question.

* * *

What Obama Isn’t: Black Like Me,” Stanley Crouch, November 2, 2006

One major early version of this claim, often from black journalists, concerns Obama’s reception among black voters, and whether anyone whose heritage wasn’t rooted in the slave experience was really a black American. In one of the earliest versions, the New York Daily News columnist writes, “When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about ... Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own—nor has he lived the life of a black American. In Salon, Debra Dickerson made a similar argument: “Black, in our political and social vocabulary, means those descended from West African slaves.”

Joe Biden, January 31, 2007

A second version of the question concerns Obama’s relationship with white voters. Senator Joe Biden ignited a firestorm when he implied that case, saying, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Black Like Me,” Peter Beinart, February 5, 2007

My colleague, then writing at The New Republic, offered a more elaborate investigation of Biden’s point, arguing that white voters tend to divide the African-American community into good black and bad blacks. Obama benefits, he wrote, from being a good black, like Colin Powell: “For many white Americans, it’s a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone [Al] Sharpton, too. But being the ‘good’ black is tricky. The more whites love you, the more you must reassure your own community that you are still one of them.” Beinart pointed to the struggles of Harold Ford Jr. and Cory Booker in this regard, but added, “Obama's African American wife, his connection to the black church, and his work as a community organizer give him racial credibility.”

Is Obama black enough?” Ta-Nehisi Coates, February 1, 2007

My colleague, then writing in Time, excoriates Beinart and others: “For years pundits excoriated young black kids for attacking other smart successful black kids by questioning their blackness. But this is suddenly permissible for presidential candidates.” But Coates says Obama’s struggle with black voters came from the fact that, unlike white folks, they weren’t surprised to meet someone like him and wanted more. “Barack Obama's real problem isn't that he’s too white—it’s that he’s too black,” he wrote.

60 Minutes, Steve Kroft, February 11, 2007

KROFT: Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?

OBAMA: Well, I’m not sure I decided it. I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American.

Is Obama Black Enough?” Gary Younge, March 1, 2007

The U.S.-based, British-born black Guardian writer surveyed the debate and tried to add some nuance: “There is—or should be—no debate about whether Obama is a black American. He is also, without doubt, a Kenyan-American. But the question of whether he is African-American or not remains hostage to interpretation.”

The Joshua Generation,” Barack Obama, March 7, 2007

Speaking to civil-rights leaders in Birmingham, Obama himself made a case that the old divisions were irrelevant. He called the old leaders the “Moses generation” but added that it was only Joshua and a younger generation of black leaders, aware of but not tied to the 1960s struggle, that could bring African-Americans to the promised land.

Barack Obama, August 11, 2007

The candidate arrives, with delay, to a meeting of black journalists and makes a joke about “CP time.” “I want to apologize for being a little bit late,” he says. “But you guys keep on asking whether I’m black enough. I figured I’d stroll in.”

Michelle Obama, February 1, 2008

The question faded for a bit, but after Obama routed Hillary Clinton in the January 2008 South Carolina primary, carried by black voters, Michelle Obama was asked to address it and deemed the questions “silly.” “That has nothing to do with me or Barack—that has to do with the challenges we are facing in this country and we shouldn't be surprised by them because we still haven’t worked through this stuff," she says.

Seeking Unity, Obama Feels Pull of Racial Divide,” New York Times, February 8, 2008

“While the senator had hoped his colorblind style of politics would lift the country above historic racial tensions, from Day 1 his bid for the presidency has been pulled into the thick of them. While his speeches focus on unifying voters, his campaign has learned the hard way that courting a divided electorate requires reaching out group by group.”

Barack Obama, June 15, 2008

The candidate again cracks a joke about the questions. “You remember at the beginning, people were wondering — how come he doesn’t have all the support in the African American community. You remember that? That was when I wasn’t black enough. Now I’m too black.”

Many Insisting That Obama Is Not Black,” Associated Press, January 14, 2009

Obama’s victory in 2008 couldn't quiet questions: “A perplexing new chapter is unfolding in Barack Obama's racial saga: Many people insist that ‘the first black president’ is actually not black. Debate over whether to call this son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan biracial, African-American, mixed-race, half-and-half, multiracial—or, in Obama's own words, a “mutt”—has reached a crescendo since Obama's election shattered assumptions about race.”

Where's Dave Chappelle When You Need Him?,” Stephen Marche, July 29, 2009

Writing in Esquire, the white Canadian is amazed that Obama hasn’t solved structural racism yet, some six months into his term in office:

The economic crisis has predominantly hit non-white working class men; the collapse of the auto industry is threatening to destroy the basis of the Midwestern black middle class. Key matters for African-Americans languish the overincarceration of young black men that makes a mockery of American justice being the number one example. Government aid? That goes to bankers in Connecticut. If the President were white, there would be riots.

Obama’s problem is that he’s not black enough,” Toby Young, November 3, 2010

A white British writer argues after the Tea Party midterm: “However you want to put it, Obama being just black enough helped him win in 2008. I think he now has the opposite problem. In 2010, one of the reasons he was punished by his core constituency is because he's not black enough.”

“For Birthers, Obama’s Not Black Enough,” Melissa Harris-Perry, April 27, 2011

Writing in The Nation, Harris-Perry suggests that one reason for Birtherism is that unlike black Americans descended from slaves, Obama knows his family history: “As a black man, President Obama’s confident and clear knowledge of his lineage is precisely the thing that makes his American identity dubious. Unlike most black people, he has easy access to both his American and his African selves.”

Morgan Freeman, July 5, 2012

Speaking to NPR, the black actor is supportive of Obama but draws a line. “First thing that always pops into my head regarding our president is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him ... they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America,” he says. “There was no argument about who he is or what he is. America's first black president hasn't arisen yet. He's not America's first black president—he's America's first mixed-race president.”

Fear of a Black President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, September 2012

Coates, who elsewhere criticizes Obama for espousing “respectability politics, notes how the president is constrained by the polity on race:

The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld.

Barack Obama, July 21, 2014

Praising code-switching, Obama makes an implicit rebuttal of his “authentic” blackness:

Sometimes African Americans, in communities where I’ve worked, there’s been the notion of “acting white”—which sometimes is overstated, but there’s an element of truth to it, where, okay, if boys are reading too much, then, well, why are you doing that? Or why are you speaking so properly? And the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go.

Byron Allen, May 5, 2015

What brings questions about whether Obama is black enough back into the mainstream is the spate of killings of black people by police and Obama’s continued espousal of respectability politics. TMZ catches entertainer Byron Allen, and he unloads on Obama for referring to “thugs" in riots in Baltimore: “I say to President Obama, you have to remember who you are … It’s OK to the be president of the United States and also be a black man. President Obama is at this point a white president in black face. Black Americans would have done much better with a white president.”

Morrissey, August 26, 2015

The white English singer tells Larry King, “Obama, is he white inside? That’s a very logical question—but I think he probably is.” He explains later that he’s referring to relations between the police and African Americans: “I can’t see him doing anything at all for the black community except warning them that they must respect the security forces.”

Rupert Murdoch, October 7, 2015

The media mogul launches his ill-considered tweet about whether Obama is a real black. He later clarifies that he was thinking of a New York story on whether the president had done enough for the black community. The problems with Murdoch’s question are fairly obvious: First, who is he to judge Obama’s blackness? Second, what evidence does he have connecting “real” blackness to policy outcomes? Third, what does “address the racial divide” mean? Even Obama’s conciliatory remarks on race have brought howls of rage from, well, Murdoch’s Fox News.

But Murdoch’s bringing Carson into the equation seems to presage a new iteration of the question. It can only be a matter of time before journalists will start asking whether Ben Carson black enough to connect with black voters.