Richard Rodriguez: Obama Is More Brown Than Black

I hear often enough that America is becoming a post-racial nation. This election season was supposed to prove it. Yet I am struck by the contrary—how mired our politics remain in the dialectic of black and white.

Eight years ago, when John McCain was running against George W. Bush in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, someone spread a rumor by fax and flier that McCain had fathered a "black" love child. In fact, Cindy McCain had brought a sick girl to America from a Bangladeshi hospital run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity; the child was later adopted by the McCains. Perhaps the smear artists assumed some voters in South Carolina had never heard of Bangladesh and, in any case, supposed it to be somewhere in Africa. John McCain was defeated. Eight years later, after Barack Obama won the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, many said that his candidacy was proof that Americans were moving beyond race. Yet notice: the dominant political conversation at the moment contrasts the supposed white working-class diffidence toward Obama against overwhelming black support for him.

To talk about the role of race in this presidential election, it becomes necessary to rehearse the life story of Barack Obama. Is there anyone in America who has not heard it by now? Kansas marries Kenya. But then Obama's father returns to Africa, leaving young Barack in Hawaii. The boy grows to manhood (among white women), returns to the mainland and places himself squarely within the black community of Chicago. From his fractured life, Obama has constructed an oratory of reconciliation—this has been his remarkable song to America.

What interests me about Obama is the fact that he identifies himself as an "African-American." Indeed, most Americans refer to Barack Obama as the first serious "black" candidate for president. I realize that for African-Americans there has often been no option: they've been denied the possibility of mixture by the Jim Crow alchemy. "One drop" of African blood made you black no matter how light your skin or straight your hair or complicated your lineage.

Is it possible, I wonder, after centuries of slavery and injury, after illicit eroticism between black and white, after lynchings, and children who had to choose between one parent or another … is it possible to say brown? Barack Obama is brown. Mixed. There are millions of us in America who similarly belong to more than one race. There are millions of us who belong to contending races or religions or tribes.

Brown is not a new color to America. Our past is as brown as our future. Indeed, Americans are paying to have their DNA appraised and they are discovering that their family's past was browner than any grandparent led them to suppose. Tiger Woods is the hero of the brown era dawning in America. He calls himself "Cablinasian," to acknowledge the Caucasian-European, African, American Indian and Asian within him.

Much has been said about Hispanic disinterest in the Obama candidacy. My unsolicited advice to Obama is this: talk to Hispanics as a brown man who has made his way through a black and white America. We would understand you better if you understood your story in ours. For centuries, Latin America has acknowledged brown. The majority population of Mexico has been, since the 18th century, mestizo or mixed. In Brazilian Portuguese, there is a long list of words to describe brown. In America we've had only two—white and black.

America has become a global society. You can go to any large suburban high school in Los Angeles or Atlanta and see the proof. There are students from India and Peru and Laos and Egypt. They have come because the American Dream is potent. Sure, there are separate cafeteria tables. But there is also flirting and unlikely friendships being formed. A young woman from Kansas falls in love with a visiting student from Kenya. In any American family I can name, there are cousins and in-laws of several races. There are grandchildren who do not look exactly like any of their grandparents. And many families have adopted a child from China or Guatemala. Or Bangladesh.

In this world, the political necessity is for someone who might help us imagine lives larger than racial designations. A politician might win the day, if he or she were able to speak of the ways our lives are mixed.