February 24, 2008

 Is Barack Obama black?

Would Barack Obama be the first black American president? Yes and no. He is not an African-American, but an African American.

It is a painful curiosity that racial stereotyping is always dominated by the non-Caucasian parentage, so Obama is identified racially by his dark skin. Where does this come from? His mother, Ann Dunham, was a white mid-westerner. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was a Luo from Kenya.

The Kenyan Luo are a Nilotic people who migrated southwards from southern Sudan, 2000 miles from the Atlantic. No paternal ancestor of Obama's (and probably no maternal one either) grew yams in a forest clearing in West Africa, spoke a Niger-Congo language, was enslaved, shipped in chains across the Middle Passage, sold on a block in Savannah or New Orleans, tended cotton, sugar or tobacco under an overseer's whip, sharecropped in poverty after Emancipation, faced the brutality of the Jim Crow South, rode the tracks north to the ghettoes of northern cities like Chicago, and finally achieved real freedom through the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. The epic story of African-Americans is not his by birth.

Genetic differences are a very minor part of this story, but they do exist. Obama has an African heritage, but what does this mean? Broad racial classifications are not illegitimate or inherently racist; they only become so when coupled with doctrines of inferiority. But they aren't very useful. The broad-brush racial classification of "African" is even more misleading than its other continental counterparts - European, Asian, Amerindian, Australasian. Africa is the homeland of humans, who are therefore more varied there than in other continents.


Obama has facial features - prominent ears, thin lips, narrow chin - that are common in East Africa but rare in West Africa, and therefore in African-Americans. Contrast this Masai cellphone user with the young Kwame Nkrumah. I think both are pretty representative.

Richard Lewontin showed in 1972 that 85% of crude human genetic variation can be found within quite small populations anywhere, and only 15% is specific to differences between populations. More subtle big-group patterns can be teased out using more sophisticated statistical methods, so that genetics sheds light on human prehistory, especially ancient migration pathways and the evolution of language.

A better way of looking at human diversity than continental types is therefore as a tree - a fig-tree with branches that combine as well as split. The trunk lies in East Africa, roughly where the Luo live. Prugnolle et al showed that diversity increases smoothly with simple distance from this region (figures 1 and 2). Since Europe is only a little further than West Africa is from the Rift Valley, the average genetic difference of their inhabitants from the origin is similar. Think of Jesse Jackson as sitting at the end of the West African genetic branch, Hillary Clinton at the end of the European branch, and Barack Obama Sr perched by the trunk. Barack Jr., with half-European genes, is very probably more similar genetically to Hillary than to his wife Michelle.

It's still necessary to repeat how unimportant these differences are outside medical genetics - and of course personal choice of mate. Our young species is unusually uniform : between two individuals chosen at random, one in a thousand nucleotides will differ, 0.1%. We share 96-99%% of our genome with our nearest relatives the chimpanzees, depending on how you count; and a surprising amount with yeast and nematodes. Very little of human variation therefore occurs within the few genes that differentiate us from chimps - in fact you would expect strong selective pressures to the contrary. A genuine human throwback with chimpanzee gait, brain, or jaw would not find a mate.

Some of the variation is just genetic drift. Mutate a three-base UCC codon in DNA to UCG, the cell's assemblers still add a serine unit to the target protein, and the phenotype (us) is none the wiser. But this meaningless change creates a new substrate for later mutation: change the middle base C to A, and you get UAC or UAG: one is for tyrosine, the other a stop, which makes a big difference. Drift must also gradually turn permanently suppressed, but functional, genes into irrecoverable junk, as deleted files are gradually overwritten on a computer hard drive.

The changes that matter so absurdly much to us are the result of two other forces. Different environments in high and low latitudes created opposite adaptive pressures for and against pale skin (aka melanin deficiency) and sickle-cell anaemia. They allowed red hair and freckles in northerners, but not in the tropics where they predispose to skin cancer. The other force was sexual selection, essentially for facial features. Populations evolve towards their (stable) ideal of beauty, and this varies a lot. Compare Botticelli's Venus , these Yoruba sculptures (footnote), and the Chinese film star Yang Wei. If Luo girls like bat ears in boys, in the long run that's what their sons will have. Yoruba men plainly liked plump lips in women; a whim seized on by white racists as evidence of non-existent ape-like jaws.

Barack Obama's skin colour doesn't therefore make him an African-American. What counts for much more is his experience in childhood and youth. He was a child in Hawaii, a melting-pot whose fierce identity politics is not driven by mainland categories. See this charming first-hand account by a Jewish academic, Alex Golub. Obama also spent four of his childhood years in Indonesia, where his American identity presumably counted for more than his exact parentage. He claims to have encountered American racial stereotyping first at the age of ten in a school in Hawaii: surely in a fairly diluted form? He would have met the real thing when he moved as a student to Los Angeles and New York. Above all he identified with black America when he married a real African-American, Michelle Robinson.

Expressed in an eloquence drawn from a black tradition created in America, Obama's post-civil-rights discourse of unity is not only a matter of character and conviction but politically required by his situation. A black opponent in the Jesse Jackson tradition would have demolished any tactical pretence of being a brother from the ghetto or heir to Martin Luther King. Obama has had the good fortune not to have faced an African-American rival in his presidential campaign. Al Sharpton decided not to run , and he hardly counts as serious anyway.

If Obama is nominated, the GOP may try to use the facts I've cited as wedge points to peel off black support. The Clintons, who have a solid track record on civil rights, couldn't do this, so it's hard to see a 71-year-old reactionary white curmudgeon having better luck.

Does any of this matter? Yes.

First, to Africa. In practical policy terms, Barack's presidency would not be very different to Hillary's for African-Americans. But it could make an huge difference to the continent that hosts the greatest part of the world's misery today. Bill Clinton's great failure was nothing to do with Monica but his failure to stop genocide in Rwanda. Obama's foreign policy programme does not mention Africa (perhaps anticipating wedge attacks) but the section on global poverty includes the keywords - extreme poverty, doubling foreign aid, helping the poorest states - that only mean Africa. He's been sound in the Senate on Darfur. If you were an Africa specialist in the Foreign Service, or an opposition leader in Zimbabwe, wouldn't you be over the moon if Obama won?

Second, it is already making a difference to American politics to have a progressive case convincingly argued by a man who both understands the experience of African-Americans, and stands outside it. He has been subject to the stereotypes of racial identity, but has had little reason to internalise them (but see update 1). He's no black Messiah but a practical politician who offers a good prospect of honest and competent stewardship of the American public interest. A convincing victory of his could also end the divisive death spiral of American conservatism. But what he is would change the symbolic effect of what he does. Beyond politics and policy, he offers a small but tantalising hope of healing the fundamental divide in the American polity since its inception, between black and white, slave and free: of a reconcilation beyond redress, completing the "unfinished work" of Lincoln and the dead of Gettysburg.


These superb works of art illustrate the contingency of cultural achievement. Imagine the fate of an eighteenth-century Yoruba sculptor and a Yoruba musician enslaved at the same time. One could adapt the tradition, blend it with those of slaves from other peoples, transmit it to children, and ultimately to the world; the art of the other, without patrons or tools, was doomed to extinction.

Update 1
I was too quick to write that Obama had no reason to internalise American racial stereotypes. Steve Sailer, in an intelligent if hostile piece, has evidence that Barack tried hard as a young man to be fully "black" - but failed, so my argument stands. Matt Yglesias rightly links to Michael Tomasky's piece here as a corrective.

Update 2

Mark wrote last month on the question whether Obama identifies with the poor. My distinction doesn't affect this much: both Africans and African-Americans are typically poor, so both subjective identities point in the same direction.

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