Mixed Like Me: Obama’s Speech Hits Mixed-Race Chord

The candidate’s Philadelphia address on U.S. race relations speaks directly to those of us with more than one ethnic identity, writes Anna Soellner.

Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his “race speech” in Philadelphia earlier this week against a backdrop of American flags, a very different visual than the typical swooning, ethnically diverse crowds that have been the calling card of his blockbuster rallies. It was a more sober set designed for a speech some say he was forced to give because political pundits insist that Obama faces a political crisis over race.

Whatever the merits of that observation, he certainly seized the opportunity to speak about both of his races. Obama is hailed as potentially the first African-American president, but let’s not forget that should he prevail he will be the first mixed-race president. He is part of a rapidly growing but overlooked demographic. Some African-American leaders at first worried if he was “black enough,” but eventually claimed him as one of their own. Obama, however, describes himself as one who “has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts.”

That’s why the time is now for mixed-race Americans to claim him as well. This is not an endorsement of his candidacy. This is in reaction to an infuriating but growing cacophony among political commentators over Obama’s perceived overtures to appease one of his “demographics” without slighting the other. In modern America, no individual should be forced to supplant one part of his identity above another.

Obama’s “race” speech came about because the punditry was spun up over Geraldine Ferraro’s and Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s racial comments. Wright’s incendiary comments are unacceptable. And as Obama rightly said Tuesday, those comments are potentially helping to widen the racial divide. Obama’s big tent should include more diversity, but as expected commentators lasered in on an identity-oriented narrative: Will he align himself more with the Democratic Party’s African-American voters or his white Democratic and independent supporters?

Obama’s references to the complicated U.S. history of terrible wrongs and continuing disparities were an important aspect of his speech, but it was set up in a mostly black-white frame. This dichotomy is a conversation about the past, which we should honor with honesty and openness, but it does not reflect completely what America will soon become.

The 2000 Census was the first time the government provided mixed-race Americans the opportunity to claim all aspects of their heritage. That year, only 2.4 percent of the population checked multiple boxes, but in California (true to its bell-weather status), 4.7 percent of the total population embraced their mixed racial heritage. More remarkable in that data was the finding that among children under age five in California, 8.4 percent were multi-racial.

And those percentages are growing by the year. In 2006, the Pew Research Center in its cheekily titled study, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” found that 22 percent of Americans have a close relative in an interracial marriage. As family members and friends become more race-blind when picking their mates, a more racially mixed America is sure to follow.

When my Asian mother married my white father in North Carolina in the early 1970s less than 1 percent of marriages were mixed. By 2000 that number had jumped to just over 5 percent. Now, that number is on a much speedier trajectory among all of the young people we keep hearing about in the 2008 election year cycle. According to Pew surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003, an explosive 91 percent of “Gen Y” respondents born after 1976 found interracial dating acceptable.

Another famous mixed-race face advanced this trend last weekend. Halle Berry, who is half white and half black, just welcomed a new baby girl. As US Weekly says, “The stars… They’re just like us!” Barack Obama, though, is most often compared to a star of a different sort who also shares a mixed heritage: Tiger Woods. When the pro golfer was emerging on the sports scene hailed as the Hank Aaron of the fairways, Woods put out a statement clarifying that he is “the product of two great cultures, one African-American and the other Asian.”

That was a seminal moment because it was an example that he, that we, can acknowledge both parts of ourselves and that, to use his words, the true “bottom line is that I am an American.” The 2008 presidential race is proving to be historic for so many reasons, but for those of us who are racially mixed it is a point of pride that our emerging demographic is providing one of the most electrifying candidates of this generation.

As more of us represent a larger slice of America, it is our role to eschew the old school, race-baiting narrative of choosing one race over another. We prove that it is not only inappropriate but also wrong.

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