About two weeks ago, a news producer for one of the television stations in Sacramento called to ask me, “Will Barack Obama be our first black president?” I didn’t write about this at the time, because I was a bit freaked out and didn’t want to make sport of someone I don’t know. But the time has come to tell the story.
I was taken aback by the question itself, I have to admit. I first sputtered something like, “Um, it’s too soon to know.” And then I gathered myself and launched into a minutes-long discussion of race as a social construction, focusing especially on the Phipps case and Omi and Winant’s ideas about racial formation. I elevated the discourse, in other words. And I was in rare form, offering a rock-solid lecture to a keen audience of one. It was gripping. Producer Man (PM) was gripped.
So gripped that he didn’t say a word until I paused for breath. Then PM interjected, “No, I mean, hasn’t there already been a black president? I mean hasn’t there been a president with black blood.” I started hemming and hawing: “Oh, black blood, well, hmm.” Until, finally, I said, “I don’t mean to be rude. Really, I don’t. But where did you say you’re calling from? Because you sound like a white supremacist, talking about blood purity.” And that really took him aback. He was no longer enthralled by the subtlety of my disqusition. “No,” he sputtered, “I’m not white [well, okay then]. I’m just saying that Obama has black blood. But he’s not the first, right? He won’t be the first black president?” “That’s all I’m saying,” he added rather more angrily than I considered necessary. To which I inquired, “You’re talking about Clinton?” “Nope,” came his answer, “I mean Harding. Didn’t Harding have black blood?”
I caught my breath, laughed, and said, “Dude, Harding was white. That rumor was a smear used by his political opponents. There wasn’t any truth to it.” And that was that. Or so I thought. But then I started wondering. Not if Harding was African-American. But where the stories to that effect had originated. John Dean (yes, that John Dean), in his biography of Harding, notes that rumors of African-American ancestry swirled around Warren G. (as his homeys called him) during his childhood. Later, Harding’s father-in-law, desperate to break up his daugter’s relationship with young Warren, amplified the charges. And finally, Harding’s political oppononents did run with the lies, including during Harding’s campaign for the presidency.
So, here’s the thing: last night, in the wake of Obama’s huge victory in Wisconsin, the great Ogged of the great Unfogged wondered: “One question now is what else the Clinton’s will try to use against Obama, or whether they have something up their sleeve for the debates?” I have no idea what the answer to that might be. But I do know that if Obama is the nominee — we still aren’t there yet — we’re going to start hearing a lot more questions like PM’s: supposedly innocuous queries about the man’s racial identity, often with a subtext of whether he “shares our values.”
And don’t look now, but the great Katherine points out that it’s already happening. Over at National Review Online’s squalid gossip rag, the corner, super-classy Lisa Schiffren is wondering about “Obama’s Political Origins.” You see, it’s not really about race at all. She just want to know why Obama’s white mother would have had sex with his father, a black man. And the answer? Communism! Simple. Honestly, that’s her argument. White women, in Schiffren’s experience, didn’t make babies with black men unless there was a reason, usually politics, especially radical politics:
Obama and I are roughly the same age. I grew up in liberal circles in New York City — a place to which people who wished to rebel against their upbringings had gravitated for generations. And yet, all of my mixed race, black/white classmates throughout my youth, some of whom I am still in contact with, were the product of very culturally specific unions. They were always the offspring of a white mother, (in my circles, she was usually Jewish, but elsewhere not necessarily) and usually a highly educated black father. And how had these two come together at a time when it was neither natural nor easy for such relationships to flourish? Always through politics. No, not the young Republicans. Usually the Communist Youth League. Or maybe a different arm of the CPUSA. But, for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics.
Let’s be clear about two things. First, Schiffren’s still in touch with some of the “mixed race” people who grew up in her ‘hood. Make no mistake about it: some of her friends are beige. And second, she talks to these people even though the unions that created them weren’t “natural.” In short, she’s an open-minded person with “mixed race” friends, unnatural friends to be sure, but friends nevertheless. Well, she doesn’t actually allow that they’re her friends. But she’s in touch with them. Which is nice. You could even say it’s mighty white of her. But that might be gratuitous.
Beyond that, after admitting that she has no idea how Obama’s parents actually met, Schiffren points to another article, from the fair and balanced site, Accuracy in Media, noting that, in Hawaii, the Obamas “had close relations with a known black Communist intellectual.” Then, after explaining that the Commie in question, Frank Marshall Davis, “mentored” Barack Obama in some way, Schiffren arrives here:
Political correctness was invented precisely to prevent the mainstream liberal media from persuing the questions which might arise about how Senator Obama’s mother, from Kansas, came to marry an African graduate student. Love? Sure, why not? But what else was going on around them that made it feasible?
It was, of course, an explicit tactic of the Communist party to stir up discontent among American blacks, with an eye toward using them as the leading edge of the revolution.
Before finishing up with a flourish:
Time for some investigative journalism about the Obama family’s background, now that his chances of being president have increased so much.
Let the games begin. Oh, and I got another phone message from PM this morning. It seems that he wants to talk again. Maybe because I was so helpful the last time. It almost makes me feel bad for Warren Harding. Not that there’s anything wrong with having “black blood.” But a black Communist? Now that’s worth investigating.
[Update: Reading Henry at Crooked Timber, I realize that Belle Waring has posted on this already. Which offers me the chance to reiterate that I heart Belle Waring. But not in a creepy way. At all. Really. And Crooked Timber's okay, too.]