Earlier this week it was reported that the president had checked off “Black” on his 2010 census form question about race. There was a momentary blip on the media screen in reporting this: most of the discussion/commentary centered around Obama’s apparent self-image. Then, silence.
Though I do wonder why the president chooses to ignore his white half-- the half that was his mother who, with the help of her parents, raised the future president-- the question Obama’s race selection raises for me has more to do with telling the truth.
Ever since George Washington ‘fessed up to chopping down the legendary cherry tree, Americans have valued honesty in their chief executives (Washington and Lincoln) and despised the public lies told by others (Nixon and Clinton to name just two of many.)
Of course the president has a right to see himself as black since anyone pointing him out in a group would probably see him as black as well. His complexion and features leave little room in observers’ eyes for doubt that Barack Obama is a “black man,” and not a black man likely to “pass” for white, as blacks say.
But we are who we are—not always what we appear to be or what outsiders mistake us for. When Uncle Sam asks glamorous drag queen RuPaul “her” gender, the correct and truthful reply would still be “Male.” If Joan Collins is called upon to tell the US government her age, she will still be 77 next month however young the Dynasty star may appear today.
In America, we have ever-increasing numbers of citizens of mixed race and mixed ethnicities. Some would go so far as to say that there are hardly any "purebreds" left in our population, and the DNA technology tells us that going back to a prolific Thomas Jefferson, and long before that, Caucasians and their partners of color have been producing children of mixed lineage for centuries in this country and globally. They constitute an important group that needs to be counted.
The Census is an attempt at an accurate count: it is not a consciousness-raising exercise in race relations. The 2010 US Census form makes it easy enough for multiracial citizens to just check off “some other race,” and there is even a space provided for the respondent to name the race/races. Respondents can also select more than one category under the general race question, so Obama could have checked off both “Black” and “White” had he cared to be honest about it.
Some worry that if the president had done that, the Black community would have been offended. Well, whites have an equal right to be offended in this case. The man had a white mother: get over it!
People participate in the Census because we need to periodically take demographic inventory. But the count is only as accurate as the truthful answers people provide. There is plenty of room for error based on human shortcomings-- literacy issues, language barriers, racism, vanity and the like. But when the president—a Harvard Law School graduate, author of two books, former U.S. Senator and loving father of two-- makes a decision, for convenience, political reasons or otherwise, to tell a half truth on an official US document he sets a bad example.