That surprising statistic is buried in a new report by the Pew Research Center on changing American demographics, called “The Next America,” from a book by Paul Taylor. Media outlets were quick to jump on the news. This was the headline in the Washington Post: “Is Barack Obama ‘black’? A majority of Americans say no”
The same story with similar headlines was repeated across the media spectrum.
The numbers broke down this way: Overall, just 27 percent of poll respondents said Obama is Black, while 52 percent said he is “mixed race.” Among whites, 24 percent described the president as Black, while 53 percent said mixed race. Among Hispanics, 23 percent said Black and 61 percent said mixed race.
Blacks themselves were the only group in which a majority called the president Black: 55 percent said he is Black and 34 percent said he is mixed race.
The poll numbers for Blacks indicate that the African-American community is likely much more aware of American history on this question. Indeed, it is a question that has coursed through the African-American community for centuries: Who is Black? But while it is now a matter of how you self-identify versus how others perceive you, historically the question has many long and controversial chapters throughout the last 300 years.
During American slavery, states had different laws about Blackness—some said free people of color could be considered legally white if they had just one-eighth African ancestry; others said they were white if they had one-quarter African ancestry. After the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, Virginia toyed with the idea of establishing a “one-drop rule,” meaning you would be considered Black if you had just a drop of African ancestry, but the Virginia legislators backed off when they realized many prominent white Virginians likely had Black ancestors because of the sexual activities of white slave owners.
It was during the Jim Crow years when the one-drop rule reached its most pernicious heights, establishing a racial standard to accompany brutal segregation laws. Virtually every state in the American South—in addition to states like Oklahoma, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah—had some form of the one-drop rule, rigidly assigning a person as Black if they had as much as one-thirty-second African blood in their ancestry.
With such a past, it’s no wonder more African-Americans would be attuned to a history that would clearly assign Obama, whose father was African and mother was white, as a Black man.