The curious case of Barack Obama: A postracial black man in a racialized world

The curious case of Barack Obama: A postracial black man in a racialized world

University of Houston, Clear Lake
July 2009
180 pages
Publication Number: AAT 1471005
ISBN: 9781109355192

Joel G. Carter

THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The University of Houston Clear Lake In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree MASTER OF ARTS THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON-CLEAR LAKE

This thesis discusses the debate over Barack Obama’s race and the role it played in the 2008 presidential election, and analyzes how they expose the mechanisms that operate in a racialized society that still struggles to categorize people into clearly defined and mutually exclusive racial “boxes” and view the categorization as a meaningful basis for social and behavioral analysis, such that after someone has been racially categorized, everything they do can be better understood through a racial lens. This discussion is organized around three racialized storylines: that Obama is (1) not black (enough), (2) black, but not too black, and (3) too black. Obama’s attempts to reshape racial discourse, which were rebuffed by the purveyors of the existing narrative, reveal that he is a postracial black man who exposes the entrenched beliefs about race that belie the notion that the U.S. is close to becoming a postracial nation.


    • Postethnic Dreams from My Father
    • Terminology Disclaimers
    • Pre-emptive Pushback
    • On Growing up White and Deciding to be Black
    • Genetic Authenticity
    • Cultural Authenticity
    • On Shelby Steele, Bound Men, and Unfortunate Subtitles
    • Articulate, Bright, and Clean (Oh My)
    • Obama captivates White People, Wins Iowa
    • Those Amazing, Race-Transcending “Iconic Negroes”
    • The Huxtable Effect: Obama as The Cosby Show’s Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable
    • America’s Black Friend Has a Blacker Friend: Jeremiah Wright
    • The Big Speech on Race, or Obama Throws His Grandmother Under the Bus
    • He’s So Well-Spoken: Obama as the Master of Veiled Racial Rhetoric
    • The Bradley Effect and Hard-Working White Americans
    • The Bradley Effect is a No-Show
    • On the Alleged Declining Significance of Race
    • A Generational Sea-Change?


I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story,… and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

—Barack Obama

In the middle of a divisive presidential race, and in front of throngs of supporters in Boston and millions of political voyeurs across the country and around the world, a tall, skinny man with light brown skin and a conspicuously deliberate syntax spoke into the microphone at the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention and declared, “There’s not a Black America and a White America and a Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of  America.” Moments after the speech concluded, the political pundits were pontificating; the blogs were buzzing. Who was he? What was he? Three months later, he became the Junior Senator from Illinois. Two years later, he became a candidate for president, and 16 months after that, he became his party’s nominee. And that fall, in an electoral landslide victory on November 4, 2008, this man—Barack Obama—became the 44th President of the United States of America. The debate over what he is, and what that answer means for the country he was elected to lead, rages on.

The discourse surrounding Obama’s racial identity, deeply rooted in the complicated history of slavery, anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, and black/white relations in this country, exposes how the United States, collectively, still struggles to categorize people into clearly defined and mutually exclusive racial “boxes” and, after this categorization is made, attempts to view it as a meaningful basis for social and behavioral analysis, such that after a person has been racially categorized, everything he does or doesn’t do can be better (or best) understood through a racial lens. This is organized around what I call “the three memes.” …

…In this thesis, I make no attempt to engage in the sort of analysis that debates dueling definitions of blackness and racial authenticity in an attempt to declare that Obama is or isn’t black. My goal here is not to uncover the “actual” truth about Obama’s racial identity and castigate those who have not been able to do so or those who have tried but reached a conclusion different from my own. I am not looking at the inkblot and attempting to describe its “true nature,” instead, I am looking at the people who are. I dissect some of the statements made by the people who insist, suggest, or imply that a person’s race can be determined by an objective framework—say, the same type of framework that would apply to a determination of a person’s height, weight, or age. By analyzing how people respond to Obama’s racial identity, what I intend to show is that people sometimes speak as if Obama is mistaken when he describes his own racial identity—or, as Walter Benn Michaels might say, they speak as if “there is some fact of the matter independent of the perception.” Instead, I attempt to upend the argument that the U.S. is moving beyond race or is already postracial by showing just how large a force racialized thinking was during the campaign, and still is. The existing assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom about race drown out what Obama actually says about his own identity and the role race plays in his life. A closer look at his statements—particularly Dreams from My Father, but also throughout his political career—reveals that Obama is more than the ultimate racial Rorschach test: he is a postracial black man, rendered invisible by a thoroughly
racialized society…

Purchase the thesis here.

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