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Obama's census-form choice: 'Black'

The president keeps it simple, but his decision stirs discussion about identity among mixed-race Americans.

April 04, 2010|By Oscar Avila

An individual's responses to census questions are confidential, but one of President Obama's answers on the 10-question form adds more fodder to the ongoing conversation about how America sees itself.

After media inquiries, the White House confirmed that Obama checked only the racial box that says: "Black, African Am., or Negro," the Associated Press reported.

Obama could have checked more than one racial box, given that his father was an African from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from Kansas. He could have checked "white" as well, or even "some other race" and written in "multiracial."

Obama's internal struggle over his racial identity was a theme in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." But it is a struggle faced by other Americans, and it is an element in the country's efforts to come to terms with race relations.

The news quickly made the rounds among not only political commentators but citizens with mixed racial ancestry. Some second-guessed Obama's choice while others said there are no right or wrong answers to that question.

Michelle Hughes, president of the Chicago Biracial Family Network, said she received several e-mails from surprised friends within moments of Obama's decision being made public.

"I think everybody is entitled to self-identify. If he chooses to self-identify as African American, that's his right," she said. "That being said, I think that the multiracial community feels a sense of disappointment that he refuses to identify with us.

"I think his choice will have political, social and cultural ramifications."

Rich Benjamin, the African American author of the book "Searching for Whitopia," chimed in by e-mail to say that Obama's public choice is a vivid example of America's complicated racial dynamics.

"Given our growing racial diversity and intermixed populations, led by a mutt-style President, why bother to consider race at all? Isn't race an anachronism? Not at all," wrote Benjamin, a senior fellow at Demos, a New York think tank.

"Taking our human inventory, including race, allows us to uncover incredibly useful lessons about ourselves as a country."

oavila@tribune.com

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