Obama and the Elusive Idea of Race

Scientists increasingly conclude that ethnicity cannot be defined scientifically, but that hasn't stopped the racists, the Birthers and the confused from casting their insecurities onto the president.

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It's not surprising to get involved in a heated discussion about race when you're strolling through a museum exhibit called "Race: Are We So Different?" And wouldn't you know that President Barack Obama would get caught right in the middle of it.

Not all charges that the president isn't who he says he is come from Donald Trump's "Birther" fantasies or a California GOP official's crude email. A young mother and fan had her own issues with Obama when we talked while strolling through the latest attraction at Discovery Place, Charlotte, N.C.'s hands-on science museum.

"Race: Are We So Different?" -- with its science-based displays showing that human beings are more alike than any other living species, and its assertion that no one gene or set of genes can support the idea of race -- shouldn't be controversial or particularly revelatory. That the exhibit is, in fact, both reveals how invested so many people are in racial differences and in the ranking of one race over another. The show -- which closes May 8 -- has inspired discussions by school and business groups in a city with an African-American mayor whose residents have nonetheless scored low on measures of trust among the races.

The mother, with a young daughter at her side and a son in a stroller, couldn't contain her disappointment -- anger, even -- that the president had marked "black" instead of indicating "biracial" or one in the long list of multiracial alternatives on the 2010 census form. She was white; her husband -- not in attendance that day -- was black. And their children were the reason she was upset at the president of the United States and why it was personal. "He's president. He could have been an example," she insisted.

I tentatively engaged her. Since she and her children had the right to choose, wasn't it hypocritical for her to criticize others for their choices? And since -- as the exhibit around us made clear -- race is an uneven line that has shifted throughout history, depending on political and economic expediency, why does a check mark on a page matter so much?

Suppose, at some later date, one or both of her children checked "black" on that census form. Would she love them any less? I asked her.

Her face turned red and she walked away. And although I had not raised my voice, I admit that the exchange could have been smoother. (I do hope she comes up with a better response by the time her kids start to ask questions, because -- social construct or not -- I don't think a multiracial paradise is going to arrive by the time they hit middle school.)

Though Barack Obama never made his race a part of his presidency, he has become a national Rorschach test on the topic just by being. His election did not ease America into a postracial utopia, as a few dreamers had hoped. Instead, his very eligibility to hold the office has become an issue. A recent poll found that 45 percent of Republicans believe that the president was not born in the United States, despite confirmation of his citizenship by officials in his birth state of Hawaii.

It's not a stretch to link an uncertain economy and census figures that show an increasingly black and brown America to efforts to paint Obama as "the other." (Would the election of a president whose parent was born not in Kenya but, rather, a European country have launched the same conspiracy theories and proposed state legislation forcing future presidential candidates to prove their citizenship?) Others turn his self-identification as black into a rejection of his white mother and grandparents.

It's a shame that Obama has to take on yet another of the country's challenges, one that existed before he was born (in America) and will persist long after he leaves office.

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