Americans Say Obama’s Not Black? How Pew Got This Wrong

Saying “Yes, Obama is mixed race” is not the same as saying “No, he’s not black.” Racial Identity 101: You can be both.

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Pew Research Center

Twenty-seven percent of Americans say President Barack Obama is black, while 52 percent say he's mixed race.

That's part of a newly published Pew Research Center report that has inspired jarring headlines like these about perceptions of the man commonly (formerly?) known as the first African-American president:

"Is Barack Obama 'Black'? A Majority of Americans Say No"

"Poll: Majority of Americans Say Obama Is Mixed-Race, Not Black"

The Washington Post calls the data "fascinating."

But it's actually not. The only thing fascinating (read: frustrating) is why Pew would force people to choose between these two options. By setting up "black" and "mixed race" as mutually exclusive, as it appears to have done in the "Obama: Black or Mixed Race" (emphasis mine) portion of its poll, it offered Americans a misleading choice that doesn't reflect their social reality, and certainly doesn't tell us anything new about how they see their president.

If participants were, in fact, forced to choose between the two options, knowing that Obama self-identifies as black and knowing, too, that he has a white parent and a black parent, it makes sense to assume that many people simply picked the most specific option: "mixed race."

That does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean they say "no" to his being black.

In fact, for as long as black people have been around, "mixed race" people have called themselves—and have been called—black. Whether you love or hate the legacy of racism and the "one-drop rule" that likely perpetuated this way of thinking, and whether you wish we could all stop talking about color altogether, this is the world we live in. And it's not new at all.

Cue the racial auditors: How can black parent + white parent = mixed-race child = black child? The numbers don't check out.

Because race is a concept created by humans that is not mathematical and not scientific. As a result, the slippery, nonsensical and totally-up-to-the-individual-interpretation nature of it will continue to drive people crazy. But we'll continue to talk about it—in our personal lives, in politics and, apparently, in Pew polls—because the messy categories we use continue to have social significance.

So, although some people with President Obama's same background might adamantly choose "biracial" or "mixed race" or "just human," for many others (this writer included), being mixed race is simply the specific way in which they're black. That's not inside information, and examples from history and popular culture are abundant. If you want to know more, Google "biracial African Americans" or "mixed-race African Americans" and have at it.

In other words, asking Americans whether Obama is black or mixed-race is like making them decide whether he lives in the White House or in Washington, D.C., whether he's the president or a lawyer, and whether his wife is the first lady or the founder of Let's Move.

In each case, one response is more detailed, but both are true. Thus, poll results that find most Americans saying Obama lived in the White House would not mean they said "no" to his residency in the nation's capital.

And, you got it, saying "yes" to Obama being mixed-race is not the same as saying "no" to his being black.

We all know that Americans can be polled to reveal all sorts of controversial and ridiculous opinions. And there are inarguably some shocking ideas out there about Obama and race. But this poorly conceived poll reveals little to nothing about any of them.

UPDATE: A representative from Pew who contacted The Root acknowledged that survey respondents were asked, “Do you mostly think of Obama as a black person or mostly as a person of mixed race,” but said respondents had the option of "volunteering 'both' or 'neither.'" However, Pew did not include those responses in its presentation of the results, and listed the results under the heading  "Obama: Black Or Mixed Race," in its interactive essay, leading multiple outlets to conclude, "Most Americans Say Obama Is Not Black" and reinforcing the critique raised in this piece.

According to the representative, Pew has now "clarified the text in the chart used in the interactive essay to include the date of the survey [2009] and to better reflect how the question was asked." 

KELI GOFF

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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KELI GOFF

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on FacebookFollow us on Twitter.

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