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Why Morgan Freeman is right - and wrong - about Obama not being first U.S. black president



morganfreeman110610.jpgOscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman is so avuncular and fatherly onscreen, it's often surprising when he reveals sharp opinions offscreen.

But the guy who has played everyone from God to a killer pimp did just that last week, telling NPR's Michel Martin that he disagrees with those who call Barack Obama America's first black president.

"First thing that always pops into my head regarding our president is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him...What's his name, Donald Trump, and this whole (birther) thing he's doing...they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America," Freeman said on Martin's show Tell Me More. "There was no argument about who he is or what he is. America's first black president hasn't arisen yet. He's not America's first black president — he's America's first mixed-race president."

barackobama_time_mag.jpgCool as he is, Freeman earns a little pushback from me on this point. Because I think he's missing a crucial point about how racial identity evolves in our modern world.

Race, as any academic will tell you, isn't a biological thing; it's a social construct. We all build cultures around a common ancestry, which then serves to distinguish us when we meet in the big melting pot that is the world -- and in this case, American society.

I wrote a piece about the debate over Obama's race back in 2007, noting that racial identity these days seems to boil down to four things: your biological heritage/appearance, how you self-identify, how the world sees you and who you surround yourself with in life.

So Obama is considered a black man because he has an African parent, he self-identifies as black, he has married a black woman and the world treats him that way. And most importantly, he looks black.

As a way of thinking about race differently, I use the example of Nicole Richie, the reality TV star who is the adopted daughter of African American pop star Lionel Richie and his then-wife, who is also black.

nicole-richie.jpgRichie, who is reportedly of Caucasian and Latino heritage, was raised by black parents and often calls herself "mixed" in interviews. But because she is blond and seems to have a mostly-white circle of friends and romantic partners, the world seems to see her the way she looks: like a Caucasian woman.

That's why I think Obama qualifies as America's first black president -- mostly because he calls himself that, and the world accepts it.

I suspect Freeman was trying to note that it may have been easier for voters to support a mixed-race man for president versus electing a black man to the job. But he re-affirmed how the world treats Obama like a black man later in his own interview -- when noting his reaction to the election results in 2008.

"When Barack was elected president, a good portion of the country broke into tears, because it was proof that we are really Americans; we are who we say we are," Freeman told Martin. "I thought at the time, we can pretty much stop talking about race in this country and concentrate on growth. Didn't turn out that way."

When you understand how race really works in America, you know its not really a subject we're going to stop talking about.

It would be like we stopped talking about ourselves.

Hear all of Freeman's fascinating interview by clicking here.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:22am]


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