“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Almost 45 years ago, the Baptist preacher whom our nation honors every third Monday in January, delivered a speech that is easily one of the greatest in American history. In it, he laid out his vision for what a beautiful country America could become despite the indelible marks left by racism and hatred. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fought within a hostile political, religious and cultural context to bring about unity, equality and peace. His speech, “I Have a Dream” was a rallying cry for change. And now, decades later, with the potential prospect of Barack Obama becoming the nation’s first African-American to be nominated to run for president by a major political party, I’m asking myself if King’s dream has become a reality.
No other African American has achieved the kind of success and momentum on the campaign trail that Obama has enjoyed; a fact that many cite as a major leap forward in terms of race in America. Helping to break down color lines is nothing new for Obama. He became the first black man to edit the Harvard Law Review and one of only three African-Americans to serve in the US Senate since the Civil War. For many onlookers Obama’s candidacy has been freighted with a great symbolic weight representing how drastically the playing field has changed for a black man in the United States since Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights.
The strange—and rarely mentioned—backdrop to this struggle is that Barack Obama isn’t black. He is biracial, which, in many ways, makes his candidacy a more complex and compelling statement on the issue of race in America. While Obama has gone on at length about his unique racial identity in his two recent books, he is all too often labeled as “black” without any mention of his white heritage. And though some commentators describe him as incredibly self-aware, Obama himself has not seemed inclined to acknowledge his biracial identity in his Presidential run.
As a biracial person myself (white mother and black father), I understand the dilemma. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), societal biases force most mixed race children to develop a public identification with the “minority” race and maintain a private interracial identity. Much like Obama, I am expected to fit into a
neatly hewn box that society understands as black identity and culture but that simple identity never seems to quite fit correctly. It is painful for me to watch Obama struggle to fit into that restrictive container in order to attract black voters, especially since his very existence is in some ways the physical manifestation of King’s vision of harmony. Despite the institutionalized separation of blacks and whites that existed when Obama was born in 1961, his black father from Kenya and his white mother from Kansas came together to bring him into the world.
The danger in simplistically over-emphasizing Obama’s “blackness” is that his candidacy will reflect a binary conception of race that is an echo of our collective past instead of allowing his actual interracial heritage to become a unique opportunity to look into the more complicated face of our American future. Indeed, the AACAP cites multi-racial children as one of the fastest growing segments of the US population. And with every multi-racial public figure like Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Halle Berry and countless others who step into the limelight, the antiquated black/white rhetorical wall crumbles.
Dr. King began chipping away at that paradigm fifty years ago. Certainly, Obama’s candidacy demonstrates a vastly better sense of equality now than in King’s day when many African Americans had difficulty being allowed to vote. While Obama’s undeniable charisma and confidence sway a large amount of his supporters, there are many who seem to believe that in electing a black man to occupy the Oval Office King’s dream has been accomplished. I believe that is a disservice to his legacy.
King’s dream wasn’t simply about race, it was about brotherhood, peace and justice among races. His desire to establish justice for blacks in America wasn’t simply about the color of his skin, it was deeply rooted in a Christian faith that demanded justice for all people. He dreamed bigger than race, he dreamed about human dignity in relation to war, poverty and opportunity. “I have a dream” he declared over forty years ago “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As we reflect today upon the life and message of Martin Luther King the question we should ask is not simply about the content of Obama’s character, but of Clinton’s, Edwards’, Romney’s, Huckabee’s and McCain’s—not to mention our own. It would also serve us well to keep in mind that if Dr. King’s message was truly taken to heart, Barack Obama would have little trouble claiming his biracial identity, the American electorate would be able to recognize the vast spectrum of racial identity that lies between black and white, and none of these issues would have any impact whatsoever in determining whether the senator from Illinois should be our next president.