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Obama the Second African-American President?:

No, given the social construction of race, he's clearly the first. But, here's a trivia question: which 20th-century president was "accused" of having recent black ancestry, responded to those rumors with a joke that he wouldn't be surprised if some of his ancestors went "over the fence," and had a much better civil rights record than his immediate predecessors and successors, including a controversial speech to a southern audience defending (to some degree) the rights of African Americans? Click below for the answer.

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Chris Newman (mail):
Wait, I thought Bill Clinton was our first black president. Has he relinquished the title?
11.6.2008 9:26pm
MarkField (mail):

had a much better civil rights record than his immediate predecessors


That's a pretty low bar, isn't it?
11.6.2008 9:31pm
Volokh Groupie:
I also heard he watched Sanford and Son every thursday.
11.6.2008 9:32pm
John T. (mail):
That's a pretty low bar, isn't it?


It's an extremely low bar when the predecessor is Woodrow Wilson, certainly.
11.6.2008 9:35pm
Craig Oren (mail):
Remember, he said "predecessors" plural, and one of those predecessors was Teddy Roosevelt, who invited Booker T. Washington to the White House.
11.6.2008 9:47pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
In his second term, TR was much less favorably inclined to blacks, and by the 1912 election, he was running a more racist campaign than Wilson, IIRC.
11.6.2008 9:48pm
oledrunk3 (mail):
Warren Harding
Read "Shadow of Blooming Grove"
11.6.2008 9:48pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
But yes, even compared to first-term TR, I think Harding likely comes out ahead, though of course his term was cut short, so we don't know what might have been.
11.6.2008 9:49pm
Kelly (mail):
Andrew Jackson and Eisenhower were both also rumored to have some African American heritage. I think in Jackson's case the rumors extended to him having close relatives (siblings or cousins) in slavery.
11.6.2008 9:58pm
VincentPaul (mail):
As president, Grant made sure that African-Americans in LA were allowed to have rifles and not just shotguns for self defense.
11.6.2008 10:09pm
Hoosier:
Clinton and Harding are both suspected of being part black. And, behold, both had trouble with the (*ahem*) "Johnson administration."

I don't think is mere coincidence. Here again we see the old stereotype of black men being unable to control their sexual urges. Especially around white women.

I hope that I'm just reading too much into this. But I doubt it.
11.6.2008 10:17pm
Hoosier Fan:
Hoosier is suspected of being an idiot. And, behold, he spouts idiotic ideas.

I don't think it's mere coincidence. Here again we see the old stereotype of Hoosiers being unable to put forth coherent ideas. Especially ideas about race.

I hope that I'm just reading too much into this. But I doubt it.
11.6.2008 10:30pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Hoosier Fan, I think you are reading Hoosier's intent backwards.
11.6.2008 10:33pm
Hoosier:
Assistant Village Idiot
Hoosier Fan, I think you are reading Hoosier's intent backwards.

Absolutely. I am not an intolerant man, Hoosier "Fan." Are you some kind of homo?
11.6.2008 10:38pm
Hoosier:
Response to Hoosier Fan (First Runner-Up):

Hoosier is suspected of being an idiot. And, behold, he spouts idiotic ideas.

Mom?
11.6.2008 10:40pm
treebeard (mail):
You all really don't get it. It's simply a fact that Obama is the second black President.
Here is the first black President, giving a press conference and confronting racism head-on:
Richard Pryor
Hat tip to Coates at the Atlantic.
11.6.2008 11:06pm
David Warner:
DB,

"In his second term, TR was much less favorably inclined to blacks, and by the 1912 election, he was running a more racist campaign than Wilson, IIRC."

Yes, TR's reaction to the Booker T. hubbub had a certain George Wallace flavor to it. He eventually had the juice to invite Booker T. back whenever he damn well pleased, but never did. The Dude from New York ever had one eye on public opinion, especially of himself.

Whatever his heritage, there is little doubt that Harding was our first Doyle Brunson President, however.
11.6.2008 11:07pm
David Warner:
Treebeard,

OMG, that was amazing! Thx to you and the Atlantic for the link. BTW, is that a young Sandra Bernhard as "Snow White"?
11.6.2008 11:18pm
MarkField (mail):

Remember, he said "predecessors" plural, and one of those predecessors was Teddy Roosevelt, who invited Booker T. Washington to the White House.


While Wilson alone was enough to set the bar on the ground, I also counted Taft for the plural.
11.6.2008 11:51pm
Light Hearted (mail):
Supporting this theory, Harding died relatively young of a heart attack...
11.7.2008 12:25am
Oren:

In his second term, TR was much less favorably inclined to blacks, and by the 1912 election, he was running a more racist campaign than Wilson, IIRC.


Thanks for getting the out. The TR-worship in some camps is really astounding and I'm quite grateful for those that appreciate the man as he was, not as we imagine him to have been.
11.7.2008 12:26am
Hoosier:
I also counted Taft for the plural.

No kidding! He was like three or four regulation-sized presidents. Or 11 James Madisons.
11.7.2008 2:05am
Toby:
Many parts of the Teapot Dome scandal were business as usualy, and long preceded the Harding administration. It has been posited (couple decades ago, so don't ask for a reference or link, alas) that racial rumors about Harding were one of the reasons he had so little political capital that it came down on him and his administration...
11.7.2008 6:32am
Can I say this?:
I first want to make clear that I applaud Obama's election and think that it is a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering this country's history regarding race.

But I'm always slightly puzzled by Obama being called a "African-American" president, as opposed to a "black" President. First, I don't like the term "African-American" because it is inaccurate and gets misused all the time (eg, "Usain Bolt is an African-American sprinter"). I favor the term "black" when describing racial background. (IIRC, I think there has been Volokh Conspiracy discussions about this before.)

Second, it seems to me that if you are going to use the term "African-American", it should refer to that group of Americans who are descended from slaves and have a heritage and culture derived from that experience. It seems odd to think that a recent immigrant from Uganda, for example, would want to be called an "African-American" because his heritage is not the African-American heritage, but rather Ugandan.

That's why it strikes me as odd that Obama is called "African-American" because his family history is not African-American (due to his father being from Kenya).

I suppose one answer is that Obama grew up in America and has embraced the history, culture, and heritage of true African-Americans, and thus, Obama can be considered "African-American", but that strikes me as strange too, because normally people can't claim a heritage without having it to begin with. (For example, I can't claim that I'm Irish if I don't have an Irish ancestry, even though I really like Guinness and Irish dancing.)

[I don't intend this comment to be racist; it is just something that strikes me as odd.]
11.7.2008 9:08am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Another fun bit of trivia, only 2 of our presidents have not had at least 50% British (for the purposes of the question, British = English, Irish, Scottish and/or Welsh), who are they?
11.7.2008 9:44am
pete (mail) (www):

Second, it seems to me that if you are going to use the term "African-American", it should refer to that group of Americans who are descended from slaves and have a heritage and culture derived from that experience. It seems odd to think that a recent immigrant from Uganda, for example, would want to be called an "African-American" because his heritage is not the African-American heritage, but rather Ugandan.


So if like in Obama's case an American's father is actually from Africa he should not be called African-American?

Personally I think the term of "black" is simpler for everybody since it is more straight forward and avoids confusion, but if you are going to use the term African-American Obama is about the perfect case for that usage since his father was from Africa and he still has lots of relatives actually living in Africa.
11.7.2008 9:46am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
my question should read "have not had at least 50% British ancestry"
11.7.2008 10:05am
Can I say this?:
pete,

My point is that "African-American" refers to a heritage of a certain group of people, which Obama's father doesn't have. I could call Obama's father "African-American" because he's from Africa and an American, but that would be different from calling Oprah "African-American", because she is an American with a certain racial heritage.
11.7.2008 10:12am
kiwi:
bornyesterday

Eisenhower and van Buren?
11.7.2008 10:43am
Hoosier:
(for the purposes of the question, British = English, Irish, Scottish and/or Welsh)
AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
11.7.2008 10:50am
Visitor Again:
Second, it seems to me that if you are going to use the term "African-American", it should refer to that group of Americans who are descended from slaves and have a heritage and culture derived from that experience.


Before "African-American" came into common use, the hyphenate -American was applied to immigrants from another land who live in the U.S.A.--e.g., British-Americans, German-Americans, Mexican-Americans. Obama fits neither the definition you give nor the one I give. His father might have fit the second had he remained in the U.S.A. as a permanent resident. We don't usually refer to European-Americans--we usually distinguish them by their country of birth--although we do refer to Asian-Americans.

So there is no logical consistency. Today it seems people identify themselves however they want--both collectively and as individuals--and I don't mind that.

Since my birth, we've been through "colored," "Negro," "black," "Afro-American" (briefly since it didn't really catch on) and "African-American." If Obama considers himself African-American, that is fine with me.
11.7.2008 10:51am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
@kiwi - correct

@hoosie - i know, i know :)
11.7.2008 11:09am
Thunderstruck (mail):

Before "African-American" came into common use, the hyphenate -American was applied to immigrants from another land who live in the U.S.A.--e.g., British-Americans, German-Americans, Mexican-Americans. Obama fits neither the definition you give nor the one I give. His father might have fit the second had he remained in the U.S.A. as a permanent resident. We don't usually refer to European-Americans--we usually distinguish them by their country of birth--although we do refer to Asian-Americans.


IIRC, the "African-American" appellation was created by Jesse Jackson a number of years ago when he needed something new to keep himself in the spotlight. I have thought it unnecessary and confusing. (A white South African who immigrates to the U.S. could legitimately be called an African-American.) White people are not called European-Americans, even though many of them have closer ties, at least temporally, to Europe than most American black people have to Africa.

Apart from that, I continue to find it at least slightly ironic the discussion about electing "the first black president," whether that be Warren Harding, William Clinton, or Barack Obama. Obama, after all, is half white. Shouldn't he therefore be called African-European-American?

And if the answer is that he is what he calls himself, then I think we're in the realm of Humpty Dumpty---words mean precisely what I say they mean, nothing more, and nothing less.
11.7.2008 11:12am
pete (mail) (www):

A white South African who immigrates to the U.S. could legitimately be called an African-American


I had a friend in college from Egypt who had immigrated to the US as a teenager and he always refereed to himself jokingly as an African-American since he was an American from Africa. he had spent some time in Canada before coming to the US so he also sometimes refered to himself as an African-Canadian or an African-Canadian-American.
11.7.2008 11:26am
David Warner:
Visitor Again,

"We don't usually refer to European-Americans--we usually distinguish them by their country of birth--although we do refer to Asian-Americans."

Europe isn't a country? Whoa, who knew? I need better handlers.
11.7.2008 12:34pm
Mongoose388:
Some points about African Americans. Before John Kerry lost in 04 Teresa Heinz Kerry (b. Mozambique) claimed she would be the first African-American first lady. Also wouldn't it be more accurate to say Obama is the first non-caucasian (or at least the frist obvious one)president? As as for Obama, since he is mixed race, and didn't grow up in the hood, does he reallly qualify as a black American at all?
11.7.2008 12:38pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Mongoose - Calvin Coolidge claimed to be part Native American
11.7.2008 12:41pm
Curious Passerby (mail):
One thing I haven't seen discussed is that while Obama made a great stride for people with black pigmentation, this is not any kind of achievement for the descendants of slaves.

He is the son of a privileged international playboy and a white teenaged American. And as previously noted didn't even grow up with "normal" African-Americans.
11.7.2008 1:41pm
CB55 (mail):
Curious Passerby:

Thanks for your analysis as to why the Republican Party and people that think like you were stomped Tuesday night. Your gold medal from the company of losers will arrive soon.
11.7.2008 2:14pm
Seamus (mail):
Mongoose - Calvin Coolidge claimed to be part Native American

Well, he was born in this country.

Actually, I think you're thinking of Coolidge's veep, Charles Curtis, who *was* part Indian (and that's the term he used, not "Native American").
11.7.2008 2:18pm
pete (mail) (www):
Apu: Today, I am no longer an Indian living in America. I am an Indian-American.
Lisa: You know, in a way, all Americans are immigrants. Except, of course Native Americans.
Homer: Yeah, Native Americans like us.
Lisa: No, I mean American Indians.
Apu: Like me.
11.7.2008 2:25pm
CB55 (mail):
Can I say this?:

Obama can not be mistook for a White man or can he? Many people in America live out their lives as "White" because they can "pass". Obama can not pass.
11.7.2008 2:31pm
Curious Passerby (mail):
CB55: Curious Passerby:
Thanks for your analysis as to why the Republican Party and people that think like you were stomped Tuesday night. Your gold medal from the company of losers will arrive soon.


What, is any utterance unfavorable to The One blasphemy?
11.7.2008 3:08pm
Curious Passerby (mail):
Just wait. You think Bush got sh*t on by the Left? Paybacks are hell.
11.7.2008 3:33pm
erik jay (mail) (www):
Hey, folks, I had this idea, and it might be a way to illuminate some of our denser citizens. Or maybe not. But it's worth a try, okay. Check out this shirt I just designed! I know you folks will get it – but can it Change Hearts And Minds and all that? Jeez, I don't know. But it's funny, right?
11.7.2008 3:41pm
CB55 (mail):
Curious Passerby:

The dear people of the GOP must simply learn to cope and adjust to things as they are or become road kill. You were ran over by the will of history and the American people. The Solid South is falling apart and much of it is no longer the South of your childhood. Florida is one of the most diverse states in the union. Piyush "Bobby" Jindal is the current Republican governor of Louisiana, and he does not look White. It is estimated that by 2050 most Americans will not look "White". Today over 50% of the high tech Silicon Valley workers are Other than White and many are foreign born.
11.7.2008 3:51pm
CJColucci:
IIRC, the "African-American" appellation was created by Jesse Jackson a number of years ago when he needed something new to keep himself in the spotlight.

Jesse Jackson was never taken seriously enough to have that kind of power over our language. Maybe you're confusing him with someone who looks like him.
11.7.2008 6:02pm
Bill McGonigle (www):
Somebody should sequence Harding's siblings' descendants.
11.7.2008 7:16pm
Hoosier:
bornyesterday
"@hoosie - i know, i know :)"

Irish=British?

What next? Bloods=Crips?
11.7.2008 10:43pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Hoosier, isn't Ireland one of the British Isles?

I have heard that both Harrisons and Lincoln may have had some (non-remote) African ancestry.
11.8.2008 9:05pm
Hoosier:
Hoosier, isn't Ireland one of the British Isles?

No. Common misunderstanding. Actually, Great Britain is merely the largest, and second most significant, of the Hibernian Isles.
11.8.2008 11:06pm
Piagrande (mail):
To Hoosier,
Yes it's a sterotype that the male slaves couldn't control themselves sexually around a white woman, but it's a fact that the white women threw themselves at the slave AND when they were refused or got caught by their white husbands or boyfriends--they would yell,"Rape!". Guess who got lynched?
11.10.2008 3:44pm
dhdcnr (mail):
Yes, I believe the Harding administration is known by historians as the "G Funk Era".
11.10.2008 7:43pm