Taking a second look at bi-racial ‘Black’ leaders

While Barack Obma was pondering whether to seek his party’s nomination for president, there was another development already taking place in the Black community. More than any time in memory, there has been a growth in the number of people of bi-raci

While Barack Obama was pondering whether to seek his party’s nomination for president, there was another development already taking place in the Black community. More than any time in memory, there has been a growth in the number of people of biracial parentage assuming leadership roles in largely Black cities and organizations. They include Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Jealous. The lieutenant governor of Maryland, Anthony G. Brown, is also biracial.

As with so many things in the African American community, the issue of color is a complicated one.

From the days slave masters forced themselves on Black women, there have been biracial children, some taking on the color of their mother and others looking as white as any white man. Even today, more than nearly 400 years later, some Blacks can still pass for white.

Complicating matters within the community, however, is the mixed signals Blacks have historically sent on color.

In many social gatherings, a premium was placed on what was then called light-bright-and-damned- near-white. Some social clubs required potential members to pass the paper bag test–if you were darker than a paper bag, you couldn’t join.

But all of that changed–or, at least was challenged–during the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s. Black was in, white was out. No more white dolls, no more European beauty standards, no more self-hate. We were taught to love ourselves. Of course, the Black Pride Movement never took full hold in our community–after trying an afro, James Brown even went back to his scary curl, but it represented a significant step in the right direction.

With remnants of the live-and-let live spirit of the 1960s still in place, color isn’t any less complicated today. Clarence Thomas, a dark-skinned man, is more hostile to civil rights than any of the white conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, Walter White – who, by all appearances, looked white–was an ardent civil rights activist with the NAACP, serving as executive secretary from 1931-1955.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), interracial marriages were illegal in 16 states. According to the Census Bureau, the number of interracial marriages increased from less than 1 percent in 1970 to slightly more than 5 percent in 2000.

And not all products of these unions accept others’ definition of them. Consider this exchange between Michelle Martin, host of NPR’s "Tell Me More," and Ben Jealous.

MARTIN: One other interesting thing about you is that you are also biracial as is Barack Obama, as is the lieutenant governor of Maryland, as is the mayor of Washington.

JEALOUS: Can I, can I make a small correction there?

MARTIN: Of course.

JEALOUS: I’m Black, you know the only thing that we have, you know, the only definition that’s out there on the books if you will, are state laws, and my family is from Virginia. When I was born . . . the law said . . . if you were at least 1/32nd of African descent, you were Black, end of story. White was an exclusive definition; Black was inclusive definition.

The real issue, says Luke Harris, a professor at Vassar College, is not what people call Jealous–whose father is white and mother is Black–but how those in that group relate to the Black community.

“Biracial folk have always played significant leadership roles in the Black community. We need only think of Frederick Douglass,” Harris said. “Whether their increased participation in these roles signals something good or bad depends on the ways in which they relate to the Black community. Do they see themselves as full-fledged members of our community? Do they offer a politics that genuinely reflect the interests of our community? These are the sorts of questions that will have to be asked.”

George E. Curry is former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service.

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Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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