Obama and our future -- genealogy and vision

I don't support Barack Obama because he is black.
I don't support him because he is male.
I don't support him because he is younger than his rivals.
I don't support him because he is a Democrat.

I don't even support him primarily because of where he stands on the issues vis-à-vis Senators Clinton and McCain. I support him because his positions on the most vital questions of our day have been and will continue to be shaped by a life experience which gives him an unparalleled personal understanding of the arc of history and the destiny of his country.

My attraction to the candidacy of the junior senator from Illinois stems from his childhood in Hawai'i. He grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, an atypical American but a typical Hawaiian, a young person whose close family ties stretched across four continents. It is the genealogical part of Obama's biography that inspires me. It is his background which formed him and which is helping him become such a strong, visionary leader, the likes of which I did not expect to see for another generation. What's more, I believe strongly that I am not alone. It is his mixed identity and the impact of that identity on his worldview that explains his solid support among the young. This, in turn, ensures the future of his ideas.

I am a 26-year-old white male graduate student -- a typical Obama supporter, analysts would say. It is not uncommon for me to meet people of mixed background, those whose parents' marriages crossed threads between previously tightly interwoven clothes. In my circle there are few who have not, virtually none who would not, cross religious, ethnic, and national boundaries in pursuit of love and companionship. My fiancée was born to a family where such marriages began in the 1970s; she grew up among grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who were Thai, Jewish, and Dominican. Though my own ancestry traces back primarily to southern Poland and through colonial America to the British Isles, a small number of my Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa cousins are part Mexican, Filipino, and Japanese. Though much has been made of the growing number of Americans who identify as belonging to 'two or more races", the phenomenon of mixing is wider than race as normally defined and much older than the late twentieth century. My grandparents' marriage in 1935 Kansas City, between a second-generation Polish Catholic and a Mormon-turned-Pentecostal with no post-Revolution immigrant ancestors was part of the same trend, as was an 1842 marriage, across then-still-strong group lines, between a North Carolina Quaker and a Shenandoah Valley German/Scots-Irish Methodist.

What is new is a presidential candidate, born in 1961, whose story is so far along in this narrative and who is so strongly conscious of his place therein. What I had long suspected was confirmed to me in Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech, made on Philadelphia on March 18. In response to attacks against him, driven by racial fears and fears of racial division, Obama courageously explained how the complex evolution of ideas about race had shaped the dilemmas, and the opportunities, of his life and that of his country. He did so in a way that made clear that the gift of liberty is for all mankind, that the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson's self-evident truths is only possible in a way Jefferson would not have dreamt of.

If Barack Obama is Hawai'i, the United States is becoming Hawai'i, a place where race is more honestly discussed, more commonly joked about, and never taken so seriously as it is on the mainland. This is a consequence of everyone in the state living so intimately across lines that are elsewhere less blurred. Even those with ancestors of a single "race" are, like me, honorary mixed people through in-laws, cousins, close friendships, and the legacy of their own forebears.

The total kin network of an American like Barack Obama is too diverse for simple labels. This is why there are so many heated debates about the nature of his blackness, the role of his white family, even his religion. In the regions and generations of America which are not yet much like Hawai'i, Senator Obama's clear self-identity as a religious Christian is undermined by a tribal understanding of faith: Obama can somehow be branded as a Muslim because his Kenyan relatives are Muslims; Muslims in general can somehow be branded as radicals and terrorists because the Muslims who make the news are radicals and terrorists; the Trinity United Church of Christ can somehow be branded as non-Christian because the misunderstood, taken-out-of-context political remarks of its pastor are unlike the equally irrelevant-to-religion positions of one's own pastor. As Senator Obama so wisely said in Philadelphia, it is important that we understand where such ideas come from. They come from the oldest kind of politics, the politics of identity, the politics of us and them. This, too, is America. But we hear the call for change.

The Obama family, too, is America. Many of the ancestors of Barack and Michelle's young daughters endured enslavement, the Middle Passage, and hereditary bondage, building wealth for others at the expense of their lives and liberty. Others were slaveowners, the thieves of these lives. Among the Obamas' forebears, too, were the independent, non-slaveowning farmers and town-dwellers of the South and North who benefitted from the official racial hierarchy, to the extent that they did, indirectly and often unwilingly. Their roots go to all parts of colonial America, from the plantations of South Carolina to the Yankee towns of Massachusetts. Their ancestors fought for independence, on both sides of the Civil War, and for the American war effort abroad in the 20th century. Migrants going west seeking land and north seeking jobs built their family and their country. Irish immigrants arrived in the nineteenth-century, followed by a new generation represented by a student from Kenya. The children's first cousin, the Hawaiian-born child of Barack's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, shares part of their American heritage, plus Javanese and Chinese-Canadian; their Luo half first cousins live in Kenya and the United Kingdom. On Michelle's side they have deep connections in Chicago and the African American South.

After the Philadelphia address, Paul Igasaki, a Washington-based civil rights attorney, wrote that “…Barack Obama is unusually balanced in his racial perceptions because of his mixed race background and because he has lived in multicultural Hawaii, racially divided Chicago and in Asia itself.” Critics who dismiss the extent of Obama's experience have pointed mockingly at the relevance of the Obama campaign's citation of the Senator's childhood years in Indonesia. But Obama's first-hand experience of Southeast Asia is much more pertinent to leadership in the 21st century world than John McCain's, his ability to think globally a more valuable experience than Hillary Clinton's 16 year immersion in the failed foreign policy "expertise" that brought us to where we are today. Obama's experience causes him to see that very few things about the world are black and white, that identities and politics interweave in complex ways, that the world cannot be understood country by country, conflict by conflict. So too, does his experience of America.


"American" ethnic identity in the United States

Visitors from the United States are famous all over Europe for confusingly proclaiming to be Polish, or German, or Irish, while appearing to actual Polish, German, and Irish people to be nothing more than clearly American. To explain why this happens, I'm going to explore an exception: those Americans who call themselves so.

This is a map of counties in the United States for which "American" or "African American" was the most common answer to the following question found on the long form for the 2000 census:

"What is this person's ancestry or ethnic origin?"

7.2% gave answers the Census Bureau interpreted as "American". The precise language I'm using is important because the actual form had an write-in answer space covering two lines. Those respondents who used this to report two non-"American" ancestries, such as "Italian" and "Puerto Rican" were counted as both. Others, who wrote something on the order of "German American", were counted solely as "German" on the basis of the Census Bureau's interpretation that those people intended a "hyphenated American" answer.1

It is evident from the first map and this one that "American" ancestry is reported primarily by white Southerners. At first glance it appears to be a very Southern phenomenon. 7.2% of the United States population in 2000 is about 20 million people, so for "American" to form the plurality in so many counties, it must be quite dominant where it is present. Indeed, 11.2 million out of the 20.2 million live in the South, 4.2 million in the Midwest, 2.6 million in the West, and only 2.2 million in the Northeast.2 Yet there are 13 states outside of the South where "American" makes it into the top four. Some of these can be explained through them being largely settled from the South. Missouri, for instance, was settled in fairly equal measure by Kentuckians and Tennesseans coming up rivers from the Mississippi Valley, Northerners from the Upper Midwest, and 19th century German immigrants, but just like immigrants to a city, settlers of certain origins concentrated in certain places.

Yet what we are really dealing with here is maps of memories, not of ancestries. Ethnic identity in the United States, just like clan or tribal identity elsewhere, comes from a kind of folk genealogy, the memories of our grandparents. Whether we are dealing with Alabama or Maine, what the counties in the first map have in common is that they have received relatively little immigration from outside the United States since 1760, having been settled primarily by internal migration from earlier populated centers where ethnic mixing had already occurred. Other than the grandfather whose parents immigrated to Missouri from Poland and the great-grandfather from Scotland, my own stock is this kind.

My grandparents' grandparents were already mutts of Manifest Destiny, their identity tied primarily to their own republic, not primarily because of any kind of personal ideology they held about Americanness, but because their particular mix (the British Isles, a bit of the whitest, north-westernmost parts of Continental Europe, and maybe some Indians and Africans they were ashamed to talk about) is precisely the ethnic identity that the young republic had assumed for itself. They were Americans in the way the newcomers from Silesia and Sweden were not, because telling what they were would be too long of a story.

Another story from the 2000 census is that the number of people reporting "American" went up 63% from the 1990 total, the largest single numerical increase for an ancestry choice. In demographics, an increase in population is either due to immigration or an increase of births over deaths. This is not the result of immigration. People from other parts of the continent overwhelmingly list their ethnicity as "Brazilian", "Salvadoran", etc., not "American". It is not the result of an increasing birthrate among those who identify themselves as "American". It is not the result of a patriotic upswell. Needless to say, the 2000 census predates September 11, 2001.

It is the result of deaths, though not directly. People's grandparents, their sources of identity, are increasingly from a time where their own grandparents were of mixed origin, from a time when Scots-Irish and Germans had started to become accepted into that Anglo-Saxon Americanness so pushed by the school textbooks, popular culture, and mass media of the white republic. Whenever people with a belief in Anglo-Saxon supremacy and American destiny felt threatened in any particular area to be pushed into a minority status, they tended to expand their group to include a few more ethnic groups. This process has continued unabated until now, influencing and being influenced by the way people intermarry. After the Scots-Irish and Germans, Catholic Southern and Eastern Europeans and Irish started to be accepted as "white", then Jews, and now, increasingly, the more affluent and/or lighter skinned Latinos and Asians.

This process is the subject of another post (or many others), but suffice it to say that it will influence the United States's conception of its own ancestry in the same order, and that it differs by region. Younger people are already in the generation where their grandparents were likely, in Midwestern cities, to be a mix of Catholic and Protestant, in the Northeast, to be Italian and Jewish, in Hawaii, to be Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese. In other areas, like the Upper Great Plains, Scandinavian and German dominance is high enough and migration from other parts of the world low enough that particular ethnic answers, like the Finnish of Northern Michigan, will probably remain dominant for a while.

Some will, when asked, pick the one of their ancestries they like, that they are more comfortable with, or, for people who think about their father's side alone, the place their last name comes from, but many more will decline to answer or put something like "American". Expect the answer "American" to increase greatly again in 2010 and thereafter as a percentage of the population who identify themselves as white, particularly in those states where "German" and "American" currently co-exist at a high level.

1. United States Census Bureau. Summary File 3: Technical Documentation, B-5.

2. United States Census Bureau. Ancestry 2000: Census 2000 Brief, 6.