Sunday, June 15, 2008

Whoopi Goldberg Jokes that Thurgood Marshall was Black, but Clarence Thomas Isn't

Appearing as the host of the 62nd annual Tony Awards on June 15, 2008, actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg joked that Thurgood Marshall was the only African-American ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. (Goldberg made the joke while introducing actor Laurence Fishburne, who is portraying Thurgood Marshall on Broadway.)

She said:

And here’s a man who found out just how fantastic it is, also, when HE picked up a Tony for his performance in "Two Trains Running", currently on Broadway as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice -- actually the ONLY African-American Supreme -- no, that’s not true, uh ...

[Laughter and applause from audience.]

I forgot! I forgot!

The "joke" is, of course, that Clarence Thomas currently serves on the Supreme Court and is also African-American. But, because Thomas is a conservative, and does not support liberal causes, Goldberg (a liberal) does not consider him to be African-American.

I realize that Goldberg's joke will be defended as being a harmless attempt at humor, but it's really just another example of how people in politics routinely demonize and diminish anyone who disagrees with them.

It's one thing for Goldberg to disagree with Thomas' political views and judicial rulings: that sort of disagreement can be expressed in a dignified and respectful manner. But it's simply vicious to suggest that, because of his politics, Thomas shouldn't even count as African-American. Even in jest, it's wrong for Goldberg to encourage people to think the worst about those who don't share her views. There's already too much of that in politics, we don't need any more of it.

After all, it wouldn't be fair if someone were to make an analogous joke about Goldberg. For instance, suppose someone were to say: "Hey, I think it's great that the Tony Awards -- the highest award in American theatre -- are being hosted by someone who isn't even American! It's a real score for diversity!" (The "joke" being that liberals are considered un-American.) Such a joke would also be out of bounds, for the same reasons as Goldberg's comment.

Unless Goldberg is making fun of people for questioning the racial identity of their political opponents -- and it doesn't sound like she was -- her joke is inappropriate. It's unfortunate that she made the joke, and that the audience applauded her for it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Barack Obama: Black, White, or Biracial?

A couple of articles (CNN Independent Salon) have appeared recently addressing the racial identity of Sen. Barack Obama (IL), the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. (This page has addressed this issue already in "Is Barack Obama a Black Candidate or a White One?" and "Transcending a Double-Standard".)

Many people (for example, in the comments on the Independent article) have argued -- often vehemently -- that Obama should be identified as black because many Americans have used and STILL use the "one drop" rule. The "one drop" rule claimed that you were black if you had just one black ancestor, regardless of how many white ones you had. It also claimed that having just one white ancestor was not enough to make you white: ALL your ancestors had to be white.

Now, it's certainly true that this "one drop" rule was used for centuries in the USA. And it's also true that, appealing to the same rule, many people today will also consider Obama to be black and not white, even though he has just as many white parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. as black ones. Gary Kamiya points out in the Salon article: "The fact is, half-black people are still usually seen as black." And one comment on the Independent article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown blames her for ignoring "the One Drop Law in the USA. It stated that if one drop of a person is black, then that person is black. While the law was abolished after blacks were given equal rights, its meaning lived on to today."

But why should we continue to use that standard? Just because it WAS used in the past, and just because some people DO use it in the present, why does any of that mean that we SHOULD use it?

The "one drop" rule is clearly a double-standard. No double-standard should be allowed unless their is some good reason for it, and I don't see any good reason for this one. I definitely don't see how "people used this double-standard in the past, and some people use this double-standard today" amounts to a good reason to conlcude: "the rest of us should use this double-standard, too."

Moreover, the "one drop" rule is usually applied to racial distinctions between black and white, rather than between white and Asian, black and Asian, white and Native American, etc. Why shouldn't it be the same standard among all races? Again, I see no good reason to employ a double-standard.

Maybe some people want to keep using the "one drop" rule. Maybe others are using it because they learned it from others and have never thought to question it or realized that it is a double-standard. But it escapes me entirely why that constitutes a reason for anyone else to use it.

Barack Obama has a black parent and a white one. That makes him both black and white. It makes him biracial. Just because other people employ a double-standard and insist that he can only be black doesn't mean that we need to follow suit.