A Place in Between

His mother is white and from Kansas; his father is from Africa. And his wife's name is Michele, all just like his former boss Sen. Barack Obama. Will Jawando, a former staffer to Obama, says that feeling either black or white was a complex matter decided by society's perception of him. Video by Ben de la Cruz/washingtonpost.com
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

Will Jawando sat on a Capitol Hill park bench admiring an unseasonably breezy August afternoon as he told his story of being half black and half white, "kind of a double outsider" in a nation still struggling with difference.

His story could easily be titled "Barack and Me," for Jawando, who grew up in Montgomery County, also is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black African father (his from Nigeria). Oh, and he just happened to marry a woman named Michele.

Now a legislative assistant to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jawando, 26, sees in Obama a politician who not only shares his personal story but speaks to the sensibilities of his generation. "Barack's whole message is: 'I can stand in everyone's shoes.' "

Obama's unique biography has been central both to his success as a presidential contender and to his opponents' efforts to portray him as strange, elitist, untrustworthy. Over these next four days, as Democrats host their national convention in Denver, that biography will be on display for Americans to get a closer look.

It is commonly said and written that Obama would become the first black president, not the first biracial president. In part, that is because the nation's history of racism and inequality continues to make racial milestones so significant, and none more significant than winning the presidency. One could argue that Obama is less the product of the Kenyan father who abandoned him at age 2 and more a reflection of his white mother, who traveled the world as an anthropologist, raising her son in Hawaii and Indonesia with help from Barack's white grandparents.

Those who still wonder about him, says Adam Bradley, an assistant professor of literature at Claremont-McKenna College in California, may be reflecting their inability to understand what he represents, "a chameleon of colors and cultures" who mirrors the larger demographic shifts that are transforming America.

"Our language," says Bradley, himself biracial, "is remarkably underdeveloped when it comes to talking about mixed-racial experience, the places in between for those people who are neither black nor white but both. The opportunity with Obama is maybe we can start to craft this language, to break out of that calcified language America has held on to for all these years."

It wasn't until 2000 that Alabama became the last state in the nation to repeal its antimiscegenation law. Dating back to 1661, and continuing until the late 1960s, such laws were the way states prevented the intermixing of races. At the time Obama's parents were married in 1960, such interracial unions were still banned in 22 states.

Though the overall number of mixed-race Americans is still relatively small -- 2 percent of the population, according to a 2006 Census survey-- other indicators speak to the dramatic changes that have occurred since Obama was born in 1961.

The number of interracial married couples, for instance, has increased steadily from about 300,000 in 1970 to 1.5 million in 1990 to more than 3 million in 2000, according to a report by researchers Sharon M. Lee and Barry Edmonston, published in a 2005 volume of Population Bulletin. In addition, according to the report, the number of children growing up in interracial families more than tripled -- from 900,000 to more than 3 million -- between 1970 and 2000.

The country itself is more diverse than it has ever been. According to new Census Bureau projections, the number of Americans who identify themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will in combination outnumber whites and constitute a majority of the U.S. population by 2042.

The youth growing up today are more comfortable dating across racial and ethnic lines and generally have more social interaction with each other than previous generations, some studies have noted. According to a research paper co-authored by sociologist Kara Joyner, 45 percent of Hispanics, 20 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites ages 18 and 19 years of age were involved in interracial relationships in the early 2000s.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company