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A Place in Between
In a Nation Where Race Has Long Carried Polarizing Implications, the Mixed Parentage Of Barack Obama Opens a Bridge to Changes in Our Language -- and Thinking

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.

Jawando remembers being self-conscious about his biracial identity growing up. Just having his white mother pick him up from school would sometimes make him feel uncomfortable.

"How people see you has an impact on how you see yourself," he said. "The schools I attended and the communities where I lived were mostly black. You're around black people, you look that way, most people perceive you that way and you try to fit in, especially early on."

Jawando is light-skinned, but not so light, he says, that anyone would wonder if he had a white parent, Like Obama's father, Jawando's, though physically present until he was 8, did not play a big role in his young life. He has since tried to repair that relationship.

After reading Obama's "Dreams From My Father," Jawando wrote him a letter informing him of their striking biographical similarities and letting him know that he'd be honored to work for the newly elected senator. "I wrote it knowing I wouldn't get a response, which I didn't," Jawando recalled. "It was just something I needed to do."

In the fall of 2004, Jawando started law school at Catholic University, where he had also received his bachelor's degree and tussled a bit with the administration when he tried to start an NAACP chapter. He got a legal fellowship in the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then House minority leader. He started dropping by Obama's office informally and developing relationships with staffers -- among them Michael Strautmanis, then Obama's chief counsel.

When Strautmanis heard Jawando's story, he couldn't believe it. "Man, I'm calling Barack right now," he told Jawando. And when Obama returned to the office, the two were introduced. Obama, too, was in disbelief, Jawando recalls, and said, "What? You my brother or something?" This was in late 2005. By the spring of 2006, Obama's office had hired Jawando. When the senator introduced him at a staff meeting, he said: "We have William Jawando, who apparently is my long-lost brother." The staff cracked up.

Jawando left Obama's office in early 2007 when the senator's presidential campaign got underway. He wanted to continue focusing on legislative issues, and Brown offered an opportunity to be his point person on education and the judiciary.

Though he worked for Obama, Jawando has never had an opportunity to explore their shared identity, to flesh out what he knows about the senator from his reading. "I've never had the in-depth biracial talk with Barack. Maybe in the second term, when he settles in," Jawando quips. "That's not a 10-minute conversation."

* * *

In "Dreams From My Father," Obama poses the question that would hover over his post-adolescent life: "Where did I belong?" He was two years from graduation at Columbia University and felt "like a drunk coming out of a long, painful binge," he writes, with no idea what he was going to do with his future or even where he would live. He had put Hawaii in the rear-view mirror and could no longer imagine settling there. Africa? It was too late to claim his father's native land as his own.

"And if I had come to understand myself as a black American, and was understood as such, that understanding remained unanchored to place," Obama writes. "What I needed was a community, I realized, a community that cut deeper than the common despair that black friends and I shared when reading the latest crime statistics, or the high fives I might exchange on the a basketball court. A place where I could put down stakes and test my commitments."

In searching for a place to anchor, Obama transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia in New York, a period of his life that has not been well-examined. "I figured that if there weren't any more black students at Columbia than there were at Oxy, I'd at least be in the heart of a true city, with black neighborhoods in close proximity."

Obama writes that he was more like black students who had grown up in the suburbs, "kids whose parents had already paid the price of escape." Except he had not grown up in Compton or Watts, he points out, and had nothing to escape "except my own inner doubt."

Obama the candidate has emphasized the richness of multiculturalism, portraying difference as a unifying agent. He has trod carefully in his speeches not to be judgmental, not to cast racial blame on any specific group.

But as a young man still sorting out his identity, he made some judgments about fellow college students who were "multiracial." In "Dreams," he singles out a good-looking freshman named Joyce whose father was Italian and whose mother was part African, part French, part Native American and "part something else." As Obama tells it, Joyce was not interested in attending a Black Students Association meeting --"I'm not black. I'm multiracial" -- and complained that it was blacks, not whites, who put pressure on her to choose a singular identity.

As Obama saw it, people like Joyce talked about the wonderful tapestry of their heritage and it sounded good "until you noticed that they avoided black people." This was the way integration typically worked, Obama writes. "The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around. Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be nonracial, willing to adopt the occasional exotic into its ranks."

The Obama who is running for president today would surely not be so tough on Joyce.

"He is a product of that combined heritage," says Valerie Jarrett, his close friend and adviser from Chicago. "What he realizes is how much we have in common. He's looking at people and looking for the good in them. He sees the world in similarities and doesn't get polarized by differences."

While Jarrett anticipates that Republicans will step up their efforts "to try to make him different," she adds: "I have confidence in Americans' ability to see through superficial labels."

* * *

During a recent campaign bus tour through Ohio, Obama and Sherrod Brown discussed Jawando. The topic was basketball. Brown proposed that he team up with Obama's body man, onetime Duke University player Reggie Love, in a two-on-two game against the presumptive nominee and Jawando. Brown told Obama that he had heard about his right-to-left crossover dribble, and that he would strip him if he tried that move in their game.

"Don't trash-talk me on my own bus," Obama shot back.

Brown, who sat out the primary campaign, had told Obama that he would endorse him "on the condition you won't take Will away" when elected. To which Obama replied: "I won't make that promise."

Brown knows of Jawando's heritage and is amazed by the similarities between his young aide and Obama. What he prefers to talk about, however, is the "major role" Jawando played working on the higher education reauthorization act that President Bush recently signed.

But this is a historic election season, Brown acknowledges, one in which race and identity matter. "I guess we're going to prove this year that someone who is an African American, regardless of whether he's biracial, can be elected president. There are people in every state who will have trouble voting for someone who is not white. But it will be a tribute to this country that people were willing to put aside the issue of race. I think the overwhelming majority in Ohio will vote colorblind."

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