President Obama made history in 2008 as the first African American president in U.S. history.
But according to data in a fascinating new Pew Research Center study, a majority of Americans describe the president as "mixed race," while just more than a quarter (27 percent) call him "black."
While whites and Hispanics are far more likely to describe Obama as "mixed race," a strong majority of African Americans see him as black. And black voters voted in historically large numbers for Obama. He won 93 percent of the African American vote in 2012 and 95 percent among that group in 2008. (John Kerry won 88 percent of the black vote in 2004; Al Gore won 90 percent in 2000.)
Obama, for his part, struggled for much of his life in how to define himself racially with a Kansas-born white mother and a Kenyan father. David Maraniss documents that process in fascinating detail in his biography of the country's 44th president. Of Obama's racial identity, Maraniss wrote:
Here, at age 22, was an idea that would become a key to understanding Obama the politician and public figure. Without a class meant that he was entering his adult life without financial security. Without a structure meant he had grown up lacking a solid family foundation, his father gone from the start, his mother often elsewhere, all leading to a sense of being a rootless outsider. Without a tradition was a reference to his lack of religious grounding and his hapa status, white and black, feeling completely at home in neither race. The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions.
While Obama has not regularly spoken about race during his presidency, he did make headlines when he spoke out regarding the case of Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager shot dead by George Zimmerman. Following Zimmerman's acquittal in July 2013, Obama spoke at length -- saying in part:
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And, as the Associated Press reported in April 2010, Obama "did not check multiple boxes on his U.S. Census form, or choose the option that allows him to elaborate on his racial heritage. He ticked the box that says 'black, African Am., or Negro.'"
In truth, debating how best to describe Obama's race may become moot in future years due to the rise of interracial marriage, as Pew's Paul Taylor documents. Check out this chart on new marriages from 1960 to today:
More than a quarter of Hispanic and Asian newlyweds “marry out,” as do one-in six-blacks and one-in-ten whites. Whites are still the largest race group, so even though they “marry out” at lower rates, they still account for 70% of all interracial marriages.
By mid-century, what will we call the children of interracial marriages? Today we aren’t even sure what to call our president. We do know this: In many cultures and societies through history, being mixed race -- being a “mutt” as Obama sometimes calls himself -- has meant being an outcast. In today’s America, judging by those Super Bowl ads or today’s celebrities, the norms are changing and the stigma receding.