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The Content of One's Racial Character

We judge African Americans based not only on whether we perceive them to be black but also on how black we perceive them to be.
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Devon Carbado is a Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. Mitu Gulati is Professor of Law at Duke Law School. Their book, Acting White?: Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America ($29.95, Oxford University Press)is out now.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have cause for both celebration and concern if he were alive today.

In 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first Black President of the United States. This year, President Obama has won re-election and he will be making history again: he will be the first President ever inaugurated on MLK Day. No doubt, many will applaud this convergence. After all, King urged us to judge others based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. What better evidence of our commitment to do so than Obama's re-election? That's the celebration.

The concern is that, instead of demonstrating that race does not matter, Barack Obama's ascendency to the White House may reveal how much it does. This is not to say that Americans are judging Obama negatively based on the color of his skin (obviously not, given how many of us voted for him). Our point, rather, is that Americans may be judging him based on the content of his racial character or, more crudely, on whether he appears to be "too white," "too black" or "not black enough."

This might strike some as a silly argument, and certainly one that has no real social significance. But the question of whether we are judging Obama based on his racial character (and not just his skin color) has implications for how we understand discrimination and anti-discrimination law.

Skin color is but one basis upon which we racially categorize, and it is not even always the most important basis. We also racially categorize based on names, dress, speech, hair style; professional and social affiliations; political and racial commitments; neighborhood; and so on and so forth. The foregoing function as a set of racial criteria people can employ to determine not simply whether a person is black in terms of the color of her skin but whether that person is black in terms of her racial character.

Framing race in this way is important. Few institutions today refuse to hire any African Americans. Law expressly prohibits that form of discrimination and society frowns upon it. The reality today, therefore, is that most employers will hire some African Americans and, given all the diversity is good for business talk, may even do so enthusiastically.

The question is, which African Americans will employers hire? The ones who are racially palatable. Employers can screen their application pool for African Americans who are racially comfortable. These are the "good" blacks. They are black only in terms of the color of their skin. In most other ways, the employer perceives them to be just like whites. The employer can thus profit from their skin color diversity without worrying about whether their racial character will create tension within the institution.

Not so with "bad" blacks. Their racial character is salient. This may be because race really matters to them or because they are identifiably black with respect to their name, where they live, the people with whom they associate, where they go to church, etc. Employers may worry that "bad" blacks will repeatedly play the "race card" (something a "good" black would never do), increasing the likelihood of racial tension and antagonism in the workplace.

Significantly, both categories of African Americans are black in terms of the color of their skin. But the "bad" blacks are blacker because of their perceived racial character. Thus, they are more vulnerable to discrimination than the "good" blacks.

Note how this argument about racial character tracks discrimination on the basis of sex. Few would quarrel with the claim that we judge individuals based not only on whether we perceive them to be men or women but also on their gender character. For example, we differentiate between masculine women and feminine women, often preferring the latter over the former.

A similar point can be made about sexual orientation. We judge people based not only on whether we perceive them to be gay or lesbians but also on the character of their sexual orientation. For example, we differentiate between "straight acting" gay men and those who are "flamboyantly" gay.

All we are saying is that a dynamic of this sort is at play with race. We judge African Americans based not only on whether we perceive them to be black but also on how black we perceive them to be.

The phenomenon of racial character provides at least a partial explanation for Obama's trajectory. If you don't believe us, believe Obama. Commenting on his first campaign for the White House, Obama noted that "at every stage of the campaign, commentators have deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough.'" Obama was aware that people were judging him based on racial character, and not just on the color of his skin.

A Saturday Night Live clip captured this dynamic as well. A sketch featured cast members playing Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton discussing whether America is ready for a black president. Their answer: it depends on the person's degree of blackness or "scales of soul." They then proceed to ask whether Obama's degree of blackness will change as America gets to know him. Different social factors move Obama up and down the scales. The fact that his name is Barack moves him up to a higher degree of blackness. But that he was called Barry in high school moves him down. That he was raised by a single mother moves him up, but the fact that he was raised in Hawaii moves him down. His marriage to a black woman moves him up-and so does the fact that in the past he dated white women.

If African Americans are aware that they are being judged based on racial character, or think that that this is the case, there is an incentive for them to do whatever they can to signal that they occupy a relatively low position on the scales of blackness -- to signal, in other words, that they are not "too" black. This signaling stuff is work; often hard work, if the perceptions of blackness are negative enough.

And this is an important point -- the pressure to signal that one is not "too black" directly relates to the existence of negative racial stereotypes. The blacker one is perceived to be the more vulnerable one is to the attribution of negative racial stereotypes. Whites don't have to worry about this as much because they are less vulnerable to being negatively stereotypes.

For Obama, the racial character problem is even more complicated that we have thus far described. He has to demonstrate both that he is not "too black" (to avoid being perceived as a "bad" black from the perspective of whites) and that he is "black enough (to avoid being perceived as a "bad" black from the perspective of African Americans). African Americans, and not just whites, pay attention to racial character. If we view race solely as skin color, we blind ourselves to these little discussed aspects of race.

In highlighting the problem of racial character we are not saying that it is the most significant racial problem facing the nation. It is not. We bring it up because it offers us an opportunity to rethink Martin Luther King's imperative that we judge people based on their character, not skin color. This has led too many people for too long to think of discrimination on the basis of skin color as the only form of racial discrimination. Judging people on the basis of character -- racial character -- can be a form of discrimination as well.