Not Just the First African-American President

For two years now, everyone has talked about Barack Obama becoming the first black president, barely 40 years after the civil rights revolution. Obama himself has often said, “I  don’t look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates.”

But his achievement is even more striking than “first African-American president.” There are tens of millions of white Americans who are part of ethnic groups that have never produced a president. The fact is, all 42 of our presidents have been of British, Irish, or Germanic descent. We’ve never had a president of southern or eastern European ancestry. Despite the millions of Americans who came to the New World from France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, and other parts of Europe–not to mention Asia and the Arab world and Latin America–we’ve never had a president who traced his ancestry to those parts of the world. Indeed, it’s often been said that “we’ve never had a president whose name ended in a vowel” (except for a silent ”e” such as Coolidge, and with the exception of Kennedy), which is another way of saying “not of southern or eastern European heritage”).

As Philip Q. Yang put it in his book Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches, “There have been no presidents of southern and eastern European descent; and none of Jewish, African, Latino, Asian, or Indian descent.” We’ve had 37 presidents of British (English, Scottish, or Welsh) or Irish descent; three of Dutch descent (Van Buren and the two Roosevelts); and two of Swiss/German descent (Hoover and Eisenhower). Of course, these categories usually refer to the president’s paternal line; Reagan, for instance, was Irish on his father’s side but not on his mother’s. But that doesn’t change the overall picture.

In this light, Obama’s achievement is even more remarkable. He has achieved something that no American politician even of southern or eastern European heritage has managed. But I think we can assume that from now on there won’t be any perceived disadvantage to candidates of Italian, French, Asian, or other previous genealogies not previously seen in the White House. For that, congratulations to Barack Obama.