Obama’s Press Office “Too White?” Let the De-Bunking Commence!

Meet Bill Burton, deputy White House press secretary, who, despite having a black parent, was not “minority-ish” enough to be considered a minority member of Obama’s press office in a recent column by Roland Martin and other critics of Obama’s minority hiring practices.Since radio talker/pundit Roland Martin wrote his column on what he saw as a lack of diversity in Barack Obama’s press office people have debated back and forth whether or not blacks and other minorities were being shut out. But many have murmured that a lot of this (including some Snob blog readers/posters who have relatives working in the press office) that this story is all kinds of bull.

Finally some reporters have done the research to back up the reality.

Yes, people, there are minorities in Obama’s press office.

There’s a factually inaccurate meme developing out there amongst some African-American commentators.

In Richard Prince’s Maynard Institute column, the commentator says: “There are no African Americans assigned so far to President Obama’s press office.”

Um … yes there are.

There’s deputy press secretary Bill Burton, for one.

Plus director of African American media Corey Ealons.

More widely, on the communications staff writ large, there’s director of message events Daniella Gibbs Leger, who is African-American. And on the regional communications desk, there’s Gannett Tseggai.

(Source: ABC News’ Political Punch)

Richard Prince also addresses the “not” controversy in his “Journal-isms” column, pointing out that many people didn’t realize that deputy press secretary Burton was biracial, adding to the confusion. Burton is part black, but doesn’t “look” obviously black or biracial (for whatever that’s worth).

When a list of members of the White House press office appeared to show that no African American professionals worked there, a press assistant fielded a call asking if that were indeed the case. She said yes, not realizing that one of her own bosses, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, has a black father and white mother.

“I am biracial, that’s right,” Burton, 31, told Journal-isms on Tuesday. “Though I find it interesting that you ask only if I ‘consider’ myself biracial and not if I am.”

Burton’s ethnicity, a surprise to many who have worked with or covered him through the long Obama campaign and into the White House, has surfaced only sporadically as a subject in a meteoric career that includes service as communications director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., for that of John Kerry, also in 2004, as national press secretary for Sen. Barack Obama, and now as deputy White House press secretary. His race is usually ignored.

“I had NO idea and I used to see him everyday,” one African American Obama campaign worker said. “I’m as good as any of us in ‘detecting’ the mixed among us and I had no clue. He looks totally white!”

The same White House press assistant assured a caller last week that Burton was not African American and said she was sure because she had known him for some time.

Burton’s ethnicity became a subject of more than idle curiosity after Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released a list last week of the press-office staff, as this column reported then.

Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, left, and Hillary Clinton spokesman Phil Singer at White House Correspondents Dinner last April. Some are surprised to learn of Burton’s racial background. (Credit: CNN) If you haven’t seen Burton (and you probably have, I’ve seen him on TV quite a few times both before and after the election), here he is.

To be honest, I thought he was black when I first saw him during an episode of Hardball during the campaign where he was the national press secretary.

I may have wondered for a moment, but I’m pretty sure that by the end of the interview I’d assumed he was part black, but I’d forgotten about Burton completely until Martin wrote his story and people started pointing to Burton as being a minority. Either way, hopefully this will end the “no minorities in the press office” meme, if not because it seemed a little reactionary, perhaps because it is apparently inaccurate.

ABC News’ Jack Tapper summed up how I started to feel about the chatter at the end of his Political Punch post after he pointed out that Hispanics such as deputy director of message events Joelle Terry, director of Hispanic media Luis Miranda, deputy director of research Margaret Olmos and researcher David Gomez are also part of the press office, as well as some Asian-Americans, including special assistant to the press secretary Marissa Hopkins, press assistant Priya Singh, deputy director of communications Jason Djang, and director of specialty media Shin Inouye.

Tapper snarkily askes “Do they not count?”

I realize I’m Caucasian, and thus it’s sensitive for me to even address this, but let’s just say this meme has been noticed by those on the White House press and communications staff who aren’t white, and who think this charge is not just inaccurate, it’s insulting.

But what I’m really wondering is if the man who initially put this theory out to the blogsophere will have a response or is Roland Martin going to sit on his hands and not type any sort of clarification as to how he came to his erroneous conclusions? Did these minorities magically all appear after his column was penned? (I’m guessing no, especially in Burton’s case, but considering that many seemed unaware that Burton was part black, maybe Martin was just making the same wrong assumption as everyone else.)

I expect nothing, but, hey, Martin has rolled up to the Snob blog before to tell me what’s what. Perhaps he’ll elaborate on his Essence blog, in his column, on the radio or elsewhere.

If you see, read or hear anything, let a snob know!

(Thanks to reader, Fanita, for the tip!)

14 thoughts on “Obama’s Press Office “Too White?” Let the De-Bunking Commence!

  1. When I heard about Roland’s article–I was NOT going to read it–I merely rolled my eyes. Was this what we were boing to be reduced to? Making sure that Obama has enough black folks around him? As Jake Tapper said above, do the other minorities in the WH Press office not count? Let’s presume that there were no blacks. What of the others who are there?I’m more than a little disturbed that one has to go into dissecting Bill Burton’s ethnicity. When I saw him on TV, I knew that brother was biracial. Either that, or he seemed to me something other than just Caucasian. I didn’t think much of it then and still don’t now. Why we are hung up on this is beyond me.Roland Martin should be ashamed of himself for even bringing up this "point." Especially knowing Obama’s linkage to seemingly every part of the universe, why would there even be a question as to whether his press office was diverse enough? Or does diversity only apply when black people are incorporated?

  2. @ akonucheI honestly didn’t think much of Burton’s ethnicity either. And it does seem bizarre to have to go into discussion of it when the president is also biracial. I mean, Burton sounded a tad annoyed in the way he answered the biracial question posed by Prince and I can’t really blame him. Was he implying that Burton was trying to pass or something? I mean, I thought it was kind of obvious he wasn’t white, but maybe you and I have some special "Negro-sensing" powers. (Or it could be the full lips, bulbous nose, curly dark hair and his voice which, all for me, skewed heavily non-white.)

  3. Please. I thought Bill Burton was black the first time I saw him. Maybe it’s my "blackdar" but I KNEW he wasn’t white. He definitely seem annoyed by the question and I don’t want to judge Prince but it appears that he was trying to insinuate that Burton was trying to pass or something. The man sounds, looks, and acts like a brotha. He even reminds me of Ben Jealous.

  4. Okay – Snob and Snob readers, are we the only ones not making a fuss about this? This seems moot if not trivial. Aren’t there bigger problems to be tacked?

  5. Ditto to everything that’s already been said. The first time I saw Bill Burton, I knew he was at least part black (he’s also apparently the guy that the president likes to have around for laughs during his down time); if I were Bill Burton I’d also be annoyed to be having some in depth discussion about what race he might be, and by all the folks who were too afraid or ignorant to just ask. I hope these same folks who started their complaining, while obviously failing to check their facts, were equally concerned with the number of black folks working in press shops of previous presidents, and what that did or didn’t mean. From the start, this seemed like one of those things where people were just looking for something to write about, without really thinking about what they were saying.

  6. Well, that makes four of us. Anyone else thought it was obvious that Burton was part black? (And I really am starting to think Prince was trying to accuse dude of passing, which if he was, that’s pretty fucked up, man. In THIS day and age!)

  7. Aren’t we supposed to be beyond forcing people of mixed ethnicity to prove their (fill in the blank ethnicity)ness?And why do other people care so much?I’m fair skinned like mom — so I’m not Hispanic enough.But my last name is Hispanic, like Dad and grew up around Hispanics – do I need to whitify my name like our cousins did in the ’50s to be "true" to what others consider my identity?Most of us mixies got over our identity crises in college. Can’t we just move on?PLEASE.

  8. I always felt like we live in a Black and White world. The gray in between is left out in the cold in the media, in conversations about race and America’s social construct. They are automatically "foreign". Perhaps, it is because America is foreign to complex identities. Everything has to be simplify. Hmmm…you may inspired a blog entry from me. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Strange, the first time I ever saw Burton I thought to myself that he had some black in him (i.e he was biracial). It should have been especailly apparent to those with "blackdar" that this dude had some "color" to him during the summer and early fall of ’08, when the man’s tan was a little too good.Anyway, I honestly don’t understand what the big deal is anyway. Sometimes I think that some people are grasping at anything to prove (to themselves as much as others) that they did not drink the kool-aid, and are still willing to ask the tough hard hitting questions. In this instance they should have done some more research before trying to score "hard nosed journalism" points.

  10. I dunno. It’s tricky…because it’s almost a reflex to ask – where are the black people or to at least make a mental head count. I try not to get too far into it myself and stop myself before I actually put something in writing. That said, I think Barack has been pretty great about having a diverse staff/cabinet and has bigger fish to fry than concerns about who feels they’re being underrepresented or put out for show, as some black journalists complained about at the presser. As for Bill Burton, I do remember doing some googling during the campaign because I thought he looked blackish, but I never did find any confirmation. I had pegged him as incognegro, so I’m glad to know my "blackdar" is pretty well-tuned. Regardless, he’s really good at his job and it was fun to watch him go after the kids on Faux News…which reminds me of how much I miss Tucker Bounds weekly bitch-slapping by some member of the media. Ahhh…the good ol’ days.

  11. I always thought he was black from the moment I saw him (I’m Latino). How someone could think he wasn’t biracial is beyond me. You know who floored me when I found out he was black? Ben Jealous.

  12. C’mon folks–do we really have to perpetuate the one-drop rule craze that America’s got going on? Why does being part black make you black, while being part white apparently doesn’t make you white?

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