Obama and racism around the world

Posted on June 10, 2008


As of last week, we here at S&R decided to yank the hood off of racist America during this Presidential election. To that end, we’re going to be exposing racism wherever we find it and shining a bright light into the dark corners where it hides. But the United States isn’t the only country that has a problem with racism among its various ethnic groups. Most of humanity has issues with the “Other” that people with different shaped eyes, different skin color, or different faiths represent.

And, as the first black candidate for President of the United States, there’s an excellent chance that Obama’s candidacy, and especially his Presidency (if he wins, anyway), would be an amazing opportunity for both the U.S. and the rest of the world to do some soul-searching about racism in their own societies.

Racism is hardly unique to the United States. The Arab leaders of Sudan have armed their fellow Arab nomads with the goal of committing genocide their black citizens. Mexico has a history of racism against blacks and dark-skinned Indians by lighter-skinned, Spanish-descended Mexicans. Canada’s Native peoples suffer from racism instituted upon them by Canada’s European-descended majority. Japanese racism is rampant against ethnic Koreans and Chinese, and Japan’s treatment of its various indigenous people (the Ainu, for one) has a long history of institutional racism. And there are too many examples of European’s racism against blacks, Turks, Arabs and Muslims, gypsies/travellers, and others.

Of course, while these news reports and studies are damning enough, they’re not quite to the level of personal stories. A businessman I know was working with a European company to craft an advertisement for his product for an European audience. The European executive who watched the ad said that it had to be changed because it had a fatal flaw – one of the actors was black, and no-one would buy the product from a black man. And while this story is hardly equal to a racist murder or genocide, it strikes at the nearly cultural level of some forms of racism. Europe, a continent that many progressives look to for their social ideals, is as rife with institutional and cultural racism as the U.S. is, and that’s a fact that both Americans and Europeans fail to acknowledge too often.

Which brings me to the commentary that got me thinking about this in the first place, Anne Applebaum’s Whose Race Problem? commentary in the Washington Post. Applebaum (who is married to a Polish politician and lives in Warsaw, Poland) turns the “will Americans vote for a black man” question around and points it squarely at the rest of the world – “Will foreigners accept a black American president?”

British, French and even Polish newspapers splashed Obama and his candidacy on their front pages this past week, most accompanied by laudatory articles that solemnly proclaimed, “America has changed.”

But has Europe changed? And have Asia and the Middle East changed?

Given the uproar in Denmark over cartoons, Germans’ and Austrians’ dislike of Turkish immigrants, the unmitigated disasters that are Darfur and South Africa, the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, the answer is almost certainly, and unfortunately, “no.”

At least, not yet.

It’s possible to plug your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and yell “la la la la la” loudly enough to drown out cries of the victims of racism when the victims have no power, no authority. But you can’t do that when the “victim” is the President of the United States – you have to face your racism and either accept it or reject it. As Applebaum says, “it is fair to assume that prejudices harbored by the odd foreign leader would vanish in the presence of the American president.” And we can certainly hope that a black President would open a necessary dialog on racism around the world. It’s probably even reasonable to say that a President Obama would, by his very nature, enable the re-ignition of the light in the castle upon the hill that was extinguished by President Bush (assuming, of course, that Obama doesn’t do anything to rust our country’s image even further, that is).

But there will be some people, and probably some entire societies, that will see the U.S. “permitting” a black man to even run for President as the final example of our fall from grace. And some of those people will be from places we don’t expect.

A hint of what might be hiding behind those enthusiastic headlines emerged last week in Obamamanic Germany, where a Berlin newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, put a photograph of the White House and the headline ” Uncle Barack’s Cabin” on its front page. The editors argued that their intention was satirical, but since the same newspaper has also referred to the current U.S. secretary of state as “Uncle Tom’s Rice,” it is clear that they understood the nastiness of the “Uncle Tom” connotation perfectly well.

Applebaum finishes up her commentary with a statement that “[f]oreign coverage of U.S. politics always reveals a lot about foreign countries, but never more so than in this election season.”

We’ll be watching.

Posted in: Uncategorized