Reflecting on Race Barriers

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek International, November 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Reflecting on Race Barriers


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek International


Obama's breakthrough provokes a global race to capitalize on, and build on, his win.

They'll be slaughtering sheep in Galilee this week to honor a man that local Bedouins now claim is their cousin: American President-elect Barack Obama. The sheikh in a tiny village not far from the Israeli city of Nazareth says his mother remembers an African man who married into the clan some 80 years ago. The evidence of kinship is, to say the least, thinly substantiated. Abdul Rahman Sheikh Abdullah, 53, tells NEWSWEEK that his late cousins carried themselves like Obama, gestured like Obama, grinned like Obama. "His smile is typical of our tribe," says the sheikh. "It shows gentleness and kindness but also firmness." But the sheikh says he really doesn't want much from the new president: a little recognition, an invitation to the White House and, oh yes, for Obama to defend the rights of Bedouins in Israel and around the world. "Obama will not desert his family," the sheikh says confidently.

Although few others go so far as to claim blood ties to Obama based on his smile, the last few weeks have seen a vast range of people, some oppressed, some powerful, some just opportunistic, who have embraced the Obama mystique as they imagine it. In the process, they are revealing a great deal more about their own societies, their frustrations, and especially their problems with racism and ethnic tensions, than they are about the president-elect of the United States.

In Germany, a politician of Turkish descent has just become the head of the Green Party. In New Zealand, the Maori minority believed they had found their Obama moment in elections earlier this month when they wound up as pivotal players in the Parliament. Bolivia's President Evo Morales, who embodies the anger as well as the aspirations of his country's indigenous peasants, is now touted by supporters as the Obama of South America, while the woman who leads a party of Dalits, or "untouchables" in India, has been tagged by Reuters as "India's Obama." No matter that Kumari Mayawati has made herself a legitimate contender to become the first untouchable prime minister by exploiting caste antagonisms, not transcending them.

The use and abuse of Obama as a metaphor for dramatic racial and social change is suddenly so widespread, it may become a verb. Conservative Party Leader David Cameron and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown have bickered about their ability to Obama the U.K., with Cameron embracing the slogan of change and Brown espousing liberalism. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy openly compares himself--the right-wing son of an aristocratic Hungarian immigrant--to the American son of a Kenyan father.

"God save us from Obamismo, that new religion that has flooded our earthly temples with such exaltation that it threatens to become a cosmic plague," wrote columnist Pilar Rahola in the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, deriding Obama, ironically, as "a kind of messiah." Israeli columnist Sever Plocker dubbed him "Mr. Universe": the man who is all things to all people, and to whom the whole world is looking for leadership.

Yet amid the euphoria and the excess, it is increasingly clear that Obama is, in fact, the unique product of a unique moment in America's history, a figure almost impossible to replicate or even emulate in any other country. In the United States itself, it took both the worst crisis and perhaps the best-organized campaign in a century to break the color barrier, and generations may pass before American voters choose another black man, or a Latino or Asian or Jew, to be president.

Obama's example holds up a mirror showing other countries how far they have to go to address their own racial and ethnic divides. And minority politicians and activists are hoping to exploit the intense media attention to push their own causes and candidacies by pointing out the contrast with their countries' own sclerotic elites. …

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