Magazine article New African

Decision Time in America; If Barack Obama Is Elected on 4 November It Will Clearly Signal the Pre-Eminence of Merit and Competence over Race in an "Indivisible Nation" of Immigrants Transcending Their Differences to Collectively Share the Same Values of Freedom and Equality under the Globalisation of Citizenship, Argues Hippolyte Fofack, Founder of the Nelson Mandela Institution and Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences

Magazine article New African

Decision Time in America; If Barack Obama Is Elected on 4 November It Will Clearly Signal the Pre-Eminence of Merit and Competence over Race in an "Indivisible Nation" of Immigrants Transcending Their Differences to Collectively Share the Same Values of Freedom and Equality under the Globalisation of Citizenship, Argues Hippolyte Fofack, Founder of the Nelson Mandela Institution and Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences

Article excerpt

In 1786, the US founding fathers laid down a road map for the establishment of a great nation rooted in strong democratic principles underpinned by freedom and equality. These principles are enshrined in the Constitution, which enabled the US to become a beacon of freedom, especially following subsequent amendments. In particular, Amendment 13 abolished slavery in 1865 after the Emancipation Proclamation; Amendment 15 granted voting rights to African-Americans and other minorities in 1870; Amendment 19 gave voting rights to women in 1920.

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Since then, significant progress has been made to advance the democratic process. In particular, the representation of women in the Upper and Lower Houses of Congress has been growing steadily. And history was made in 2006 when Nancy Pelosi, the Congresswoman from California, became the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House.

Notwithstanding these milestones, the challenges to fostering racial and gender equality remain important. Under the current legislature, the Upper House has one African-American senator, Barack Obama. Should he emerge as winner of the presidential race on 4 November, the Senate will be left without a person of African descent. And the deficit of diversity can be broadened to include religions.

On the other hand, and paradoxically, many countries which were later inspired by the US model of freedom and equality seem to have made great strides. For instance, Britain elected Margaret Thatcher as its first female prime minister in 1979. Similarly, the Indian Parliament has emerged as one of the most diverse institutions, with a good representation of Christians, Hindus, Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities.

Decades earlier, the charismatic Indira Gandhi had been elected India's first female prime minister, spearheading the Indian nuclear industry and fostering the green revolution to ensure food security to hundreds of millions of Indians. But America is yet to elect its first female president. The upcoming presidential election offers Americans a golden opportunity to fulfill the dream of their founding fathers and reclaim their global leadership as a beacon of freedom. From the outset, it was dubbed as historical, in part because the Democratic Party nominee was bound to be either a woman or an African-American. Senator Obama won the highly contested primary, and was officially anointed as the party's nominee.

However, while the historical nature of this race has focused on the potential for advancing gender and racial equality, the election of Senator Obama to the highest office in the land could have far-reaching implications at the global level. In particular, it could complement the globalisation process, which has thus far been dominated by economic and financial flows in a world that is still influenced by ideological parameters which dominated the slavery and colonial eras.

Globalisation can be defined as a significant reduction of timescale in the movement of goods, capital and knowledge in a spherical space, in spite of the constant distance between source country and final destination, as a result of technological advances and the increasing interdependence and connectivity of world markets. In the latest wave of globalisation, the volume of global exports increased dramatically after the 1970s, to exceed US$17 trillion in 2007.

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This surge in global trade reflects the convergence of consumption patterns, but also and mote importantly the emphasis on standards and quality of goods, and less on the source and country of origin. Paradoxically, the globalisation of trade has not been accompanied by the globalisation of citizenship; the latter would have called for the eradication of historical and latent gaps in access to opportunities across race and gender.

Short of this eradication, the distribution of opportunities has not evolved to become uniform on the spherical space. People are still viewed through the prism of the world order that dominated pre-colonial and colonial constructs.

As a result, the glass ceiling which curtailed access to opportunities then has persisted and continues to be sustained by historical legacies that shape perception. The civil rights movement in the US, now epitomised by the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by Dr Martin Luther King in the 1960s, reflected the desire to provide more opportunities to all Americans, regardless of race and gender.

In part, the resilience of these latent barriers has been explained by the fact that African-Americans got to the US in chains under the slavery institution, unlike European-Americans. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brilliantly calls this 'America's birth defect", its implications are global and far-reaching. In most advanced economies, the legacy of slavery and colonialism continues to cloud perceptions, shaping face relations at the global level and largely explaining invariance in the globally skewed distribution of opportunities. Similarly, the selection bias underlying immigration policies and the deterministic nature of opportunities offered to minorities, who continue to face a much lower glass ceiling, are partly attributed to that legacy. So is the patronising nature of North-South relations, particularly as they relate to Africa which continues to stand out as the poorest of the global community, in spite of its impressive wealth. In spite of the potential costs of stifled opportunities, especially for productivity and social harmony, discrimination continues to be pervasive, an illustration of the transcendental power of perception over laws promoting equality. In fact, perception is the ultimate invisible power in human relations, as illustrated by the following quote from M. Shawn Cole: "You are only as wise as others perceive you to be."

In addition, the glass ceiling imposed by the inability to collectively effect a mental shift in historical perception has implications for nation building. It can stifle the growth and emancipation of individuals, creating multiple worlds within single nations, hence weakening social fabrics and the whole concept of the nation state, while at the same time undermining trust and fueling conflicts across nations at the global level. Against this background, the prospects for Americans to collectively transcend historical perceptions and effectively become one "indivisible nation state" makes the presidential election on 4 November a truly historical one.

As the first African-American ever elected president of the Harvard Law Review, Senator Obama has been praised as one of the most brilliant and articulate intellectuals and inspirational leaders since President John F. Kennedy. His election will clearly signal the pre-eminence of merit and competence over race in a truly "indivisible nation" of immigrants transcending their differences to collectively share the same values of freedom and equality under the globalisation of citizenship. Moreover, his election to the highest office in the land will almost surely smash the glass ceiling, which remains thick and has denied opportunities to millions of Americans in a way that no law or constitutional amendment could ever have done in any country and at any time in the history of humankind. Furthermore, America's global leadership position as a beacon of freedom will inevitably have a trickle-down effect as a result of this tectonic shift in perception. In particular, it will set the stage for a global transformation, whereby the future of ethnic minorities in other nations is no longer set on deterministic paths, but depends on individual ability and character.

In light of these potentials, it is therefore not surprising that a globalisation of citizenship is increasingly called for to enhance the quest for freedom. In this regard, the renowned European philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, recently said: "Everybody in the world except US citizens should be allowed to vote and elect the US President", reflecting the tremendous implications that decisions made by the US government have for countries and people around the world.

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A BBC poll of 22 countries published in September 2008 found an overwhelming preference for Senator Obama. Under Zizek's assumption, he will be the natural successor to President George Bush. In practice, however, the views of Americans simply cannot be discounted from the making of decisions with global significance, not least because the US remains the driver of globalisation. Its leadership and capacity to constantly innovate have been the determinants of long-run growth and dramatic improvement of living standards since the Great Depression.

Still, the election of Senator Obama could further enhance productivity and global convergence, whereby excellence across the board becomes the global golden rule and people are judged on the basis of their merit and individual abilities, irrespective of gender, race, and hopefully religion. Currently, the inherently biased nature of globalisation is partly attributed to historical legacies and the inability to collectively transcend underlying ideologies that dominated pre-colonial and colonial eras to move in unison into the 21st century. Interestingly, this leapfrog into the 21st century could also be a good legacy for President Bush who proudly extolled his commitment to inclusion and merit by appointing General Colin Powell and Dr Condoleezza Rice as secretaries of state, the first time two African-Americans have held that position under any government. In so doing, Bush produced an operational version of his compassionate conservatism philosophy, and almost surely enhanced the globalisation of citizenship.

Going forward, the global challenge lies in generalising this culture of compassionate conservatism at the policy level, possibly under the globalisation of citizenship banner. This requires in particular that opportunities are distributed uniformly among citizens and countries in the spherical space and that, domestic and global interests are balanced in an increasingly flat world of converging interests. It is, in fact, a tall order objective, whose realisation may call for a global leader whose policy choices are driven by a forward-looking pragmatism and not by prejudices and ideological legacies of the past. Already, this presidential race has rekindled America's image in the world, especially following the Iraq war debacle. It has reinforced the noble aspirations of the American people, and of course reminded the global community of the critical role that this great nation has played time and time again in propelling the world and humanity beyond new frontiers.

From beacon of freedom in the 19th century, and engine of economic and financial globalisation in the 20th century, the US is, once again, about to lead the world into a much-needed globalisation of citizenship, which will almost surely guarantee that the 21st century is yet another 'American Century." And the time for that decision is now!

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