Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Multicultural Dream: Obama says 'Yes We Can!'


I have to pinch myself. The skinny man with a funny name is making me dizzy with hope. A black fellah on the yellow brick road to the American Presidency!


Throughout the world Obama's ambition is sending a ripple through neighbourhoods of 'colour' and neighbourhoods where racism still threatens to dwarf self determination and aspiration.

My birthplace, South Africa, made sure I was conscious of my colour and everybody else's. People of mixed blood - "coloured" - as my mob were referred, were distinct for all the wrong reasons. Australia and its acceptance of me and my family has made me see that more clearly.

Apartheid was like living at a foreign airport, having to go routinely through the ritual of customs. That ritual is characterised by the assumption of one's criminality, of one's shame or guilt. You approach the desk with all your papers intact but with a sense of being called to prove yourself. You learn to be polite, clear and efficient, because you recognise that the other mob have incredible, unilateral power.



Even though South Africa has now been led for more than a decade by black politicians, many South Africans of mixed heritage can't shake themselves free from the internally held propaganda that they are better off being governed by a white fellah. White fellahs are more competent, more market-driven, more objective.

Ringing in my ears are the comments of a coloured relative during a recent visit to Durban: "They are taking over" he said, referring to black Africans moving in from outlying areas of the city, taking jobs in the trades once reserved for his more exclusive coloured community. "They are a safety hazard. I tell them 'up' and they say 'down'. They're dangerous and stupid."

He told me how he has a gun and it sits between his legs when he drives his battered BMW about town. Trust is a commodity in short supply. Trust has been critical to Obama's success but it hasn't been all smooth sailing.

Barack Hussein Obama is himself not surprised that his name has become an irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republicans wanting to falsely link him to the world's most wanted terrorist.

As a person of mixed heritage - with a name that occasionally raises eyebrows in Australia - I understand his expectation. But I reckon the most fascinating element of Obama’s political trajectory is what he does with his ‘colour’; how he plays it and what the African American community make of him as a Democrat presidential hopeful. That story, his story, may tell us something about what means in contemporary USA to be ‘black’.

What has made Obama's political trajectory all the more remarkable is NOT that he is black but that colour or race does not define him.

He is the Oprah Winfrey of US politics. Oprah, who has famously endorsed Obama and years before admitted she voted Republican, does not put her colour before her gender. She talks mainly to white women and their pain. Obama's constituency is the same as Oprah's - middle class America. Oprah and Obama are comfortable about their past and do not let colour determine their place in the world.

In his autobiographical book Obama is breathtakingly honest about his shortcomings. He admits to taking cocaine; a risky declaration in any political landscape. He talks frankly about his mixed heritage and his search for his own identity and comfort in his skin as the son of a Kenyan father and Caucasian mother from Kansas.

What he throws up for discussion is the unfinished-business of race and ethnicity in the United States. He is testing assumed alliances and prejudices among Americans.

Race continues to have a very powerful hold on people in the US, not least because of the country's tortured racial history. My friends in the US say white Americans like Obama because he's 'a different kind of black'.

He's 'jazz cool' precisely because he is doesn not come burdened with the racial resentments that people from the slave tradition have against African Americans. In other words, he doesn't threaten whites. He makes them feel okay.

But how does he sit among people of colour? Obama's paternal grandfather was angry about his father's relationship with his mother, a white girl. He thought he would be sullied by it.

It's not unusual for black men in the USA today to be cautioned by their parents against marrying white women. Mothers are cut deep when their sons intermarry; threatening to cut them off from the family - perhaps because of their own personal chapter in America's tortured racial history. It's seen as a good thing among African Americans that Obama married an African American.

But if you think Obama is embraced by the African American community as 'one of them', then think again.

A question repeatedly asked by black Americans is, 'Is Obama black enough?'. Black people have the authority to ask the question because for many, 'blackness' is their route to trust.

It's an idea advanced by Ronald W. Walters of the African American Leadership Institute. Obama has a Kenyan father but his white mother, Indonesia step-father and childhood spent in Hawaii and Asia are all far removed from Alabama, Mississippi, ghettos and grits: things, Walters says, that Americans actually understand if you're trying to define blackness. If you trust a candidate, then you will give him or her your political support. That's not just for blacks. It's true for evangelicals, it's true for any culturally coherent group.

Voters size up candidates according to their culture. If the candidate fits in, it builds trust. And if there is trust they can give the candidate their political support.

Obama raises a number of issues that go the heart of America's psyche and sense of self. It's still common in the United States for people of mixed heritage to be pressured to identify with one half of the mix and abandon the other. Given his upbringing, Obama struggled to identify with either half. He barely knew his academic father who returned to Kenya while Obama was still a small boy.

He became further alienated from black Americans because he didn't grow up around them, although his time living and working in Chicago for many years, confronting issues including racism and poverty did provide an important political baptism and orientation.

(As it happens Obama's family represents the living embodiment of Martin Luther King Junior's magnificent dream. When his mother married Obama senior, his extended family moved from Wichita in the Midwest to Hawaii - the forefront of President Kennedy's New Frontier. Hawaii seemed to have something to teach the rest of the world - the willingness of races to work together toward common development).

Obama knows that unemployment among African-Americans is still twice that of whites. Four black families in every ten have no man in the house, a precursor for disadvantage. But you rarely hear him talk about 'black issues'.

African Americans know what they are getting with Hillary Clinton (with husband Bill often hailed as first 'black' president). They can't throw that experience out. They are not sure about Obama because they don't hear enough from him about the issues close to them including bank foreclosures and the fact that one million blacks are in jail. Black Americans are arrested 13 times as often as whites. Obama doesn't talk about that.

One of the few black leaders before Obama to aim for the White House was the Reverend Jesse Jackson. But even his political wisdom and savvy born of real experience in grappling with substantive social and economic issues among minority groups was not enough. Like him, Obama's apparent mission impossible is to appeal to both blacks and whites.

When Obama travelled to Southern Alabama in March (for a big protest rally to commemorate a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement) he was forced to prove his bona fides in the shadow of prophetic giants. He gently urged the largely black crowd to refrain from telling him that he didn't know anything about racism. He spoke about how his grandfather in British Kenya was called a house-boy by colonialists: "They wouldn't call him by his last name. Sound familiar?" Obama understands racism but he grew up surrounded by enough love to buffer him from it and keep him secure.

As a fan of the television series The West Wing I can't help but draw similarities between Obama and its fictional Democrat, Matt Santos, who's Latino heritage seemed both a strength and weakness. Santos and members of his team wondered, "Shouldn't a Latino candidate advance the Latino cause?" Santos knew the risk. "Latinos coming out in favour of a Latino. Doesn't it just feed into Republican hands?" In the end he played down his ethnicity, convinced that he would be able to focus on minority issues once he took office. He had to neither alienate whites nor abandon the people who got him there.

More than half of Obama's staff are white - more than Hillary Clinton's, who inherited the African-American workers who supported Jessie Jackson. Obama built a new team and severed ties with earlier politicians.

Obama has tried to neutralise the issue of race, at least not to draw attention to it. By contrast Jesse Jackson embraced race, attacking the electorate from its margins. When Cyclone Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, President George W.Bush was accused by some of not responding fast enough because the devastated neighbourhoods were black. He was called a racist. But not by Obama who simply attacked his incompetence.

Obama looks like a winner now but he can expect more smear and scrutiny in the months ahead.

In the first full week of the campaign in 2007, Obama was attacked for his behaviour as a six year-old. Fox News reported that Hillary Clinton had conducted a background check and discovered that Obama had trained to be a jihadist who would do Al Qaeda's work at an Indonesian religious school he attended when he moved to Jakarta with his mother and stepfather in the late 1960s. Even after the story was debunked as a hoax (Obama's camp also put out a statement saying Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and was a committed Christian who attended the United Church of Christ in Chicago), Fox News did not apologise and did not retract the story.

The symbolism of Obama's success so far, whether or not he ultimately reaches the Oval Office, is powerful to people as far away as Wagga Wagga and Wilcannia. Communities of people isolated within Australia because of their colour or those who have found sanctuary here after fleeing racism and ethnic violence in other parts of the world may well be buoyed by Obama's success in the US where dollars and dynasty normally determine the Presidential outcome.

The colour of my or your skin may one day soon prove to have nothing to do with our ability to lead and inspire our multicultural nation.