2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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England: Transfixed by the Barack Obama buzz


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Hasan Suroor
Hindu, February 2, 2008

If youth, idealism, and charisma, represented by the Illinois Senator, carry the day in America, it will inevitably have an effect on Britain.

Michelle Henery is a black American journalist who "fled" to Britain in 2001 to escape racial prejudice and white America's obsession with the colour of other people's skin. She told me she could no longer take the "tensions" that came with being black in America.

But the prospects of a black finally making it to the White House have got her thinking, and if Barack Obama wins the presidential race, Ms Henery might "consider" going back. Suddenly, the idea of the "American Dream" she once thought was a "lie" has started looking real.

Ms Henery, a writer on The Times newspaper, says she has "no illusion" that Mr. Obama's election will suddenly change everything for America's blacks but, it will "draw a line under the decades-old sense of [racial] discord." In an article, "Now I may be able to return to the American Dream," she painted an unremittingly bleak picture of race relations in America, contrasting it with the more relaxed attitudes in Britain.

"I chose London because of its more open and tolerant atmosphere and I never looked back," she wrote. A remark that many black Londoners say is at odds with their own personal everyday experience. "She's a posh lady, so she can say that," bristled a black shop assistant in Hackney, a predominantly black East London neighbourhood.

But this "posh" lady was apparently treated with such condescension back in her own country that she had started to feel "pathologically suffocated" because of her race. "I was cynical and despondent about the lie of the American Dream where anyone regardless of race, religion or colour could achieve anything and everything," Ms Henery wrote.

The sheer "grind" of being black in America was wearing her down: "I was constantly aware and reminded that I was somehow different; that I was black. You wake up and you're black, you drive down the road, you're black, you make an acquaintance and before you're tall and fat or attractive or bright, you're black." And, so, it went on -- until one day she decided enough was enough and moved to London just when George W. Bush and his neo-cons arrived in Washington filling her with even greater dread about the future of black Americans.

Seven years later, America is on the cusp of a profound change that Ms Henery hopes will make it a "much different place than the divisive one" she left.

Indeed, the whole of Britain is transfixed by the Obama "phenomenon" seen as the most significant event in American politics since another young and charismatic Democratic hopeful, John F. Kennedy, swept his countrymen off their feet.

In the British media, he has been portrayed as the "heir to JFK," and America's "new Kennedy" and a "rock star" of American politics. Among Britain's blacks, in particular, the events across the pond have made a deep impact with many looking at the Obama surge as the start of something bigger; something that will not stop with America.

The 46-year-old Senator from Illinois is seen as the most potent symbol of social change in America since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and suddenly there is a sense of optimism in Britain's normally despondent black community. "If Obama wins then in Britain too we can hope to have a black Prime Minister one day," a black student said.

And it is not the blacks alone who foresee British politics undergoing a positive change if Mr. Obama is able to pull it off. According to William Rees-Mogg, a right-of-centre commentator, an Obama victory would do to British politics what the Kennedy victory did in 1960: create a "cult" of youth and idealism.

If youth, idealism, and charisma, represented by Mr. Obama, carry the day in America then it will inevitably have an effect on Britain.

"On February 5 [the crucial "super-duper Tuesday" primaries] we shall see whether they have captivated America. If they do, we'll find that they have captivated Britain as well. Barack Obama could have a message for us all," Mr. Rees-Mogg wrote in The Times.

There is a view that the significance of the Obama phenomenon goes beyond the outcome of the presidential race. The sheer presence of a serious black contender for the first time in the history of contemporary American politics and the fact that he has come so far means that Mr. Obama has made a dent in the racial "glass ceiling" that had looked impenetrable.

Meanwhile, many women, especially black feminists, face a dilemma when presented with a choice between Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton. One is fighting to become America's first black President, and the other the first woman President. Choosing between race and gender is proving to be difficult. A straw poll indicated that although more were inclined towards Mr. Obama they were at pains to emphasise that it was a purely subjective view and had nothing to do with their position on race and gender. Ms Clinton "lost" because she was seen as a "divisive" figure.

Interestingly, several Tory MPs are supporting Ms Clinton (one has just returned from America after working for her campaign team) rather than any of the Republican candidates, though the Republican Party is the Tories' natural political ally.

On the other hand, many in Labour (remember the party's "special relationship" with the Clintons?) are quietly rooting for Mr. Obama. But the official line is to keep mum, for now.


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