2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

South Africa: What change exactly will Obama bring to the world?


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Jacob Dlamini
1/12/08 Bus. Day 7

What change exactly will Obama bring to the world? I FIRST heard of Barack Hussein Obama about three years ago. My informant was a young American whose family was a part of the black political establishment in the US. The family was originally from the American South and could speak directly of slave ancestors and cotton pickers on both the maternal and paternal sides. My informant's parents, whose roots in America's black political elite could be traced to the black church and the civil rights movement, were proud members of the generation of black Americans who were beneficiaries of the successes registered by the civil rights movement from the late 1950s. These successes included the gradual dismantling of Jim Crow discrimination , the meaningful extension of the franchise to black voters, especially in the South, the desegregation of schools and universities and, of course, the advent of affirmative action.

My informant had done better than his parents, going to private schools and Ivy League institutions for his education. He had, on the face of it, gone beyond the black political establishment and become a member of America's integrated political elite. Yet my friend saw himself as an outsider. He saw himself as a civil rights campaigner still fighting old battles.

He was very suspicious of Obama, the young senator from Illinois. Obama was not a senator then, but was starting to make waves in political circles. My informant said he was automatically suspicious of any black politician who looked like he was the darling of the white political establishment. What's the catch! my informant demanded. Why do they like him so? My informant's suspicions did not make sense to me. First, both he and Obama were from a similar class background, and both had gone to Ivy League universities. Obama might have had a white mother, but he proudly identified himself as black; Obama might not have had any direct and immediate experience of segregation but he proudly embraced the civil rights movement and acknowledged his debt to the movement; he might not have known the life of a poor black boy growing up in an inner-city project, but he threw himself into community work upon graduation.

None of this mattered to my informant. Obama was not black enough for him. He was not militant enough. In fact, my informant suggested, any black politician who made white folks feel comfortable should be distrusted. It did not seem to matter that black America, which constitutes only about 13% of the American population, can only succeed politically through coalitions with other interest groups and communities. It did not seem to register that Obama looked like the sort of politician who could help build those coalitions.

My informant may sound like an isolated, bitter young man with a racial chip on his shoulder. But he is not. There are millions of black Americans who share his prejudices about Obama. It does not help that Obama's only connection to black America is through his late Kenyan father, who could not have known the fear of growing up under the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organisations. The black community in the US is of course not monolithic. There are black voters who, while amenable to Obama, fear that America is not yet ready for a black president. They want to vote for him but worry that doing so may spoil their votes. Some say Hillary Clinton has a better chance of electoral success. It may well be that it is black America and not America in general that is not yet ready for a black president. Whichever way we look at it, Obama is faced with both deep suspicion and fear. He will need to overcome these if he is to reverse the lead Clinton seems to have taken among black voters.

Gary Younge of the British Guardian has said that the significance of Obama's run may be more symbolic than substantial. I agree. But I also believe that in politics the symbolic is as important as the real. There is something symbolically potent about a Barack Obama replacing a George Bush. There is something to be said about the US having as its first black president a man whose middle name is Hussein. I cannot think of a better way for the US to confront its legacy of slavery and racism than to have at its helm a man who embodies in his mixed being a lot of what the US claims to be about.

For South African commentators, Obama poses different challenges altogether. It simply won't do to treat American politics and its practitioners as variations on a theme, with the difference being only in degree and not in kind. The differences between Obama and Bush, not to mention Dick Cheney, are as real as they are obvious. The men may be of the same species but they speak different political languages. Commentators cannot ignore these differences. Obama may, like all politicians, ultimately prove to be a disappointing failure. He may not even make it past the Democratic primaries. But his presence in the race and his call for change so shamelessly plagiarised and cannibalised by Clinton in New Hampshire this week promise the kind of transformation the world could use. The question to ask is: what exactly is the content of the change Obama is promising? Is it the sort of change that is likely to make this a better and safer world? These are political questions and they demand political answers from all of us. My informant said he was automatically suspicious of any black politician who looked like he was the darling of the white political establishment


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