Sunday, November 9th, 2008 | TV and text
Although Obama did not attempt to make race an issue during the US election, interest in the color of his skin has a wide-ranging audience. Already we have seen protests in Italy, after Prime Minister Berlusconi said Thursday that Obama is “young, handsome and even tanned.” (Italian students marched in the streets, but Berlusconi defended the statement, calling is “a great compliment” and asking “Why are they taking it as something negative? … If they have the vice of not having a sense of humor, worse for them,”).
Meanwhile, in the UK, Trevor Philips, head of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, described his mixed feelings about Obama’s victory. He says that America is still racially divided and that Obama may not in fact do much for the future of race relations. Philips says, “don’t expect him to end war and racial discrimination…the expectations are ludicrous. One of the reasons I have a slight worry about people’s obsession with him being the first black President is that I have a horrible feeling that the minute things go wrong the word betrayal will quickly come out.”
Philips hopes that Obama will succeed, but he does not maintain high expectations: “When I first went into politics, my mother told me there was a pretty much unfailing history of black leadership going wrong. With one exception – Nelson Mandela – people are lauded, then brought down. Even Martin Luther King was attacked for coming out against the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali was turned into a black Muslim monster when he refused the draft. The history of black men in leadership is not a promising one.”
The problem here is that Philips is looking at this with one agenda. If he, as the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, chooses only to highlight the failure of black men and call it a racial issue then he is not accepting the whole political picture.
Surely Philips is not suggesting that opinion about war be silenced simply because a person is having a conversation with a black politician or leader? Martin Luther King is not remembered for being embroiled in the Vietnam war, nor does anyone really get that hung up about Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the draft. These men are remembered for their triumphs, for overcoming obstacles, and for standing to fight again and again.
Needless to say, white politicians were also attacked for their positions regarding the Vietnam war. We might even note that John Kerry faced attack when he tried to oppose the Iraq war (and smeared for being too “French” and too “socialist” — a charge of foreignness in US politics not unlike calling Ali or Obama a Muslim).
Obama has been and will be attacked on multiple fronts — such as his opposition to the Iraq war, his “palling around with terrorists,” his tax plan, his budgetary decisions…and so forth.
However, unlike Philips, Obama is not a one-issue leader. As Obama said after McCain suspended his campaign to deal with the financial crisis, “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”
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