American Culture

Obama and racism around the world

As of last week, we here at S&R decided to yank the hood off of racist America during this Presidential election. To that end, we’re going to be exposing racism wherever we find it and shining a bright light into the dark corners where it hides. But the United States isn’t the only country that has a problem with racism among its various ethnic groups. Most of humanity has issues with the “Other” that people with different shaped eyes, different skin color, or different faiths represent.

And, as the first black candidate for President of the United States, there’s an excellent chance that Obama’s candidacy, and especially his Presidency (if he wins, anyway), would be an amazing opportunity for both the U.S. and the rest of the world to do some soul-searching about racism in their own societies.

Racism is hardly unique to the United States. The Arab leaders of Sudan have armed their fellow Arab nomads with the goal of committing genocide their black citizens. Mexico has a history of racism against blacks and dark-skinned Indians by lighter-skinned, Spanish-descended Mexicans. Canada’s Native peoples suffer from racism instituted upon them by Canada’s European-descended majority. Japanese racism is rampant against ethnic Koreans and Chinese, and Japan’s treatment of its various indigenous people (the Ainu, for one) has a long history of institutional racism. And there are too many examples of European’s racism against blacks, Turks, Arabs and Muslims, gypsies/travellers, and others.

Of course, while these news reports and studies are damning enough, they’re not quite to the level of personal stories. A businessman I know was working with a European company to craft an advertisement for his product for an European audience. The European executive who watched the ad said that it had to be changed because it had a fatal flaw – one of the actors was black, and no-one would buy the product from a black man. And while this story is hardly equal to a racist murder or genocide, it strikes at the nearly cultural level of some forms of racism. Europe, a continent that many progressives look to for their social ideals, is as rife with institutional and cultural racism as the U.S. is, and that’s a fact that both Americans and Europeans fail to acknowledge too often.

Which brings me to the commentary that got me thinking about this in the first place, Anne Applebaum’s Whose Race Problem? commentary in the Washington Post. Applebaum (who is married to a Polish politician and lives in Warsaw, Poland) turns the “will Americans vote for a black man” question around and points it squarely at the rest of the world – “Will foreigners accept a black American president?”

British, French and even Polish newspapers splashed Obama and his candidacy on their front pages this past week, most accompanied by laudatory articles that solemnly proclaimed, “America has changed.”

But has Europe changed? And have Asia and the Middle East changed?

Given the uproar in Denmark over cartoons, Germans’ and Austrians’ dislike of Turkish immigrants, the unmitigated disasters that are Darfur and South Africa, the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, the answer is almost certainly, and unfortunately, “no.”

At least, not yet.

It’s possible to plug your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and yell “la la la la la” loudly enough to drown out cries of the victims of racism when the victims have no power, no authority. But you can’t do that when the “victim” is the President of the United States – you have to face your racism and either accept it or reject it. As Applebaum says, “it is fair to assume that prejudices harbored by the odd foreign leader would vanish in the presence of the American president.” And we can certainly hope that a black President would open a necessary dialog on racism around the world. It’s probably even reasonable to say that a President Obama would, by his very nature, enable the re-ignition of the light in the castle upon the hill that was extinguished by President Bush (assuming, of course, that Obama doesn’t do anything to rust our country’s image even further, that is).

But there will be some people, and probably some entire societies, that will see the U.S. “permitting” a black man to even run for President as the final example of our fall from grace. And some of those people will be from places we don’t expect.

A hint of what might be hiding behind those enthusiastic headlines emerged last week in Obamamanic Germany, where a Berlin newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, put a photograph of the White House and the headline ” Uncle Barack’s Cabin” on its front page. The editors argued that their intention was satirical, but since the same newspaper has also referred to the current U.S. secretary of state as “Uncle Tom’s Rice,” it is clear that they understood the nastiness of the “Uncle Tom” connotation perfectly well.

Applebaum finishes up her commentary with a statement that “[f]oreign coverage of U.S. politics always reveals a lot about foreign countries, but never more so than in this election season.”

We’ll be watching.

15 replies »

  1. Pingback:
  2. “The European executive who watched the ad said that it had to be changed because it had a fatal flaw – one of the actors was black, and no-one would buy the product from a black man.”

    I doubt the UK was included. Black sells as well as white here, sometimes better just ask this chap:

  3. …the mainland of continental Europe is, IMO, much more racist than the UK.

    The UK has racist elements and certain regions are without doubt more anti the “other”. We know about these areas because the people (often working class white poor) are more vocal. The truly insular ones are silent.

  4. How many of you recall The Stan Freberg Show, which aired on CBS Radio as summer replacement for The Best of [Jack] Benny in the summer of 1957?

    From time to time, Freberg would use a running gag as referred to foreigners on the show as being (in his words) “Swiss–that way, we don’t offend anybody.”

    Could such be a possible solution, or is it liable to backfire on the Swiss people and nation?

  5. Years ago, I was in Milan with my Italian boyfriend when he looked across the street at one of about five guys selling bootleg DVDs and said (translated),”Those fucking Albanians – they’re taking over.” I said,”Huh? Which one?” He looked at me like I was blind and said,”THAT one.” And I still couldn’t figure out who he was pointing to – they were all white-ish, dressed the same way, selling the same stuff, and we couldn’t hear whatever language they were each speaking.

    Here’s the kicker – this guy and I had lived together in Los Angeles for a year prior to that, and I don’t mean lily-white OC or even Tarzana, I mean down on the ground LA. Of course there’s racial and economic segregation, but you can find street meat in the Garment District from at least five different continents, and before the gangs took over Venice Beach it was a mecca of mostly naked multiculturalism… anyway, I had NEVER heard this guy say anything even remotely racist.

    As soon as he hit his home turf, it was damn the immigrant Albanians.

  6. “Racism” will never lose its mythical power unless its true nature is revealed. It has very little to do with skin color and everything to do with economic suppression. Almost without exception the most feverish, hard-bitten practitioners of this approach are those in the lowest economic rungs of any society. The ones in power, the ones who actually flame the worst impulses of the mob, might superficially appear to be firm believers in whatever hatred they are preaching. Inevitably what brings such people down is not popular uprising against their methods but the revelation of their own hypocrisy. Consider Ted Haggard the anti-gay preacher. He was gay himself. Larry Craig the anti-gay senator and his not so anti-gay bathroom stall antics. Storm Thurmond the anti-black senator and his forgotten black daughter. The examples go on and on.

    I never understood this paradox though I enjoyed watching its fallout everytime. But a paradox ceases to be a paradox if it is seen as the rule rather than the exception.

    You won’t hear about racism in an economically ethnically and mixed community. Ultimately all forms of racism and social hatred can be traced back to the presence of economic inequality and the unwillingness of those who have to not share or care for those who don’t. Look at Africa. Why do black people keep killing other blacks? Zimbabwe, Rwanda and now South Africa.

    The strongest motivator in nature is hunger. Give a man with an empty stomach platitudes and turn his hunger into hatred at real or imagined injustice and you can use him as a weapon. Over the long arc of human history such weapon’s almost always turn out to be boomerangs, but not before they have wreaked pain and suffering indiscriminately.

    This is not to say that hate must not be confronted. But unless we see the real reasons we are just as likely to fan the flames as to put them out. Sadly the hard work of hate-fighting cannot be done by blogging alone. At the end one has to step away from the keyboard, and go do something about it such as feeding the hungry and helping the poor. It is the misery around us that we ignore that will everntually turn into the weapons of hate and discrimination.

  7. Maybe we should draw a distinction between “racism” and “nationalism,” or simply “us-ism.” If we define racism as bigotry based on skin color and other surface physical characteristics, I can’t find an instance of real racism until about the 15th century as Europeans gained a technological advantage and began to equate skin color with technological advancement. I’m not saying there’s not an instance, but I just don’t know what it is, so I suspect it was somewhat rare.

    I’ve been told that Latin and ancient Greek don’t have words for “race,” and my Latin is far to elementary to know any better (my Greek is nonexistent). But it makes sense. Neither the Romans nor Greeks would have found classification by race to be very useful. What did the relatively light-skinned, and sometimes blond and blue-eyed, Romans have in common with the Germans? The dark-skinned Numideans and Nubians were far more civilized than the Germans and many other Celtic tribes the Romans knew.

    No, the Romans and Greeks were basically strongly prejudiced against pretty much anyone who wasn’t Roman or Greek.

    My experience with Europeans has been that they attach pretty strong stereotypes to nationalities. Now, I haven’t been in France since the Islamic immigration wave, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear much there that could be termed racist. Yet, I wonder if the Europeans, through long habit, aren’t more focused on nationality than race. Certainly, I’ve heard stronger invective against Germans there than I’ve heard against, say, Turks.

    But maybe that’s because I’ve spent no time in Germany where Turks are numerous.

  8. When Obama loses this election it will have little, if anything to do with the fact that he’s black. The reason he will lose is because once people get past his great presentation they will see that his ideas, what ideas he has, aren’t any good. When I hear an Obama Speech I think it’s great, bit when I read an Obama speech I saw there’s nothing behind the words. Obama sounds great, says nothing.

  9. Daniel – Obama may well lose, but a) it may well be because he’s black and b) it certainly won’t be because he doesn’t have ideas.

    I used to criticize the Obama campaign for exactly what you’re saying – all flowery words, no substance. Then a hard-core primary battle forced him to develop the substance behind his words, and it’s definitely there now.

    Seriously, check out his campaign site – there’s a huge amount more substance than McCain’s site. That’s probably because all the substance that McCain would add makes him less appealing to the Republican Party, not more. After all, McCain doesn’t want his supporters to remember the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, his original immigration reform proposals, his votes against restoring the Everglades, etc. because they make his current and prospective supporters less likely to support him in the future.

  10. Hi Daniel,

    Seems like such criticisms of Obama amount to … just words, coming from those who seem to have little desire to inform themselves. Very helpful of you to leave that link. I’m sure I’ll be visiting it quite often to inform myself of what other Clinton-McCain talking points are doing the rounds.


    ps: try writing a “flowery” speech sometime. Its not as easy as it appears.

    pps: do let us know which one of his speeches you HAVE read. The race speech perhaps. No? The one on defense. Not that one either. The one on the economy, or the one on a vision of politics and public debate which rises above such talking-points and rumor mongering. Its a long list and you should do you hw before making unsubstantiable comments.

    Better luck next time.

  11. Brian,

    A few of my major problems with Obama is that he’s anti business, wants to raise taxes for everyone(despite his saying he only wants to tax the rich), raise the capital gains tax, impose windfall taxes, increase estate taxes, increase witholding taxes, and raise Social Security taxes. All in all, he voted for every tax increase that went to the floor…..some put it at him voting for a tax increase every 5 days of his senate career. His stance on unions is very inflationary and causes me concern.

    I have no objection to change…..I just wish his ideas of change were spelled out concisely, quantified, and stripped of the flowery rhetoric. A good understanding of his intentions would allow the people who really pay the majority of the taxes to duck and cover.


  12. Jeff, I can see how someone with your background would consider Obama to be anti-business, although I prefer to view him as forcing business to adapt to new realities that it’s presently resisting. 🙂

    As far as the taxes you listed, I pay most of them, and I don’t really have a problem with them going up even though it’ll mean more taxes out of my paycheck. In general, I don’t have a problem with paying taxes so long as I get something out of them. And if the only thing I get is a lower debt, that’s good enough. Better higher taxes for debt payments than who knows how many more years of BS “emergency supplemental” spending bills to pay for our occupation of Iraq….

  13. Brian,

    As far as debt is concerned, and defecit spending, have you ever compared the total debt and defecits of the USA as a percent of GDP to that of the other industrialized nations…..the result would surprise you.

    If Obama comes through with his opressive taxation scheme, many will be forced to domicile their business offshore, and will ultimately reduce government revenues. Although the mere mention of the Laffer curve is probably heresy in this group, it has it’s merits.


  14. The election of Obama should have notified the other nations on earth that America is not willing to tolerate actions based upon racial or ethnic hatred, and that all countries must be in the business of mending their social fabric in a manner to alleviate the brutality caused by prejudice and fear of other people. As the only measure of human progress worthy of calling progress, America has made attempts in the past which failed, has faltered under stress conditions which challenged both its motive and its methods, but has of educated necessity strived toward the goal that Martin Luther King set in his recognition of what it takes for humans to live together peaceably without discrimination. Anti-racism cannot be forced upon people any more than racism can be forced upon people. The Obama experiment for the public, and the Obama reality for the government offers a close encounter with the issues upon which any nation is founded in the area of ethnic/racial relations in order to define the pride that any people can define as part of the national landscape, that in the Presidential arena, becomes part of the international landscape.

    It is not so much a question of whether Obama succeeds, but whether or not he fails to leave the White House having made equivalent progress with other white male Presidents, not less.

    It is not so much a question of whether Obama fails, but whether or not the American people succeed to have voted in, entertained, and made progress in its national architecture of human relations within the international framework of government and global relations as is the undisclosed but diplomatic objective of any people.