Obama and Global Race Barriers

They'll be slaughtering sheep in Galilee this week to honor a man that local Bedouins now claim is their cousin: American President-elect Barack Obama. The sheikh in a tiny village not far from the Israeli city of Nazareth says his mother remembers an African man who married into the clan some 80 years ago. The evidence of kinship is, to say the least, thinly substantiated. Abdul Rahman Sheikh Abdullah, 53, tells NEWSWEEK that his late cousins carried themselves like Obama, gestured like Obama, grinned like Obama. "His smile is typical of our tribe," says the sheikh. "It shows gentleness and kindness but also firmness." But the sheikh says he really doesn't want much from the new president: a little recognition, an invitation to the White House and, oh yes, for Obama to defend the rights of Bedouins in Israel and around the world. "Obama will not desert his family," the sheikh says confidently.

Although few others go so far as to claim blood ties to Obama based on his smile, the last few weeks have seen a vast range of people, some oppressed, some powerful, some just opportunistic, who have embraced the Obama mystique as they imagine it. In the process, they are revealing a great deal more about their own societies, their frustrations, and especially their problems with racism and ethnic tensions, than they are about the president-elect of the United States.

In Germany, a politician of Turkish descent has just become the head of the Green Party. In New Zealand, the Maori minority believed they had found their Obama moment in elections earlier this month when they wound up as pivotal players in the Parliament. Bolivia's President Evo Morales, who embodies the anger as well as the aspirations of his country's indigenous peasants, is now touted by supporters as the Obama of South America, while the woman who leads a party of Dalits, or "untouchables" in India, has been tagged by Reuters as "India's Obama." No matter that Kumari Mayawati has made herself a legitimate contender to become the first untouchable prime minister by exploiting caste antagonisms, not transcending them.

The use and abuse of Obama as a metaphor for dramatic racial and social change is suddenly so widespread, it may become a verb. Conservative Party Leader David Cameron and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown have bickered about their ability to Obama the U.K., with Cameron embracing the slogan of change and Brown espousing liberalism. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy openly compares himself—the right-wing son of an aristocratic Hungarian immigrant—to the American son of a Kenyan father.

"God save us from Obamismo, that new religion that has flooded our earthly temples with such exaltation that it threatens to become a cosmic plague," wrote columnist Pilar Rahola in the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, deriding Obama, ironically, as "a kind of messiah." Israeli columnist Sever Plocker dubbed him "Mr. Universe": the man who is all things to all people, and to whom the whole world is looking for leadership.

Yet amid the euphoria and the excess, it is increasingly clear that Obama is, in fact, the unique product of a unique moment in America's history, a figure almost impossible to replicate or even emulate in any other country. In the United States itself, it took both the worst crisis and perhaps the best-organized campaign in a century to break the color barrier, and generations may pass before American voters choose another black man, or a Latino or Asian or Jew, to be president.

Obama's example holds up a mirror showing other countries how far they have to go to address their own racial and ethnic divides. And minority politicians and activists are hoping to exploit the intense media attention to push their own causes and candidacies by pointing out the contrast with their countries' own sclerotic elites. But the activists are mostly realists. Many, like Obama, come from backgrounds as community organizers, and many, like Obama, have few illusions about what it takes not only to persuade the old guard to listen, but to replace it. "One of the first Obama effects is to make the French political class look outmoded, despite all the attempts by that political class to cast themselves as Obama's cheerleaders during the American campaign," says Dominique Sopo, president of the organization SOS Racisme. While Obama's victory is encouraging, because it shows "the road is possible, so we are right to battle in that direction," says Sopo, "it is going to be a long haul."

Earlier this month, Trevor Phillips, the black chairman of the British Equality and Human Rights Commission, agonized publicly over the difficulties that a British Obama would face in becoming prime minister. "If [he] had lived here I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break through the institutional stranglehold on power within the Labour Party," Phillips said in a newspaper interview. "The parties and the unions and the think tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It's institutional racism."

In fact, just about every country in Europe is rife with racism, but each in its own way. In Britain, for instance, policies instituted by well-meaning governments in the 1960s meant to encourage multiculturalism led to increasingly insular ethnic communities—and some terrible soul-searching after a few young men from those neighborhoods carried out suicide attacks on the London Underground in 2005. In staunchly republican, statistically color-blind France, an effort by Sarkozy's immigration minister last year finally to allow official records on ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds was overturned as unconstitutional. As a result, progress—or the lack of it—is hard for the government to measure, much less promote. Yet in practical terms, discrimination is commonplace against people with Arab-sounding names, or even those who come from postal codes identified with large immigrant communities. The result is what Patrick Lozès of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France (CRAN) calls "double invisibility" for minorities. In Germany, Turkish workers and their descendants were, until the 1990s, prevented from holding citizenship much less public office, and even today many Germans find it hard to think of people with Turkish backgrounds as their compatriots.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's offhand remark this month about Obama being young, handsome and well tanned might have passed for nothing more than a bit of bad taste if it were not for the Berlusconi government's record in other areas. Over the past several months it has mounted a concerted campaign to drive the Roma (or, more vulgarly, Gypsies) out of the country. Children have been compelled to get vaccinations and be fingerprinted. A full 10 percent of the Roma population has been forced to leave over the past year. And some members of the public, picking up on the government's tone, go much further. Last week, several blatantly racist Italian pages were taken off Facebook. One, called "Let's Burn Them All," had 300 members. Another suggested that a useful employment for Gypsies would be as "testers of gas chambers."

In such an environment, even as people embrace the Obama phenomenon from afar, it's not surprising that they have trouble imagining it at home. "Obama is a beautiful man, he has the perfect image for America," said the proprietor of a newspaper kiosk in the Aventino section of Rome. "But electing a black president in Italy would never happen. Even electing a Sicilian would never happen."

In Hungary last August, around the time of Obama's formal nomination, the business weekly Figyelo ran a poll that showed 50 percent of the respondents would vote for Obama if they could. On the other hand, when asked if they would vote for a candidate in Hungary with non-Hungarian forebears, only 45 percent said yes, and when asked if they would vote for a Roma candidate, only 39 percent said they would.

The less theoretical and the more populous the "outsiders" are in their midst, the more likely Europeans are to say they don't want them to head a government. In France, by far the largest racially or ethnically identifiable minority is the mostly Arab and Muslim population from North Africa. A poll published earlier this month by the national Sunday paper the Journal du Dimanche showed 80 percent of respondents thought, personally, they could vote for a black candidate in a presidential election. Some 72 percent said they could go for an Asian, but only 58 percent could imagine voting for someone from a North African background. Asked if they thought any members of these groups actually had a chance of being elected, only 25 percent thought a North African would have a prayer.

"People are afraid," says Rachel Inegbedian, a 20-year-old from Algeria who has family in France and is studying in Britain. "In England, people are saying they could not elect a black [leader]—and the situation is even worse in France! It's going to take time to change."

In point of fact, the most prominent government officials from visible racial or ethnic minorities are appointed, not elected. (There are, let us be clear, relatively few at the top levels of the American government, either. Obama was the only black member of the U.S. Senate.) In Britain, a few with Afro-Caribbean or South Asian backgrounds are members of the House of Lords. In France, there are three women named by Sarkozy to his cabinet: Justice Minister Rachida Dati, whose family is from Algeria and Morocco; Fadela Amara, the secretary of state for urban policies, who comes from an Algerian Berber background; and Rama Yade, born in Senegal, who is a junior minister for foreign affairs and human rights. As a spokesman for France's Representative Council of Black Associations said recently, "Three swallows do not make it spring."

Yet there are some surprises. In Germany last week, Cem Ozdemir, the 42-year-old son of Turkish Muslim immigrants, became co-chair of the influential Green Party. He says he never puts his background front and center in his political campaigns. He is careful not to talk about the plight of immigrants so much as the broader difficulties of the working class. And he did not need Obamania to help him get to where he is. But among fellow Germans with similar backgrounds, there is something of the same enthusiasm. "If you want to have someone who can bring back the passion to politics, we need someone from outside the club," says journalist Mely Kiyak, author of a book about the hard road politicians like Ozdemir have had to travel.

Other activists in Europe do not really expect the spasm of enthusiasm that surrounded the American election to carry them very far. But that doesn't prevent them from hoping. "For the first time in several centuries of western history we have felt a sort of tremor, the possibility of a shift, into a post-racial society," says Sopo.

In some parts of the world, however, that sort of denouement is nowhere in sight. Politicians like Morales in Bolivia, or Mayawati in India, have built their power by playing on ethnic resentments and caste divisions. They may be described as "Obamas" in press reports, and even by their followers, but their approach to taking power could hardly be farther from the president-elect's studied efforts to bring people together, build cooperation and hammer out compromises.

Meanwhile, in his little village near Nazareth, Sheikh Abdullah continues to receive congratulations from other tribal leaders and from the public as he waits for a call from the White House transition team that may never come. They should believe him, he says. "People around here trust us," he says. "My family has a good reputation and we've been known to reconcile feuds many times." Maybe, along with the smile, that's another link Obama has to the tribe of Abdullah.