Whose Race Problem?
"Will Americans vote for a black man?" I've been asked this question by foreigners of various origins a dozen -- or maybe three dozen -- times since the U.S. presidential campaign began for real in January. Now we have the answer: Yes, Americans will vote for a black man. Which means that it is time to turn this rather offensive question around: Will foreigners accept a black American president?
I realize that this, too, may seem like a rather offensive question, particularly if one believes everything that one reads in newspapers. Germany, to take one random example, is at the moment experiencing something like its own version of Obamamania. The media appear to see the Democratic candidate as what a Der Spiegel journalist calls "a cross between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr."; the German foreign minister has been heard chanting "Yes, we can!"; and Obama T-shirts can be spotted in the hipper quarters of Berlin. This sort of enthusiasm isn't unique to Germany: 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? I hate to put it so crudely, but -- European newspaper reporting to the contrary -- racism is not unique to the United States. The situation of ethnic minorities in Europe and Asia is completely different from that in the United States, and in many ways our societies aren't comparable: Most nonwhite inhabitants of European societies are recent immigrants, not descendants of former slaves, and the particular circumstances of, say, the black Christian population in Arab-dominated Sudan are unique.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that there is a distinct dearth of nonwhite politicians in Europe. The Indian caste system has an element of skin-color discrimination built in. Arab societies have their own history of trading in black slaves, and the existence in the Arab world of prejudice against black Africans is no secret. Periodically, African students in Moscow are beaten up on the street. Though it is certainly more severe in those countries that actually have large nonwhite populations, unreflective racism exists even in parts of the world that have barely any darker-skinned or nonnative inhabitants. Japan has been singled out by the United Nations for racist treatment of foreigners. And while some of the stares that black Americans say they get on the street in Warsaw or Prague reflect simple curiosity, some, I'm told, contain an element of hostility, too.
A President Obama wouldn't have to worry too much about angry stares from people at bus stops, of course, and it is fair to assume that prejudices harbored by the odd foreign leader would vanish in the presence of the American president. In the rosiest scenario, an Obama presidency -- or merely an Obama candidacy -- might even force a broader international discussion of race. Andrew Sullivan wrote eloquently last year about the way in which Obama's face, by itself, will help change America's image around the world. By the same token, candidate Obama -- merely by being who he is, and looking the way he does -- could begin to change European, Arab and Asian attitudes about race. Millions of Africans would surely treat an American president of African descent as "their" president, just for a start.
But in the meantime, do not be surprised if there is some backlash as well. 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.
Listen carefully, too, when foreigners start worrying about Obama's lack of foreign policy experience. Though this is a legitimate concern, I occasionally catch a racist undertone in this kind of conversation. "How could a black man possibly understand European/Middle Eastern/South Asian politics?" is what my interlocutors sometimes in fact seem to be saying.
The correct response, of course, is that plenty of white men don't understand European/Middle Eastern/South Asian politics, either. But not everyone, everywhere, is going to understand that. Foreign coverage of U.S. politics always reveals a lot about foreign countries, but never more so than in this election season.