By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 13, 2008
LONDON, Nov. 12 -- A black child, raised in a modest apartment by a single mother and a nurturing grandmother, becomes a wealthy lawyer who launches a landmark political campaign.
It's a story that has been told as the "only in America" tale of Barack Obama. But in Britain, it is also the story of Helen Grant, who is campaigning to become the Conservative Party's first black female member of Parliament.
"He's been an inspiration to a whole generation," said Grant, 46, the daughter of a white British mother and Nigerian father who grew up in public housing without a car or a television. "He's caught the imagination of millions of people, who will say, 'Maybe I'll try it myself.' "
Across Europe, Obama's ascent has given new momentum and enthusiasm to those pushing for a greater voice for minorities. Although no one expects a "European Obama" to emerge anytime soon in societies where the political and business elite is still nearly uniformly white, Obama's election has sent a jolt of possibility through minority communities.
"It changes people's sense of what is possible," said Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society, a London research group. "At each and every level, it creates a sense that anyone can break the glass ceiling."
The increasingly multicultural nations of Europe and the United States have had fundamentally different experiences concerning racial minorities.
Since its founding, the United States has had a large black population, although most blacks were slaves until the Civil War. Most European societies were largely homogenous until a wave of immigration in the past 50 years, and they remain overwhelmingly white.
Many of the newcomers have struggled to learn the language, culture and political systems of their new lands.
Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others of minority heritage now make up about a third of the U.S. population. But they compose a far smaller percentage of European populations: about 10 percent in Britain and France; Germany's largest ethnic minority, Turks, accounts for just 3 percent of the population.
Minority representation in European parliaments remains low, and the highest rungs of the European political class remain almost exclusively white.
Only 15 of the 646 members of the British House of Commons are minorities. Of the 612 seats in Germany's Bundestag, or Parliament, ethnic minorities hold 10. Only one minority from continental France sits in the 577-member National Assembly -- although several others represent overseas territories, such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, which are overwhelmingly black.
Many Britons see Parliament and the prime minister's office as "smoky corridors only open to some people, not everyone, like a private club," said Ashok Viswanathan, deputy coordinator of Operation Black Vote, a British research and networking group.
"We need to get more black faces in high places," Viswanathan said.
Obama's election, he said, would help his group's effort to field more candidates of black and Asian backgrounds for elected offices and increase the number of minority judges, top educators and corporate board members.
Simon Woolley, the head of Operation Black Vote, said a new "Barack Obama generation" of young leaders would be inspired to get into politics. "If any of them can come through, I think we will see a black prime minister within 25 years," he said.
Others are far less optimistic.
"I'm not sure that we'll see it in my lifetime," said Adam Afriyie, a Conservative Party member of Parliament, whose mother was a white English woman and father was a black Ghanaian.
"In Europe, there is still a long way to go," said Cem Oezdemir, a German of Turkish descent who is a member of the European Parliament.
"The message is that it's time to move on in Europe. We have to give up seeing every political figure from an ethnic minority as an ambassador of the country of his forefathers," Oezdemir said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, a leading German magazine.
French political figures, human rights activists and commentators have seized on Obama's election as a lesson for France, where minorities have rioted in recent years to protest their lack of opportunities.
"The momentum generated by Barack Obama's election must usher in a mobilization with concrete results for us as well," declared Rama Yade, a junior foreign minister for human rights who was born in Senegal.
Yade is one of three ministers or junior ministers from immigrant families named by President Nicolas Sarkozy after his victory in May 2007, including Rachida Dati, of North African descent, who is the country's justice minister.
Yazid Sabeg, the son of an Algerian dockworker who has become a wealthy businessman, has launched a "Yes, we can" campaign, after Obama's slogan, to push what he called a "Manifesto for Real Equality." His petition called for, among other things, "forced renewal of the political world" through pledges from political parties to require racial diversity in their slate of candidates.
Across Europe, minority advocacy groups are highlighting Obama's victory on their Web sites and adopting the "Yes, we can" slogan.
In Britain, Trevor Phillips, the black head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, triggered a national debate in recent days when he said that the British political system was mired in "institutional racism."
"If Barack Obama had lived here, I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break the institutional stranglehold that there is on power within the Labor Party," Phillips told the Times newspaper.
After those comments caused a storm of criticism, Phillips said he was simply trying to say that it is difficult for any nontraditional candidates, including minorities, to break into the British political system.
Many have noted that unlike in the United States, where a newcomer such as Obama can be elected president, the British parliamentary system normally requires years of slow, deliberate ladder-climbing within political parties. Even Tony Blair, who was elected prime minister at the remarkably young age of 43, had served 14 years in Parliament.
"There is still work to be done, but it is getting better," Grant, the black female Parliament hopeful, said in an interview, adding that there is starting to be more acceptance of veering away from old stereotypes.
Grant, who will run in the next national elections, which must be held by May 2010, said that when she campaigns door-to-door in her affluent, mostly white district, "people are very pleased to see me."
"The British electorate are very sophisticated and believe fundamentally in fairness and merit," she said. "Britain is ready for a black prime minister, providing that the right candidate turns up."
Correspondents Edward Cody in Paris and Craig Whitlock in Berlin contributed to this report.