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Europeans Foresee Their Own Obama Emerging One Day

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 13, 2008; Page A17

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.

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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.


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