Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama as the first post-ethnic U.S. president

Barack Obama is being hailed as America’s first African-American President. While that is significant, especially given this country’s complicated history on race relations, it overlooks something more significant and that is Obama represents a post-ethnic America. Obama received broad support from America’s diverse population and actually received more votes from white Americans than John Kerry did in 2004. Locally here in central Virginia, I served as a canvass captain sending volunteer canvassers out to go door-to-door. We had black and white volunteers going into black and white neighborhoods. No effort was made to direct certain volunteers to certain neighborhoods. There was a time in the not too distant past when campaigns in Virginia and elsewhere would dare not send black volunteers into a white neighborhood or white volunteers into a black neighborhood. That era is gone.

The Obama campaign promoted civic nationalism to transcended ethnic division. Significantly, post ethnic culture among growing ethnic diversity is an example the United States can hold up to a world where racial and ethnic conflicts plague many corners of the globe.

This is Timothy Garton Ash in today’s Guardian observing the election from Washington:
To say that he is the first black president in American history is more to write the last lines of the last chapter than the start of a new one. That chapter of pain is both remarkably ancient and shockingly recent. I observed people voting in a downtown polling station located in a church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which, a sign records, was established to protest against segregated worship in 1787. Across the Anacostia river, in a poor neighbourhood where mine was almost the only white face, an election supervisor - a Baptist preacher in everyday life - told me how African-Americans, often voting for the first time, had brought their children to witness the moment of which Dr King had dreamed. Only by listening to their voices can you fully appreciate what will be the impact of the mere sight of a black family occupying that white house.

But Obama is much more than just black American. Like a growing number of citizens of our mixed-up world he is, as the columnist Michael Kinsley nicely puts it, "a one-man ethnic stew". This qualifies him to represent all those Americans, of every hue and mix, that I saw in the long queues of people waiting to vote in downtown Washington, and in that crowd before the White House. "Where are you from?" I asked a man who I guessed might be of North African origin. He stopped dancing for a moment, looked at me and said: "From my mother." A wonderful answer, also a rebuke, and minted for the age of Obama.

For Obama is simultaneously the first post-ethnic president. To reduce this story to the black-white dichotomy is as useful as a black and white photograph of a colourful scene. John McCain may have singled out Joe the plumber to represent an old-fashioned, putative "silent majority" of white working-class Americans, but actually they now constitute a (not so) silent minority. And José the plumber voted for Obama. In fact, Obama's vote benefited from almost every aspect of America's growing demographic diversity. Introducing him in Florida during the campaign, Bill Clinton highlighted this new diversity, saying that both Florida and Obama represent "the world's present and America's future". That seems to me the wrong way round: it's America's present and the world's future. Where once America lagged, it now leads.

Mark carefully, however, what the Obama model is. It deploys civic nationalism to transcend ethnic diversity. Many of Tuesday's revellers were waving the stars and stripes, or sporting it on some part of their dress. No right-wing Republican could insist more than Obama does on American uniqueness, exceptionalism, manifest destiny. His proclaimed purpose is "to make this century the next American century". If George W Bush said that, we from the rest of the world might regard it as rank nationalist arrogance. Because it's Obama, we somehow accept it.

Now comes the test. As he acknowledged in his sober acceptance speech, America has a huge mountain to climb. The very circumstances that ensured his victory make it more difficult for him to succeed. One can argue about "what would have happened if ...", but it's indisputable that the campaign turned decisively in his favour after September's financial meltdown. Now the crisis is really hitting the real economy, on his chosen terrain of jobs, homes, savings and healthcare for ordinary Americans. He inherits a soaring national debt from Bush, who presided over a massive redistribution of wealth from future generations to the present one. The country faces two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a host of other challenges around the world.

Meanwhile, America itself is still divided. The gulf between red and blue may even be more difficult to bridge than that between black and white. Many Americans are still irrationally suspicious of Barack Hussein Obama, but an entirely rational observer could conclude that his instincts are more socially and cultural liberal than those of a cultural-conservative Republican, and less economically liberal than those of a libertarian Republican. …

Has he got what it takes: in himself, his team, and the power resources at his disposal? I spent the days before the vote talking to not a few Washington insiders, including some well placed in his campaign. Their unanimous refrain was: we don't know. We don't know which of the many policy options he'll plump for; we don't know who he'll choose for the key posts; we don't know what he'll be like on the job. Few presidential candidates have had less of an executive or legislative track record from which to guess their future performance in a job like no other.

On one thing all agree: if he can run the country the way he has run his campaign - one of the most effective ever - then America will be in good hands. But a country is not a campaign. He is, in every sense of that over-used word, cool. He barely looked excited even as he accepted the presidency before an ecstatic crowd. As president, his hard-power resources may be somewhat diminished, but no one in the world currently has more soft power. Where the Bush administration used military "shock and awe" to hunt down weapons of mass destruction that turned out not even to be there, Obama is himself a weapon of mass attraction.

And he can appeal to what is perhaps America's greatest power resource: the can-do spirit of innovation, enterprise and hard work, mixed with civic patriotism, which this country invites everyone to embrace, wherever they come from. This is the promise summed up in what Obama called in his acceptance speech "that American creed: Yes We Can". The American creed they were chanting outside the White House on that unforgettable Tuesday night.

If you ask me whether all this will be enough to surmount all the obstacles America now faces, I must in all honesty reply that, on a sober assessment, I doubt it. But we can again hope, and hope we must.

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