The Obama effect

Charlotte Williams reflects on the impact of Senator Barack Obama’s victory in the American election:

The outcome of the US presidential election is nothing short of joyous. We can pause for a moment and try to grasp the magnitude of the moment in all its dimensions, whether the focus is the historic inauguration of a black president, the end of an era of damaging American foreign policy under Bush, or the marker of the revival of active, engaged and refreshed democracy. Any which way adds up to the Obama effect.

I was in the States the night of Obama’s democratic nomination acceptance speech, celebrating the marvel with a small group of black academics. Back in September, I was surprised at their reluctance to dare believe that 4th November would become Obama day. It seemed to me an absolute certainty. An intelligent, self-assured, charismatic, calmly reassuring fellow with 21st Century communication skills and techniques, sound policy ideas – shall I go on? – with no small amount of a celebrity aura, youthful in outlook, representing a seismic shift away from what had been a disastrous set of politics in the last two presidential terms, evidently popular, for me he could not fail to win.

Oh, and he’s black, with a model African-American family. The level of mistrust of this group of academics even with the white liberal public to vote as they ostensibly suggested they would, seemed to me to be misplaced. Yet so deeply riven is the racial politics of the US, so acutely do black people feel and live out their distressing racial history in their everyday lives, that perhaps their caution was realistic.

We know it isn’t the same this side of the Atlantic. Our ‘race’ debate is more muted, our experiences as black Britons are more diverse, our racial histories are more chequered, and our landmarks are less certain. The result is that the ‘race’ issue is just that bit more slippery and concealed, the target more diffuse, the politics less sharp, more ambivalent and certainly less black and white than over there.

You may struggle to put your finger on any equivalent collective marker of change in black British political history as the Obama day. Our key turning points regrettably rest on more negative footings – reactions to riots, to murders, to deaths in custody, and to child abuse tragedies, than they do the celebration of such strategic attainments. We have our heroes but we don’t have any similar collective symbolic signal of change. And there are missed opportunities.

In Wales we certainly missed the Obama trick. The new constitutional arrangements for Wales and the historic return of self governance might easily have mobilised a disenfranchised and disinterested minority population and accomplished a more engaged politics if they had been bold enough to recruit from the ranks of one of Britain’s oldest black communities and one that commands the geographical territory on which that seat of our emergent democracy, the National Assembly building, is placed.

So in the wake of Obama day, when the obvious debates and questions have been drawn up for dinner party rumination – could we have a black prime minister? Would such a thing happen here? Is this the ascendancy of the ‘browns’, those of mixed race who stereotypically don’t do war? Can he deliver on all the expectations? And when all the ‘hail the king of peace has arrived’ and the ‘new world leader’ sentiments have been expressed, I find myself pondering the Obama effect.

For me it is this. It’s about black history not being black history any more, but just History. It’s about the confidence to put aside the preoccupation with the first black this and the first black that and just be a normal part of things. It’s about putting to rest the awful lines of the pigmentocracy where the browns will be pitched against the blacks and the blacks against browns, while ‘white’ remains the aspirational ideal. It’s about every one of us seeing the possibility to transcend that awful legacy that corrupts the everyday relationships between us, and about the belief and confidence in our own potential in a truly ‘yes we can’ society. The transnational appeal of Obama is to a post-race politics. So hey – yes Obama is black – now maybe one day we can say so what?

Heartwarming and compelling as these arguments are, they are the prerogative of a mature democracy, a democracy where black people have felt sufficient collective power to exercise some clout, where a black middle class has emerged as a marker of success and where issues of black representation and disadvantage are at least the target of specific government policies. Such deliberations are the product of a society uneasy with its history.

In Wales we have not reached anywhere near that level of confidence or consternation in political debate. We barely acknowledge the historical record. The political ranks of our society are as closed as ever to difference and an appalling level of disadvantage persists for Wales’s ethnic minorities. Were the Obama effect to contribute to complacency rather than commitment, we will miss yet another opportunity.

Charlotte Williams is Professor of Social Justice at Keele University. She lives in Llandudno and her autobiographical memoir, Sugar and Slate, won Welsh Book of the Year in 2003.

Also within Uncategorised