Only in America (part III)

KA Dilday
4 November 2008

In the third portion of her exchange with Anthony Barnett, KA Dilday argues that majority-minority dynamics in the US would make an Obama presidency unique and incomparable to the rise of Lula, Bachelet and Morales in South America. Previous letters: part I and part II. Read on: part IV.   

Dear Anthony:

It's the day of reckoning and I am taut with nervousness, so I'm pleased to be distracted by our discussion.

You question whether Barack Obama's success makes American exceptional. I still believe that it does. But I do acknowledge several of your points: blacks in America have a much longer history than the dominant ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom or in France or in most of Western Europe for that matter. And I agree that the US is woefully behind in matters of gender. Just witness the "taming" of Michelle Obama and Hillary (then Rodham, forced to change her name to) Clinton, both of whom had to downplay their own intelligence and accomplishments to fit into Americans' notion of a potential first lady.

So why does Obama's success make the United States exceptional?

Well in part, as you say, because slavery deprived American blacks of knowledge of their country of origin, thus removing the possibility that we can be identified as anything other than American. Obama, of course knows that the paternal line of his ancestry is from Kenya, yet he has benefited from America 's ability to see people of all races and ethnicities as American. Even though it is the country's shameful history that led to it, in that way, the US is different. But regardless, it is exceptional to see masses of the dominant ethnic majority willingly empower someone of an ethnic minority to represent them at the highest level. Where has that ever happened? There was Fujimori in Peru, but I can't recall others.

Margaret Thatcher's triumph was groundbreaking but then probably half of the people who voted her in were women as were half of those she represented. When all is said and done, by far, the majority of people who vote for the victor in the presidential election today will be white.

I agree with you - and to a certain extent with the Harvard scholar, Shelby Steele that Barack Obama's success stems from the fact that he is different from other black politicians who've achieved national prominence. Steele calls black politicians like Jesse Jackson and Alfred Sharpton "challengers". He describes black politicians like Obama as "bargainers". I have some problems with Steele's interpretation in particular; I don't know that "bargainer" is a fair description, but I do agree that Obama, as he says, is not focused on making whites feel guilty whereas "challengers" are. But like me, Steele thought that Obama could not win although for different reasons than I did. According to Steele, Obama couldn't please both blacks and whites. I argued only that he could not please enough whites. I believed that blacks would vote for him as they have for numerous Democrats whose policies skew toward the middle - opposition to the Iraq War or not, Obama has not shown himself to be a raging centrist liberal - which brings us to the comparison with Latin America 's Lula, Bachelet and Morales.

I don't quite agree with the comparison: Lula's and Morales' triumphs represent a transcendence of class prejudice and an empowerment of the underclass. They came from poor backgrounds and neither finished secondary school. But the majority of the people they represent share that background so they were voting for their own kind, so to speak.

In his class background, Obama is a type familiar to the US presidency and to heads of state world over - modest beginnings, hard working - someone who moved themselves into the upper class through the traditional route of education. Margaret Thatcher is a prime example.

But what Obama has demonstrated goes beyond the example that, no matter how far-fetched it seems, one can achieve one's dreams. He has shown people that there are many different ways to be black; that one can be comfortable and at home with people of all races and religions; that intellectualism is valuable to anyone of any race; and that America has done it again. As the country's reputation as an economic and political leader wanes, the US may rescue itself by visibly defeating what has proven to be one of the most deeply entrenched "isms" of our time, tribalism based on race, religion or ethnicity.


KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

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