For all his lofty talk of national unity, Obama may actually put back the arrival of a post-racial Americaby Trevor Phillips / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
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Let me confess to a pinprick of irritation at the emergence of Barack Obama as the first truly credible non-white candidate for president of the US. To begin with, there’s the problem of wearily having to answer my white friends’ plaintive question each time a significant black figure shoots across the American firmament: “Why can’t we have a British Obama (or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Oprah Winfrey)?” The implied challenge to black Britons in public life is: why can’t you be more like him/her?
The answer is simple. At a personal level, few people are as charismatic, capable and ruthless as this mixed-race political phenomenon. And anyone can do the maths: the black British population is proportionately one sixth the size of the black US population, so it’s hardly surprising that black Britons don’t produce the same range of talents.
But there’s history too. British whites don’t carry the stain of transatlantic slavery in the personal way that US whites do, and as a result race—specifically anti-black racism—does not play the same part in our story. Black Britons can’t bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations. For the most part, we have been here for less than 60 years. British whites distanced themselves from the historic crime that still torments America long before we arrived. Few Britons ever owned slaves here; the blood remained on hands thousands of miles away. Britain’s black population is probably better compared to some of the less successful Latino communities of the US southwest.
There’s also a part of me that feels indignant on behalf of my Caribbean slave ancestors. Many of the big figures in African-American political history had Caribbean roots—Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Malcolm X (Trinidad), Sidney Poitier (Bahamas). Yet a man whose African ancestors never endured transatlantic slavery has become the standard-bearer for the black presence in the US. Unlike most of us, Obama is able to trace his black ancestors back to Kenya through his father, and his white forebears through his mother to Ireland. But as the black conservative writer Shelby Steele suggests in his new book on Obama, A Bound Man, that is just what makes him so successful. Steele’s subtitle—Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win—may appear to have been negated…